why i stopped listening to Rush
Snack food, probing discussions, and the promise of juvenile hilarity brought my fellas together on Thursday nights: a bunch of regular, common-sense guys who enjoyed each other’s company and talked about life. In the course of one boisterous conversation, though, one of the guys let it slip that he was both a union member and a Democrat … and the howls of derision began. Accusations of treason, laziness and communism were thrown at him, along with some popcorn, ice cubes, and a few potato chips. I’m not sure it was all in good fun, because in my own mind, I immediately re-framed my picture of my friend as one who stood against everything that I, as a Republican, stood for. I instantly put him into the camp of those who want access to my paltry, hard-earned bank account to fund their various entitlements. I put him into the camp of those who are weak on defense, and who tend to blame our country first for all the world’s ills. I grouped him with those who would deny me the economic engine of cheap energy, and the right to employ whomever I wish, should I ever start my own business. I associated him with those who seem to vilify successful people, and denounce corporations, while simultaneously accepting their contributions under the table. I caught him patronizing that political whorehouse which welcomes any left-leaning cause with a dollar to contribute … that party of pander, which, for my entire lifetime, has been promising a better life to those who vote, but are too poor or too dumb to understand the intentional dependency they aim to create. I threw him in with all those flower children who want to legislate their loose, liberal “morality” upon me. Shane, who was my friend a minute ago, now seemed a threat to my American way of life. I went home confused about his politics, because I thought he was smarter than that.
Over the next few weeks, I watched Shane closely. I listened when he spoke at our group. I was alert for indicators of pinko treachery. But, he left me hanging. The opinions he voiced were reasonable and practical and, for the most part, matched mine. He seemed to be as much of a baseball, apple pie-American as I was. Eventually, I began to wonder about the way that I had judged him. I began to think about how I had formed my picture of what a Democrat was, and it was obvious … I had been brainwashed.
These were the early 2000s. The twin towers had fallen and the world had changed. Leadership of the free world had entered a time with no precedent, and our president, George W. Bush was at the helm in uncharted waters. During his campaign, I had begun to be dissatisfied with the way the press treated him. When he rolled out the phrase “compassionate conservative” the pundits laughed at him and called him stupid, but I thought it was a perfect description of who I was, so I was sympathetic toward him.
As time went on and the president was tasked with intercepting threats from new peoples and new places, it seemed that everyone with a word processor and a microphone thought they had better solutions than he did. It bothered me that people whose biggest struggle in life had probably been a bad case of writer’s block were so publicly critical of a man doing his best in an impossible job. There was an intellectual arrogance, and I was becoming more aware of a left-leaning bias coming from the popular news and information sources. So, on my own, I was starting to sour on what has became known as the “mainstream media”, and I was ripe for a new kind of presentation. One morning I grew weary enough of NPR’s gloomy seriousness and highbrow pretension that I went “whole hog” and flipped my radio from the low end of FM to the high end of AM where a guy named Rush Limbaugh was on.
He was a breath of fresh air. He was entertaining and seemed to be driven by a sense of purpose. He had something to say that I wasn’t hearing elsewhere. At the core of conservatism is a belief that people will be their most creative and most productive when they’re most free, and that’s what Rush was talking about. While other infotainment outlets were ridiculing the War on Terror, and dumping on nearly everything the president said or did, Rush was unashamed of his patriotism. I liked what I was hearing.
A new habit developed: I would turn on the radio when I arrived at work and leave it on all day, getting three hours of Glenn, three hours of Rush, and three hours of Sean. Sure, I had to put up with the occasional moments of idiocy - like the day Rush actually said that trees cause air pollution - but it was nice to hear some optimism, and these guys certainly presented a different way of thinking about the current events.
As time went on, I was drawn closer to those radio hosts’ personalities, and, because they constantly told me so, I came to understand that they were giving me a side of the news that Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather refused to share. The mainstream media was party to a vast left-wing conspiracy aimed at accumulating the power to control my life and correct my attitudes and use my money to pay for abortions and sex-change operations and make me drive a damn Prius. Democrats were, essentially, Leninist revolutionaries whose very goal was to bring Miss Liberty to her knees - that’s the message I was hearing for nine hours every day. At some unknown point I turned the corner from fan to fanatic.
It was the sudden, unfair, judgement against my friend that caused me to re-evaluate, again, my media consumption. It was clear that my all-day exposure to a single viewpoint had now overshadowed an entire lifetime of peaceful, productive, trusting, friendly interactions with Democrats. At one time Democrats had simply been people who voted for someone else, or people who had a different solution to a problem than I did, but now I knew them as enemies of the state.
I kept listening, for a while, but with different ears. Through Glenn’s conspiratorial, emotional theatrics, Rush’s bombast, and Sean’s wry, “I’m the only conservative in New York” vibe, I started to pick up the pattern and the method of conservative talk radio. It’s a pattern and a method that has been validated by others in the infotainment industry and in politics and in social circles. It works in any situation where audience-building is the key. It would probably work for me here at the Upstairs Project if I were more interested in audience size than authenticity.
It works like this:
Identify an enemy
Say things about that enemy that are just a little edgier than the mainstream.
Tell your audience that you are the only one with the nerve to say these things.
Repeat #2 and #3 as often as possible.
The listeners/viewers/readers will keep coming back when they’re convinced that they’ll get something from you that they won’t get somewhere else, and they’ll develop an insider’s loyalty to you as their source. When people start coming to you for the truth, a cult of personality is born.
The problem with conservative talk radio, for me, came when I couldn’t fit Shane into the mold that Glenn and Rush and Sean had cast for a Democrat. I looked at Shane and I looked around my neighborhood at Scott and Kathy, at my parent’s longtime friends George and Sandy, at my friends John and Jennie and Amy and the other Scott and I realized that these were people who didn’t always see the world the way I did, but that they were people I liked and whose judgement I trusted.
So I had to quit listening. I didn’t quit being conservative, and I haven’t stopped being disgusted by the party of pander, but I recognize a world of difference between the DNC power players in Washington and the grassroots liberals in my neighborhood. I’m not going to let the broad generalizations spewed by some guys on the radio determine who my friends are.
All of this happened about ten years ago, and while I still carry a base-level of suspicion toward folks who identify on the political left, I'm more open now, and actually see the good intentions in many of their ideas. Cutting out conservative talk radio has been similar to limiting myself to just one cup of full-caf coffee every day: I'm nicer, more mellow, I sleep better, I like more people.
It's probably natural to self-cocoon - to isolate ourselves inside a cell of people and information that we agree with - but doing so keeps us from understanding the other fifty percent of humanity who probably have some valid points in their thinking. This thing with Shane and Rush was a huge lesson for me on the manipulative power of the media, and it was a clear demonstration how distorted one’s thinking can become if one does not actively seek and consider alternative viewpoints.