In an earlier post, I promised to grapple with the way political ideas
spread. The medium that's interested me most lately is talk radio.
Though every host is different, I've spent some time listening to Rush
Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin. It is verboten to criticize any
of these men if you consider yourself to be on the right side of the
political spectrum, as I do. I'll press on anyway, not only because I
enjoy a lively argument, but because these men, though their talent as
broadcasters varies widely in the order I've listed them, do similar
violence to a healthy public discourse -- and do a particular
disservice to the conservatives and libertarians most loyal to them.
In fact, I want to address this post to their listeners, for having grown up in Orange County, California, the admiring grandson of grandparents who are Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin fans respectively, I've met enough talk radio aficionados to know that many are intelligent, devoted citizens with kindly dispositions, and a far cry from the negative stereotypes that prevail in some quarters. Those folks should note that this isn't a thoughtless, knee-jerk condemnation of the programs that they enjoy, nor is it a call to kick Messieurs Limbaugh, Hannity and Levin off the radio. This is a carefully considered, honestly held, and pointed argument: though I maybe unable to persuade these men to take stock of specific shortcomings that do you a disservice, perhaps I can convince you to demand better. The quality of our political ideas are at stake.
Since so many others have argued over
Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. Hannity due to their larger platforms and wider
fame, I am going to draw my examples from Mr. Levin's program, an
approach that also allows me to keep a promise I made to address the
substance of his show. Some weeks ago, having discovered it by chance,
I transcribed an exchange in which he told a female caller that her
husband would be better off putting a gun to his head and pulling the
trigger than staying married to her. I am not exaggerating.
My post precipitated a heated back-and-forth. A particularly noteworthy contribution came from David Frum, who argued that intemperate remarks of that kind coming from a man closely tied to the conservative movement does it damage. Mr. Frum is probably right that an average person stumbling upon a hateful, angry rant like that would be repelled. In Mr. Levin's defense, his radio program is heard largely by people who are already conservatives, and who are curiously inured to the rude treatment of callers.
That's why I want to move beyond a critique of Mr. Levin's tone and temper: the balance of this post and a couple follow-ups will show that specific flaws in the substance of what Mr. Levin says hurt public discourse, his most dedicated listeners, and the right's cause generally. Let's get right to example number one. It concerns Mr. Levin's unfortunate tendency to employ overwrought analysis that woefully misinforms his listeners. My transcription captures a short monologue on his May 18, 2009 program. It is not atypical in tone, substance, or the frame of mind it reveals.
Instead Mr. Levin tells his audience, against all logic and evidence, that our current course is owed to a President who wants the economy to fail. Never mind that lots of Democratic lawmakers, economists, and pundits share President Obama's policy prescriptions, that his response to the fiscal crisis garnered some support from Republicans, or that even unimpeachable fiscal conservatives like Megan McArdle and Jim Manzi reluctantly went along with major portions of his economic policy (precisely because they thought that inaction risked provoking a global economic meltdown). Do all these folks also desire economic meltdown?
Still, set all that evidence aside.
Imagining that President Obama wants the economy to fail so that he might remake society fundamentally misunderstands the man and his agenda. We are agreed, I assume, that the President wants to implement a sweeping, expensive re-imagining of the health care system? That he wants to implement policies to reduce carbon emissions by taxing or limiting output? That he wants to increase spending on basically the entire progressive wish list? And that the sorry fiscal shape of the United States is a hindrance, not a help, even today?
So why would a President actively pursuing that ambitious, costly domestic agenda -- one that Mr. Levin himself acknowledges and rails against -- want to bring about a fiscal catastrophe that would guarantee its sidelining? There is also the elementary point that President Obama is going to fare much better in 2012 given a recovering economy that he can claim to have rescued than a flailing economy in an utterly collapsed society. As an amoral Republican campaign strategist, ignoring the misery fiscal collapses cause, it is obvious what you'd want to run against.
Should it surprise us that cursory inspection reveals this particular Mark Levin monologue to make no sense? Well, the evidence Mr. Levin offered for his claims afforded a clue. What leads him to his peculiar conclusions? "I know history. I know economics. I know your mentors. I know what you're doing." What does this possibly mean? Is there a historical example of an American president intentionally destroying the economy? (Or is there some foreign leader Mr. Levin has in mind?) Can knowledge of economics tell us anything about Barack Obama's motives? Do any of President Obama's mentors favor the crash of America's economy and currency? Every question heightens our doubt that Mr. Levin has any idea what President Obama is doing.
In debates, it is advisable to assume the most charitable things possible about your interlocutor's frame of mind. Here I cannot say whether the monologue above reflects Mr. Levin's true beliefs, or qualifies as an emotional outburst he didn't really mean, or is a calculated effort at propaganda--nor can I say which option would reflect best on his character and intelligence, though I urge the reader to decide for yourself and assume that most charitable explanation.
For my purposes, his motives are beside the point -- the effect of his words, insofar as they persuaded listeners who hadn't time for a close reading, is to misinform them about reality. And not just any reality. The average Mark Levin listener is powerfully invested in opposing President Obama's domestic agenda, and persuading fellow citizens to do the same. Effective opposition requires a clear-eyed, unsentimental assessment of reality, not paranoid, uncharitable rants. The right understood this very well when they talked about The Angry Left, and how its visceral hatred for George W. Bush distorted its judgment. Too many seem to have forgotten this lesson, and aren't the least bit skeptical at analysis offered by a man assuming of his opponent the most awful motivations imaginable. This is merely one small example from a radio show that traffics in rhetoric of this very kind five days each week. Listeners who object--politely and rationally, I hope--will be doing us all a favor.
So why should those who never listen to talk radio care about any of this? As I noted above, many who tune in to hosts like Mark Levin are engaged in a good faith effort to stay informed, to participate in their democracy, and to better their country. Insofar as these folks offer constructive, clear-eyed critiques of President Obama, they enrich public discourse. And if their host instead traffics in simplistic bombast, utterly ungrounded in fact, those listeners who are influenced by him inevitably degrade public discourse.
Alas, the flawed rhetoric above is not the only kind that makes regular appearances on the Mark Levin show. But further analysis must await a future post. (UPDATE: A sequel post is here.)
UPDATE 2: Though I'm unable to link directly to the excerpts I've transcribed, someone at Mr. Levin's fan site urges me to link the page where his 3 hour long shows can be downloaded should anyone want to do so. That's here. I've asked whether he is willing to provide an excerpt of what I've transcribed so that I can link it directly. I'll post it here should I be provided one. Absent that, I do urge readers to get a taste of Mr. Levin's voice. The angry tone is impossible to convey in print.