The conservative media isn’t what it used to be. The height in power of the right wing press in the modern era probably encompasses the years 1998-2004, which include four of the movement’s major victories: the impeachment of Bill Clinton, the election of George W. Bush , the launch of the Iraq War, and the re-election of George W. Bush.
Having observed and commented on this world for about 13 years, I have seen its influence grow and dominate the conservative movement, but also become a hindrance to conservative success in the mainstream of politics. Where NBC News once saw the upside in inviting Rush Limbaugh on-air to comment on electoral politics, it is less likely that we would see that today. This is not to say that conservative media, unfortunately, is without influence. In reality the dumbest memes and themes of the movement still have a path to the mainstream press, time and time again.
Rush (Still) Rules The Right
The most dominant voice in conservative media is also one of its oldest, with an audience that is dying. Limbaugh still acts as the fireside chat voice of the right, chewing up the news of the day and regurgitating it with a conservative spin for his willing audience. This is both a boon to conservatism and a liability.
There’s no Limbaugh equivalent on the left, but instead a group of people and information sources (Maddow, MSNBC, Huffington Post, etc.) that are influential in stature to his position on the right. Limbaugh tells many on the right how to think. Having been on the receiving end (indirectly) of more than one of his attacks, I can tell you that the hivemind is strong with his supporters. When Rush tells them to jump, they don’t even bother asking how high. They just jump.
The problem for the right with Rush is simple. He’s old, and his audience is older. An example of this: when Limbaugh decided to attack Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and it created a backlash among his advertisers, he – well, his PR agency really – took to Twitter. But that Twitter account is now more dormant than it is active. While other radio shows, particularly conservative ones, have taken to social media to keep the conversation rolling, Rush’s core audience simply isn’t online. And if they are, they’re at best on email and probably have little to no idea what a social network is. Rush’s audience is old, getting older, and dying.
Limbaugh panders to this audience – who can blame him, they made him a multimillionaire – but it keeps his world view firmly stuck in the past. He cannot adapt, and there’s no incentive for him to adapt. For Rush, the glory years will always be the early to mid-nineties, the height of his power. If you listen to his show, he is constantly reliving that moment. It hinders him, and makes him incapable of seeing oncoming trends that elect people like President Obama, twice.
But conservative politicians still have to kiss his ring. He reprimands and receives apologies from RNC chairmen, Representatives, and Senators. Presidents and wannabe presidents like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush appear on his show and pucker up. The base of the Republican Party increasingly doesn’t look like America, but it looks a lot like the average Limbaugh listener, and conservative politicians are aware of that whether they like it or not.
Drudge, Beck, And Embracing The Fringe
Both Matt Drudge and Glenn Beck are doing well online, but again they are increasingly preaching to their own tinfoil-hat wearing choir.
Mainstream media organizations still pant heavily when they get a link from Drudge, but his habit of promoting conspiracy theories from 9/11 truthers and looking for the most race-baiting angle to his anti-Obama stories have diminished the ringmaster of the Clinton impeachment circus. The Romney campaign had a direct line to the Drudge Report, and they used it to good effect to trash their Republican rivals, but it was of limited effectiveness in the general election. At least in 2008, the McCain camp was able to use Drudge to launch absurd attacks like the entire “lipstick on a pig” episode, which played well in conservativeland but fell short of helping McCain to win the election.
Glenn Beck was too crazy for Fox News. I repeat: Glenn Beck was too crazy for Fox News. While his show was the right-wing hotspot from Obama’s inauguration until the 2010 election, Beck went so far off the rails that Fox boss Roger Ailes – who’s top goal in life is making money and crushing the left – sent him away.
Online, Beck can be as nutty as he wants to be, which inspires a devoted audience, but a smaller and less influential one. Beck adds the religiosity that the more secular Limbaugh won’t, but Limbaugh knows that not going into God talk helps him appeal to more people.
Beck’s show is designed around the slow-rolling reveal. He teases his audience with a tale, and then at the end of the show he makes a huge promise about the next episode, usually along the lines of “it will blow your mind.” In the short term this can work, but I imagine there are a few ex-Beck fans out there who just got tired of the tease followed by a tease.
Michelle Malkin’s Twitchy, Breitbart.com, And Why Liberals Have Hope
The new generation of conservative media could be the best thing to happen to the left. They make the attacks of Limbaugh, Fox, and company look coherent and solid by comparison. They are a gaggle of clowns and they are the future of the right.
Twitchy is Michelle Malkin’s site for complaining about people she doesn’t like. It is as if they took her perpetual rage and made it into website form. Twitchy connects tweets conservatives don’t like with conservatives complaining about those tweets. That’s it. The future!
On the other hand, Breitbart.com actually seemed like a decent idea under Andrew Breitbart’s leadership. Evil, but a good idea. Since his death, it has become clear he was the only one on that site that knew what the hell he was doing. The people running it, like John Nolte, Larry O’Connor and Ben Shapiro, are about the worst possible people to put in charge of a serious or semi-serious website. They act with the world view of people who grew up on Limbaugh, in a world of conservative dominance under Bush. In the world of Obama and Democrats who can win elections, this is a liability.
You end up with things like “Friends of Hamas” which sounds dumb on paper, but even worse when you realize that they talked about it like it was a serious thing. They really thought some throw away name some Hill staffer joked about with them was enough to derail the nomination of a defense secretary. REALLY.
As a liberal who wants conservatism to fail, I thank God for sites like Breitbart.com and Twitchy. They are frustrated conservative rage hubs with little to no application in practical politics or movement advancement. They aren’t serious journals of policy, but rather impotent scribbling on a bathroom wall in a movement so lacking in intellectual depth that this is the best it can muster.
New conservative media is a clown show.
Conservative Media Forever
Conservative media is a feedback loop, now almost completely sealed off from reality. It is insulated from the real world, and is unable and disinterested in responding to real things. It creates its own controversies, which are non-troversies in the real world, but it just goes ahead with them and furiously feeds the rage lust of its audience base.
Example: We spent multiple weeks during the 2012 election with conservatives insisting that the polls were “skewed.” Much of this analysis was based on some random crackpot with a website who is now claiming that President Obama was on crack during the Benghazi incident.
It is still among the more potent weapons the right has, and an entire party of politicians unfortunately uses it as their lodestone to obstruct needed legislation while promoting its own crackpot, impractical ideas.
But while it remains a threat to a functioning, modern democracy because of its ability to feast on its own nonsense, it isn’t quite the monster it once was. And that’s a good thing.