Monday, March 12, 2012

My advice to the GOP

I feel as if I should have some sort of opinion about Rush Limbaugh, or our society's reactions to him. So here goes.

People say Rush is a political commentator, but he's primarily an entertainer. I don't mean that to be necessarily negative. We're deep in the Information Age now, the number of possible distractions available for any given person at any given moment is so high that it might as well be infinite, and so the ability to make people want to pay attention to you is a useful skill that society should value.

Rush is a good entertainer. He's a comedian. Based on what I've heard of him, he's got a great voice for radio, knows how to tell a joke, and has a natural gift for comic timing.

There. Now I'm done complimenting him.

I've never regularly listened to Rush, so the following can be filed in the vast category of Internet ramblings known as 'complaining about media you don't actually watch or listen to'. So be it.

I suspect the recent dust-up that cost Rush a good deal of advertising money took him by surprise because Rush believes the universe exists in order to supply him with material. As this way of thinking goes, if a certain Georgetown University student hadn't wanted Rush to say outrageous things about her, then she shouldn't have existed in the same reality as him. From Rush's point of view, his comments coming back to bite him are just as surprising as if he was sitting at home, mocking a movie on TV, and the characters in the movie turned and started mocking him. And then persuaded his sponsors to withdraw their support.

I can't be shocked or offended by anything he says anymore. He passed the moral point of no return back in October. After Obama pledged to send 100 American troops to Uganda to fight the murderous, regionally destabilizing thugs of the infamous Lord's Resistance Army, Rush decided to frame the issue as Obama sending American troops abroad to 'kill Christians'.

Of course you can criticize Obama over this. I can think of plenty of ways to make the case that Obama shouldn't be sending US troops to central Africa at all. But none of them involve framing the issue in quite the morally and intellectually repugnant way that Rush did.

(Not to Godwinize this post, but I wonder if it has occurred to Rush that back in 1941 a Democratic president sent not one hundred, but hundreds of thousands if not millions of troops overseas to fight people who were nominally Christians.)

It's true that a few days later he did (sort of) back down and lamely explain that he would have to 'do more research' on the issue. Really now? That's bad enough if you see him as an ordinary comedian. It's much, much worse if you take him as a political and cultural commentator with serious things to say.

I didn't like Rush before, but as far as I'm concerned his LRA comments pushed him past the point of no return. Nothing he says now is capable of offending me. He could call on all Americans to tithe 10% of their income to the Ku Klux Klan. Or accuse President Obama of eating grandmothers. Or he could call on all Americans to eat grandmothers. I wouldn't care. I'm beyond being shocked. I'm done.

What does offend me is the pretense that Rush (and people like him) are remotely serious public figures who should be treated like they have serious things to say. Now we've got three GOP Presidential contenders who are afraid to say anything stronger about Rush than maybe he shouldn't use such intemperate language.

It's said that these politicians are terrified of insulting Rush's 20 million loyal listeners -- the vast majority of whom, by the way, almost certainly don't exist.

In the unlikely event that any Republican leaders happen to be reading this, I have some advice. You're making a very, very bad strategic mistake.

Here's why.

I remember the Tea Party. It seemed to me that the core of Tea Party beliefs were that (a) the government was too powerful, (b) taxes were too high, and (c) personal liberties were being infringed on. I'm not a libertarian myself and I didn't think much of the core Tea Party beliefs, but I recognize that they were based on a very strong strain in American political discourse which has deep roots and didn't exactly spring into being from nowhere in 2009. There was a real opportunity for them to find common ground with those who culturally identified as liberal. Those pundits last fall who found commonalities between Tea Party rhetoric and Occupy Wall Street rhetoric had a real point.

But what actually happened was that the Tea Partiers got stereotyped as reactionary racist loons. And the Tea Partiers let it happen.

Sure, there were some people in the media who selectively quoted the looniest anti-Obama crap they could find and used it to make generalizations about the whole movement.

But even in a movement as nebulous and lacking in formal structure as the Tea Party, there should have been a couple of respected figures within the movement who had the power to make their voices heard, who could have distanced themselves from the wackier side of the rhetoric. That could have made a real difference in public perception.

But if it ever happened, I never heard it. It got lost in the noise.

I'm still nursing the conspiracy theory that this was a deliberate tactical move by some master strategist. If the American mainstream thinks your movement is a bunch of racist hillbillies, then that creates the impression that elitist snobs are looking down on you. Promoting the feeling of being victimized and put upon is a great way to build group cohesion.

Except that it marginalized the Tea Party brand and made it anathema to a huge swath of America.

So my advice to Republican leaders is this: denounce Rush, then put him behind you and move on. He doesn't deserve better.

Failing to do so will be a very big mistake. Rush is loud. He may not have many regular listeners but media outlets love replaying the outrageous things he says.

Every time a swing voter is reminded of the contraception debate, she'll think of Rush. Every socially conservative Catholic priest on TV talking about birth control will remind viewers of Rush. Independents across the country will look at the conservative talking heads on TV offering support to the GOP candidate and they'll picture Rush. They won't be able to help it.

You really don't want that to happen.

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