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October 06, 2009

The Comforting Impotence of The Bloviators

megaphone  bob.jpg

How much power to shape the vote do right wing talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck actually wield? According to a recent op/ed by David Brooks (the NYT's resident "conservative"), not all that much. In a piece from last Friday entitled "The Wizard of Beck," Brooks argues that for all their bluster and visibility, Limbaugh et. al. don't make much difference at the polls. To make his case he looks back at the most recent Republican presidential primary. The talk jocks, says Brooks, were over the moon for Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney while making every effort to take Mike Huckabee's knees out. But they saved their most venomous tirades for the man they viewed as an outright turncoat: John McCain. And we know how things turned out from there.

This, Brooks says, gives us a glimpse into their supposed impotence:

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.

The Beck as Oz column was written before Friday's IOC decision to give the 2016 Olympics to Rio de Janerio (and not to Chicago). For many conservative commentators this was seen as great news because it represented a stinging defeat for Obama on the world stage. Rush Limbaugh claimed he was "gleeful," adding that "anything that gets in the way of Barack Obama accomplishing his domestic agenda is fine with me." Glenn Beck was equally ecstatic, saying that the "news was so sweet." What is troubling to some is this unfettered willingness to cheer any personal Obama defeat at the expense of the greater good. Yet if Brooks is correct this was nothing more than a form of entertainment that had little effect on public opinion. Still, even if they don't represent a large part of the population, this outpouring of happiness from the right side of the media dial feels unsettling.

The Brooks' thesis greatest test is the current health care debate. Can one assess the violent eruptions at the summer's town hall meetings, the use of falsehoods and the violations of decorum without thinking that these conservative commentators represent a portion of the American population that is more than what Brooks views as a "mere niche"? The health care bill we eventually get will likely be a watered down version of what was originally proposed. This is being dictated, at least in part, by the will of the people.

Ultimately, however, the impact of these conservative megaphones is not that they eclipse liberal or Democratic opinions but rather that they shut out the legitimate Republican voices of opposition. Whether one agrees with these views or not they are essential to a robust national debate, whatever the issue may be. What the likes of Limbaugh and Beck do, at the end of the day, is create so much noise that these more rational Republican signals are simply drowned out. And we all pay a price for that.



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