Conservatism: The Talk Radio Problem
November 21, 2008 - 2:34pm ET
Popular This Week
Also Worth Reading
Ever since Sara Palin's speech to the Republican National Convention, I've been struggling to express something that Nate Silver gets to with conciseness and aplomb. The subject is his frustrating run-in with a right-wing blogger who invented a nutty poll full of leading questions meant to insult African American Obama voters. It became a viral sensation on the right (the whole messy tangle is explained well here), and of the blogger's subsequent inability to grasp why anyone would be offended, Silver writes:
There are a certain segment of conservatives who literally cannot believe that anybody would see the world differently than the way they do. They have not just forgotten how to persuade; they have forgotten about the necessity of persuasion.
The way I've put it on panel discussions: the right has forgotten how to speak American. They've forgotten how to even try. They only know how to speak to each other. And think they're speaking American.
Here's how it happened during RNC: Palin, in her speech, barked something martial about offshore oil drilling, and the Democrats' pansy-assed reluctance to do same. All of a sudden, the hall responded in a full-throated chant: "DRILL BABY DRILL! DRILL BABY DRILL! DRILL BABY DRILL!"
It became one of the Republicans' catch phrases. They were inordinately pleased with it. In fact, it wasn't a day later before you could buy "DRILL BABY DRILL!" T-shirts on the streets of St. Paul, backed by a silhouette of the state of Alaska. Clearly someone thought this was a slogan for the ages, up there with "log cabin and cider," and "I like Ike," and "Man from Hope." Clearly lots of people agreed. Because the T-shirts were selling like hot cakes.
But to the 90 percent of the country who don't think like delegates at a Republican convention, the phrase was utterly opaque. It didn't mean anything intelligible at all.
As a certified wingnutologist, I was able to figure it out, with the benefit of a bit of brow-furrowing. It hearkened back to the 1960s far-left insurrectionist slogan, coined during Watts in 1965, of "Burn baby burn!" Rioters would chant it while, for instance, torching an ROTC building on campus. Remember?
Maybe not. But righties remember. To be a righty more and more means precisely to remember things like this—a body of the folklore of resentment dating back always to the 1960s, to Nixonland. Chanting something similar—"Drill baby drill!"—in the service of an intellectually indefensible right-wing policy panacea (magically solving America's dependency on foreign oil through a program that will only yield tiny amounts of oil, and that only at least a decade in the future) is a nifty "f--- you" to all those late '60s insurrections, in the form of a claim that conseratives now are the real insurrectionists, the real rebels. You chant it, and feel the thrill of treason—in service to an actual policy of rank capitulation the narrowest of elite interests, the drillers of oil wells.
It makes no sense to ordinary Americans. It makes perfect sense to those steeped in the world of right-wing folklore. Same with the phrase "trial lawyers," which got a standing ovation in St. Paul whenever it was uttered—for reasons, again, that make no sense to ordinary Americans. Ask a conservative, "What's wrong with trial lawyers?" and they probably won't be able to articulate a response. Because it's so obvious to them. Because it's so much a part of their taken-for-granted folklore. As Nate says, "They have not just forgotten how to persuade; they have forgotten about the necessity of persuasion."
How do you steep yourself in this folklore? You listen to right-wing talk radio. You watch—all the time—FOX News. In the Nate Silver post I link to above, he quite brilliantly explains how talk radio, which once seemed the engine of conservative success, has now revealed itself as its Achilles' heel. The medium is the message: as this extraordinary look behind the scenes at a Milwaukee talk radio powerhouse reveals, if you're working to patiently explain why you believe what you believe to people who don't already believe what you believe, you're a terrible talk radio host. You'll be getting no ratings.
I'll be writing more about this, puzzling out what it means for the future—and why my hunch is that the best possible thing for a progressive future would be for the ratings for FOX News and right-wing talk radio to shoot through the roof. Because the more they're talking to each other, the more they'll forget how to persuade, and, better still, the necessity of persuasion.
Help us spread the word about these important stories...
Email to a friend
Views expressed on this page are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Campaign for America's Future or Institute for America's Future