Sunday, October 04, 2009
David Brooks' History Lesson
Most liberals do not think very highly of David Brooks. We are so used to the loud uninformed shouting of Limbaugh, Beck & Co. we cannot hear the conservatives who do speak in well modulated tones and with a semblance of some intelligence. While he did not call Sarah Palin an idiot, like I do, Brooks was one of the first conservatives to publicly question her aptitude. I have heard him defend Obama on more than one occasion – just now on the president's efforts to get the Olympics.
And now Brooks gives us a little lesson in recent history that adds some perspective to all this tacky, ugly hysteria. It is a tale of cause and non-effect.
He begins with the winter of 2007 when the talk jocks "are over the moon about Fred Thompson. They're weak at the knees at the thought of Mitt Romney. Meanwhile, they are hurling torrents of abuse at the unreliable deviationists: John McCain and Mike Huckabee."
The Thompson campaign flops and Romney's campaign "underperforms."
Defying their media masters, New Hampshire voters go for McCain. Soon the race moves to South Carolina. "The talk jocks are now in spittle-flecked furor. Day after day, whole programs are dedicated to hurling abuse at McCain and everybody associated with him. The jocks are threatening to unleash their angry millions."
McCain wins in South Carolina and goes on to win the nomination.
So what is the theme of our history lesson? It is a story of remarkable volume and utter weakness. It is the story of media mavens who claim to represent a hidden majority but who in fact represent a mere niche – even in the Republican Party. It is a story as old as "The Wizard of Oz," of grand illusions and small men behind the curtain.
In 2006, they tried whipping up an anti-immigration fervor. Arizona's House Republicans J.D. Hayworth and Randy Graf ran their campaigns under that banner but lost their seats.
In 2008 Limbaugh urged his followers to vote in the Democratic primaries for Hillary Clinton because "we need Barack Obama bloodied up politically." "Rush blared the trumpets, but few of his Dittoheads advanced."
Over the years, I have asked many politicians what happens when Limbaugh and his colleagues attack. The story is always the same. Hundreds of calls come in. The receptionists are miserable. But the numbers back home do not move. There is no effect on the favorability rating or the re-election prospects. In the media world, he is a giant. In the real world he's not.
. . . no matter how often their hollowness is exposed, the jocks reweave the myth of their own power. They still ride the airwaves claiming to speak for millions. They still confuse listeners with voters. And they are aided in this endeavor by their enablers:
Cynical Democrats, who love to claim that Rush Limbaugh controls the G.O.P.
Lazy pundits who find it easier to argue with showmen than with people whose opinions are based on knowledge.
The slightly educate snobs who believe Glenn Beck really is the voice of Middle America.
Just months after the elections and the humiliation, everyone is again convinced that Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity and the rest possess real power. And the saddest thing is that even the Republican politicians come to believe it. They mistake media for reality. They pre-emptively surrender to armies that don't exist.
They pay more attention to Rush's imaginary millions than to the real voters down the street. The Republican Party is unpopular because it's more interested in pleasing Rush's ghosts than actual people. The party is leaderless right now because nobody has the guts to step outside the rigid parameters enforced by the radio jocks and create a new party identity. The party is losing because it has adopted a radio entertainer's niche-building strategy, while abandoning the politician's coalition-building strategy.
The rise of Beck, Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and the rest has correlated almost perfectly with the decline of the G.O.P. But it's not because the talk jocks have real power. It's because they have illusory power, because Republicans hear the media mythology and fall for it every time.