Rush Limbaugh matters. This may seem strange to say about one of the most popular and controversial figures in American public life, but I think it needs to be said in this most curious and possibly dangerous moment in our nation’s relatively short public communications history.
I do not always agree with Mr. Limbaugh. In fact, I thought his stand, echoed by several other radio talk show hosts, on immigration was partly wrong-headed. I did agree that we needed to close our borders to illegal immigrants, even building a wall in Texas to assist in that. I did agree that we needed to register all non-citizen residents, legal or otherwise. And I did agree that any illegal immigrant who commits a crime in the United States should be immediately deported after conviction in a proper trial. But I did not, and do not, agree that most illegal immigrants should be ejected from our country. Interestingly, for all their incessant commentary and advocacy for deportation or other severe penalties, Mr. Limbaugh and his allies did not prevail.
That’s because most Americans, Republicans, Democrats and independents did not agree.
Rush Limbaugh is a partisan conservative, but not always a partisan Republican. Yes, Rush Limbaugh has his idiosyncracies; yes, he is in part an entertainer and sometimes overdramatizes; and yes, he makes mistakes, but who of us does not?
On the other hand, anyone who listens to his radio broadcasts knows that he is preoccupied with serious subjects about American public policies, domestic and international. In spite of a veneer of verbal pride and egotism, much of which I take to be at least half self-deprecating by its droll excess, there is a sophisticated understanding of politics, public policy issues, and human psychology that exceeds any of his radio host colleagues on the left and the right. No politician I know can match his impact in the political market place.
He has recently been a target of Democratic activists who view him as a threat. Their efforts, however, only expanded his base. He now has, I am told, about 30 million listeners. There have been, and probably now are, entertainers with a greater following. But I can’t think of a political commentator, liberal or conservative, who can match him now, or ever, possibly with the exception of Will Rogers in the 1930’s, with as much attention among the public atlarge.
The real reason Rush Limbaugh matters, however, is because he represents a vital part of the check to a prevailing trend in the old established media which is uncritical of current events and developments in Washington, DC, in the Congress and the White House, and elsewhere. These events and developments are attempting to move our country in directions that do not have the consent of the governed. A national media uncritically allied with a political establishment is a very dangerous matter in our republic, whether that alliance is liberal or conservative.
There is currently an effort to silence Rush Limbaugh and many of his colleagues by reinstating the discredited so-called Fairness Doctrine. As David Rehr, the former president of the National Association of Broadcasters, says, “the Fairness Doctrine is not fair.” That is because the requirements of the Fairness Doctrine would prevent broadcast stations from presenting anyone with a political viewpoint without having to provide equal time to virtually anyone who demands it. Since this is impossible, in practical terms, opinion journalism would disappear from the airwaves. With the myriad of media outlets in radio, TV, cable, print and the internet now available, the Fairness Doctrine is hopelessly out of date.
President Obama rightfully said during the 2008 presidential campaign that he opposed the Fairness Doctrine, and after taking office, reaffirmed that view. But Democratic leaders in the Congress, obviously trying to silence their critics, have nontheless pushed forward efforts to restore the Doctrine. Since there seems to be little support in the Congress among members to do so, advocates of reinstatement have suggested a “backdoor” approach through the Federal Communications Commission. Such a maneuver might work, unless the public is made aware of it, and expresses its opposition.
If politicians in Washington, DC today are successful in silencing Rush Limbaugh and others who voice dissent, a new set of politicians in a few years will likewise succeed in silencing dissent to a conservative president and Congress. Such a pattern could not be more disastrous to free speech and a healthy representative democracy.
This is what’s at stake, and why Rush Limbaugh matters.