Media

It’s Alive!! How "Rushbo" Became the GOP’s Frankenstein

Americans may want bipartisan compromise, but the GOP has been blocked by Limbaugh in its attempts to move toward a more moderate agenda

Rush Limbaugh’s popularity as a right-wing ideologue is quickly eclipsing the fast rising stars of the GOP. Some of these new power players -- people like RNC Chairman Michael Steele -- have been forced on bended knee to retract criticisms of the talker, weakening their own political positions in order to appease Limbaugh’s easily activated audience, estimated at over 20 million listeners.

In the face of polling numbers that suggest American’s want bipartisan compromise in policymaking, the GOP has been effectively blockaded by Limbaugh in its attempts to move toward a more moderate agenda, resulting in further alienation of the party. The failure of GOP leadership to control its most vocal ranks has deep roots in the party's stunning successes of the past thirty years. A careful examination of the historical record reveals certain key strategic decisions made by Republicans -- moves like congressional redistricting, mobilizing an evangelical voting bloc and deregulating communications -- that created right wing talk radio, and which track events which culminated in the ascendency of Limbaugh. They go a long way towards explaining the GOP’s current impasse with its most vocal leader.

The dramatic increase in the polarization of congressional politics -- which allows figures like Limbaugh to thrive -- can in large measure be attributed to partisan Congressional redistricting. Following every census, or when the control of a state legislature shifts from one party to another, districts may be redrawn. When a party controls the process, it typically attempts to strengthen its power in Congress by gerrymandering districts that hold a majority of its voters, guaranteeing their reelection. Rigging congressional districts to eliminate the threat of minority party challenges creates a politically homogenous electorate that is susceptible to radicalization. This has resulted in creating a constituency not amenable to compromise because of an absence of opposition. Although this strategy has been used by both political parties, Republicans perfected it in the early 2000's when Tom Delay, the disgraced former House Majority Leader, orchestrated efforts to lock his party into power by drawing airtight conservative districts in Texas. In an effort to consolidate its power through redistricting, the GOP forced itself to move farther to the right to appease its base, but in doing so it alienated voters outside of those respective districts that were crucial to attracting political moderates and winning national elections. This strategy helped secure Bush the Presidency, but effectively moved the Republican party farther from the mainstream and helped create an environment more conducive to extremist views like those voiced by Limbaugh.

In the 2000 campaign for President, Bush campaign strategist Karl Rove expanded to the national level the grass roots mobilization that was responsible for W’s gubernatorial success in Texas. Using a social networking apparatus of Christian evangelical churches, Rove wed the agenda of far-right social conservatives to the Republican party, inextricably binding the two and making an evangelical Democrat a virtual oxymoron. With a shrewd corporate form of political branding and a finely tuned system of social issue messaging, Republicans came to exclusively own the evangelical vote. Bush used this marketing synthesis to effectively mobilize a newly galvanized bloc of highly motivated issue-driven constituents to "win" the election in 2000. The party's loyalists had been radicalized by an activated political process, and given more power over the GOP than ever before.

This new power had been given a deep voice by Reagan-era deregulation of communications laws that effectively repealed the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, and permitted conservative media moguls to slant programing to the right and exclude opposing views. When the Republican-controlled FCC destroyed the original mission assigned by Congress to regulate public airwaves in order to maximize "the public interest and to encourage a diversity of voices as to promote a vibrant democracy," it set the stage for extremist voices like Rush Limbaugh. The radicalized constituency created by congressional redistricting became an instantly recognizable market easily exploited by entertainers like Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Mike Savage, all eager to stoke outrage in exchange for advertising dollars. And as moral outrage produced more revenue, new insults were needed to suit the purposes of a corporate media willing to trade a free marketplace of ideas for cash flowl. Like a Jim Carey comedy routine, Limbaugh and his ilk are compelled by a profit motive thinly disguised as ideological enthusiasm to engage in increasingly illogical contortions to continue to entertain their audiences, who would simply turn him off if he were ever to behave as a dispassionate journalist.

The result is that ideologues the party once used to mobilize voters -- and some say rig elections -- has now resulted in the creation of monolithic obstacle in their path to future progress. Rush Limbaugh has become a Frankenstein in the truest sense, an ill-conceived monster brought to life by a party that has benefited greatly from his past endorsements, but now can no longer control him or the radical base he claims to represent. And just as the good doctor in Shelley’s novel was ultimately destroyed by his own creation for vainly disregarding the laws of nature, so too may the GOP be brought low by a megalomaniacal entertainer for disregarding the cardinal law of politics: always serve your constituents before serving yourself.


Wesley Kendall is adjunct professor of law and economics at Harris Stowe University.
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