By Professor Frank Popper
Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Rutgers University
In winter’s darkness I’ve been listening to conservative talk radio, which New York’s WABC, 770 AM, ably represents. You probably don’t listen to such stations, but you should: you’re missing out on conversations that may or not be important, but certainly can be odd, hilarious and disturbing all at the same time. They often make TV’s Fox News look temperate. Told you should listen to them.
One star is Mark Levin, who heads a conservative public-interest law firm that in 2007 nominated Rush Limbaugh for the Nobel Peace Prize. Levin may strike you as belligerently insane because he yells a lot. Yet he’s written best-selling books on America’s decline and possible redemption through five new constitutional amendments. Simpatico state legislators met in December at Mount Vernon to talk about how to enact them through state constitutional conventions, a process the Constitution allows.
Levin seems intellectually more tightly coiled than Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, presenting himself as “a constitutionalist conservative.” The other night, mining his writing, he screamed that American liberals “reject the Enlightenment and Enlightenment values.” The proof: “they hate the free market.” (Deep waters, huh?) Naturally, the way they breathe in and out, liberals support Obamacare and its ancestors like Social Security. Levin’s on the board of AMAC, an older-person’s group created to oppose the American Association of Retired People (AARP). AMAC’s ads on his show say that AARP is the only reason Obamacare passed. You didn’t know that, right? You need to get out more.
Levin’s concept of the Enlightenment was, let’s say, unusual: it was only economic/financial. Adam Smith was it. Levin went on in this nonsensical vein for maybe half an hour, never mentioning other Enlightenment ideas such as the rights of man, the rule of law, the primacy of science, the spread of knowledge and what we today term transparency in government. It was a characteristic set of omissions: they don’t concern him and his peers, plus the audience they influence. When they take calls, they frequently browbeat, interrupt, insult or hang up on all but the most adoring callers. Maybe it’s a manhood thing. When I’m done, you can leap to the radio.
The blindness to big chunks of the modern (and postmodern) political/cultural sensibility, and to common courtesy, hugely hurts Levin, other right wing radio hosts, their constituents and their cause. It keeps them from reaching perhaps 85% of the American public, including many Republicans and conservatives. Levin bellows that figures like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are “French conservatives,” sellouts and corporatists backed by the US Chamber of Commerce. The remaining 15%, his target audience, often show economical educations and abundant rage. One furious yet servile caller thought Chicago was America’s largest city, dumbfounding even Levin.
This overall approach, including its whacked-out notion of the Enlightenment, limits conservative populists’ ability to influence, let alone persuade, the larger American society. It keeps them underrepresented in the modern versions of the professions the Enlightenment spawned, fields like law, diplomacy, medicine, architecture, engineering, journalism, science, art, social criticism and the other disciplines that today mostly require university educations. For all its faults, contemporary higher education is itself an Enlightenment creation.
Shut out, or more precisely shutting itself out, of many of today’s most significant enterprises, Levin’s brand of conservatism reacts by turning in on itself, losing touch with the outer world and embracing unlikely conceptions of reality. It doesn’t get out of bed in the morning. It sounds trapped, isolated and, if you listen close, despairing. Its weird bluster pushes toward paranoia and then far past it.
So on talk radio Pope Francis becomes a Marxist. Obama is a socialist Kenyan Muslim pacifist dictator who cleverly pushes “soft Communism.” Obamacare and its czarina, “Baghdad Kathy” Sebelius, have nothing to do with health or insurance. Instead they seek to deprive Americans of their liberty. Most Americans are barely holding on to it anyway. If Obamacare doesn’t enslave enough people, its proponents will come up with worse measures. My money’s on making everyone bicycle to work.
One learns yet more. George Soros and Ted Turner run the media, and Soros bankrolls other leftists too. Environmentalism is “the green scheme,” the coinage of a rising young WABC crazy who on Sunday nights broadcasts “investigative radio” from Jerusalem. The six-month agreement with Iran is an American Munich. Hillary is probably gay. Europe and the UN are both over. Civil servants do nothing. The prime facts about New York’s new mayor is that his wife used to be a lesbian (see, it’s spreading) and is still black. Disability laws are scams. Racism has disappeared except to those who exaggerate it. Drones and surveillance cameras mean we’re becoming an East Germanish police state, with the NSA as the Stasi, only more impersonal and intrusive.
And so on, far into the night. Literally: weeknights from midnight to 5 AM, WABC runs “Red Eye Radio,” featuring two hosts with grating laughs who have to fill up all that time, unlike Levin’s and Limbaugh’s mere two or three hours. (The station’s schedule changes a lot.) It’s hard to host a talk show that runs at least an hour daily. It takes dedication, which all these guys have. And because they’re all guys, perhaps the next big conservative national talk-show host will be a hostess. I prefer the maternal-sounding (but only –sounding) Pittsburgh aspirant to her perky hard-knocks Bakersfield rival.
Talk-radio conservatives don’t have and maybe don’t want or care about the cultural flexibility and political give to move beyond their Tea Party 15%. Thus their self-constraints persist. Their congressional favorites have the power to block and annoy, but little more. Their national candidates can’t win any large place north or east of Kentucky, or on the West Coast. They’re starting to have problems in Colorado, Florida and New Mexico and may eventually have them in Texas. The long-term national demography makes them nearly futureless except in rural America. They’re falling out of the national dialogue, a demotion that merely inflames them, depresses them further. Losing a culture war has to feel terrible. And because it’s cultural, it happens in public.
From a secular-liberal university perspective, the conservative cultural crackup can be fun to watch if you have a strong stomach. Once these people had a place in the American mind. Two decades ago they thought that hip-hop signaled a nervous breakdown in black and youth culture. Now they’re losing their own grip. Their vengeful far-right populism, even more than most other populisms, can’t lead to much. Gloating at the miseries of conservative talk radio is not quite the right response. Compassion, perhaps its least favorite word, comes closer.
Frank Popper, PhD (Faculty Board of Advisers, Humanist Chaplaincy at Rutgers Frank J. Popper teaches land-use planning and its political and cultural implications in the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, where he also participates in the American Studies, Geography and Political Science Departments and the School of Arts and Sciences’ Honors Program. Together with his wife Deborah E. Popper, he originated the Buffalo Commons as a concept for the land-use, environmental and natural-resource future of the American and Canadian Great Plains. Anne Matthews’ book about the Buffalo Commons, “Where the Buffalo Roam” (1992), was one of four finalists for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Click here to hear Professor Popper discuss some of his research on important recent changes in American Growth.