John Derbyshire’s “How Radio Wrecks the Right” is a waste of time

1. Short take: ugh, don’t read his article, it’s a waste of time and indirectly supports his poorly presented idiotic views. I’m writing because better conservative media exists: that’s what this blog is.

2. John Derbyshire’s “How Radio Wrecks the Right” has some significant flaws. I didn’t really want to write on it – I had seen it before aldaily linked to it – but now I feel compelled to say something.

The most significant flaw stems from his attempt to make conservatism dogmatic theology. I kid you not – that’s the only import this passage has:

…are there some downsides to conservative talk radio? Taking the conservative project as a whole—limited government, fiscal prudence, equality under law, personal liberty, patriotism, realism abroad—has talk radio helped or hurt? All those good things are plainly off the table for the next four years at least, a prospect that conservatives can only view with anguish. Did the Limbaughs, Hannitys, Savages, and Ingrahams lead us to this sorry state of affairs?

They surely did. At the very least, by yoking themselves to the clueless George W. Bush and his free-spending administration, they helped create the great debt bubble that has now burst so spectacularly. The big names, too, were all uncritical of the decade-long (at least) efforts to “build democracy” in no-account nations with politically primitive populations. Sean Hannity called the Iraq War a “massive success,” and in January 2008 deemed the U.S. economy “phenomenal.”

Conservatives can reasonably disagree on those things; the objection, from Derbyshire, has to stem from liking the Bush administration for purely populist reasons. He doesn’t make that case: he just dismisses one set of views as if he knows better. Notice Derbyshire’s incredibly crude swipe at Iraq: “politically primitive populations?” Is this really how you want to characterize the country that’s lost more people in the War on Terror than any other? That’s not just populist, that’s outright bigotry, and you’re not doing the Right any favors with that. Moreover, Phil Gramm was arguing that the economy was far stronger than people thought during the campaign; there’s a perfectly solid line of argument emerging now saying that the Obama administration’s continual talk of how bad things are is making things worse.

I don’t want to be a Bush administration apologist, but I think one thing any intellectual has to admit is how hard things are practically speaking. Ideas are easy to throw around from a column or a paper. But try working with a State Dept. and CIA where only 20% of the staff support your policies. Try working with “conservatives” who see any problems on your part as a failure to advance their ideology. Try working with Democrats and needing to make sure their interests are represented, esp. as they won midterms in 2006.

The larger point is, Derbyshire needs to make a case for intellectual conservatives having a diversity of views, not just his views.

This most significant flaw, from above, makes the actual “substance” of his article very problematic:

In place of the permanent things, we get Happy Meal conservatism: cheap, childish, familiar. Gone are the internal tensions, the thought-provoking paradoxes, the ideological uneasiness that marked the early Right. But however much this dumbing down has damaged the conservative brand, it appeals to millions of Americans. McDonald’s profits rose 80 percent last year.

There is a lowbrow liberalism, too, but the Left hasn’t learned how to market it. Consider again the failure of liberals at the talk-radio format, with the bankruptcy of Air America always put forward as an example. Yet in fact liberals are very successful at talk radio. They are just no good at the lowbrow sort. The “Rush Limbaugh Show” may be first in those current Talkers magazine rankings, but second and third are National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” with 13 million weekly listeners each. It is easy to mock the studied gentility, affectless voices, and reflexive liberalism of NPR, but these are very successful radio programs.

“Studied gentility, affectless voices, and reflexive liberalism” is way too kind. I read The Nation and The American Prospect and a host of openly Leftist publications, and I’ll be honest: NPR’s problem is its dishonesty. Yeah, there are times they’ll talk about the work Chomsky’s doing in linguistics, or interview an author or playwright, but I don’t see American liberals getting any smarter because of this. In fact, all I see is more arrogance and just an outright dismissal of those on the Right. There’s a complete inability on the part of the Left in this country to formulate what would be the best objection to any given stance they have.

Derbyshire then goes on to say, without any irony, that “liberals can’t do populism.” I’m not sure he and I live in the same country. He also claims that Colbert, Stewart and Maher aren’t exactly lowbrow populists, but masters of irony. I think he’s off the deep end here: Bill Maher is ironic? To some degree, yes, of course. But is that his defining trait? All three of the hosts mentioned set up people in “gotcha” scenarios: that’s not irony. That’s the worst form of populism, where truth (which the host has but never articulates, of course) only exists by destroying the credibility of others. Routinely all three hosts use any sort of perceived hypocrisy to unleash populist rage and mockery at anyone who might claim to know anything they disagree with.

Derbyshire conflates how something is marketed with whether it is lowbrow or middlebrow. Truth be told, Limbaugh’s editorial in the WSJ arguing for the halving of the corporate income tax was way more direct and interesting than anything Colbert, Stewart, Maher or NPR say. He wasn’t blaming anyone for anything, he just wanted growth, and put forth a suggestion in line with classical economic theory. Most importantly, he actually took a stand: he didn’t just curse at the President or say everything was spin.

This brings us to the crucial point: Derbyshire is at best trying to argue for intellectuals as people divorced from the truth. He sometimes shows interest in how things are said, not what is said:

Why can’t conservatives do radio like that [BBC Radio 4]? Instead we have crude cheerleading for world-saving Wilsonianism, social utopianism, and a cloth-eared, moon-booted Republican administration. [boldface mine]

I want better talk radio too, so I’m being generous here and emphasizing “crude cheerleading,” and ignoring the fact that he went after specific positions. And I’ve made purely elitist arguments before: I still think it was a travesty when the Washington Post put Joshua Bell in the subway and no one cared about what was going on. (Yeah, people have to rush to work, but not everyone is rushing to work in the DC metro.) But again, if you want to make this case, you can’t just stereotype the positions of talk radio because of how they sound to you: it’s not like Derbyshire is offering any nuance himself here.

Derbyshire lets his true colors fly when he starts allying with the Ron Paul crowd and implies that the attacks on Dr. Paul are nothing but smears. There’s not a chance in hell that argument will stand serious scrutiny. It is true that populism is dangerous, and that talk radio does prevent the Right from seeing their intellectual origins.  I’ve said the Left can’t articulate the best arguments against their position, and a Right only beholden to talk radio certainly can’t.

But I don’t know that John Derbyshire is capable of serious critique, either. This piece has nothing intellectual in it: it’s pretty much an ad hominem attack. I’ve set forth a criterion for what I want Americans to do (i.e. be able to appreciate different sets of arguments); Derbyshire has only mentioned names and compared one aspect of our media to BBC X. The “middlebrow” intellectual conservatism he wants is a front for advancing what would be called paleoconservative ideas, i.e. isolationism, protectionism, etc. I’m not necessarily against some of those things, but if you’re going to argue people should be more intellectual, it means you need to be clear on how they can disagree with you.

If he were interested in ideas, he’d go back to his old columns, where he used to talk about things like his coursework in the UK and how unfocused he finds the curriculum at an American university. I’ve read parts of “Prime Obsession” and enjoyed them greatly. Don’t put forth views as much as information.

And put your money where your mouth is, Mr. Derbyshire. I’ve been writing and putting forth my work for years now, because I believe we can have a better political discourse. You’ve got way more attention than I’ll ever have from one stupid article, and all you’ve demonstrated is that you’re just as responsible for the collapse of the Right as anyone else.


  1. To say that these hosts contributed to Obama’s presidency is a bit of a stretch. Even if they did agree with his policies, the same argument could be used against anyone that has ever agreed with a political figure. I also find if funny that he threw Savage into the bunch, has he ever listened to Savage?

    And yes, talk radio does not have the same reach as television, but comparing it to shows like the Daily Show and Colbert Report is ridiculous. Those shows rely on out of context clips and cheap jokes to maintain their numbers. There is nothing of substance there, and it is unfortunate that people consider them a form of news.

    Of course Conservative voices have similar opinions on some issues, but I believe there is enough variation out there to keep it interesting. Tucson’s talk radio has finally been shaken up and I think other towns should follow. We now have an FM station with Ingraham, Boortz, O’Reilly, Savage, etc. But we also have a local morning host (who is fantastic!). Since he discusses local issues, its different from anything else on the air. Perhaps we’re just behind in the times, but I think other smaller towns should follow.

    Last point – the other side has never had much variation or intelligence compared to the conservatives out there. For the last 8 years its been nothing but “Bush lied” and “we miss Clinton!” Now its all about Obama and tingling of the leg…

  2. “In place of the permanent things, we get Happy Meal conservatism: cheap, childish, familiar. Gone are the internal tensions, the thought-provoking paradoxes, the ideological uneasiness that marked the early Right. But however much this dumbing down has damaged the conservative brand, it appeals to millions of Americans. McDonald’s profits rose 80 percent last year.”

    I would really love to know what he is talking about here. This statement almost makes it sound like Derbyshire feels the 1950s Right is preferable to today’s.

    I mean, this whole “dumbing down” only happened after conservatives figured out that a lot of people actually liked (gasp!) the Progressive and New Deal ideas, and accepted them as part as the liberal (in a classical sense) tradition in America. Only then were conservatives able to get beyond the confused paranoia of McCarthy (or whoever) and lay out a good response that had clarity and focus.

    People have always felt a little queasy about Rush, but look – I honestly think he does a service. Those who are able to stomach talk radio might even be inspired to look deeper into the conservative tradition, because trust me, it often starts with the lowbrow and ends with the high, and not vice versa. Talk radio can be a segue into the better things, but nobody (unless they have really good professors and are already interested; ie, a poli sci major) just starts reading Edmund Burke out of nowhere.

  3. One of the reasons I disagree with your argument here is that I don’t see in conservatism a serious effort to engage with the big issues that America will face in the coming years. Take a first- because of the trade deficit in the US, because of the deleveraging required both in the public sector (no more wars) and in the private sector and because of the economic slump- the US is going to have to start getting used to managing decline.

    It seems to me that the real issue for the United States at the moment is that Obama’s Presidency and maybe the one after Obama (presuming both last two terms) will be quite possibly the last Presidencies in which America is the world’s superpower. The problem is how does America adjust to this: what does a conservative foreign policy look like in a world where China, India and possibly others can stop the US acting: given as well how much foreigners whether in Europe or the Middle East or Asia resent the United States’s arrogance over the past eight years (believe it or not as a Briton the kind of scornful contempt that a Donald Rumsfeld treated the UK with has made a real impact on people here- and whereas America pre-Bush had a blank cheque to cash with the UK, our popular support for the US is much more conditional now)- what is the conservative approach to foreign policy.

    If as looks true, the US banking system is technically insolvent- then what is the conservative response. Is the economic model of depending on borrowing to stimulate growth a good one- personally I think the conservative movement in the US neglected its intellectual roots by forgetting to fight inflation and just concentrating on stimulating growth- using monetary policy as a Keynesian tool to manage demand- which is why the US (and the UK too under the same logic) are in the mess we are in now.

    Lastly what is the conservative approach to a society as a whole. Are conservatives willing- as Jerry Fallwell did after 9/11- to use language which invites the break up of society- which lauds in Fallwell’s case Al Quaeda because they bombed gays and feminists. Can conservatives believe that homosexuals and feminists and liberals are part of the same nation as them? I admit there is a problem with liberals not recognising the right to being prejudiced- but there is a glee on the right in being prejudiced that is striking and potentially destabilising. What happened to conservatives remembering their Hobbes- that there is no summum bonum- only summum malums to be avoided?

  4. @ Henry: Your argument rests on the notion that there are problems so serious they’re beyond debate, and anyone who is a serious intellectual has to frame them the way you just did.

    It is true there are certain issues where there can’t really be any compromise, and a debate about “value” can distract from more obvious “necessities.”

  5. Sounds as if the Big D thinks that if you don’t have a Yale degree you’re not fit to influence the poor, stupid masses.

    You’re right this man is a joke.

  6. I don’t understand why Europe and and British intellectuals always frame the argument with the United States decline. I definitely don’t see where in eight to sixteen years we will be playing second or third fiddle to China and India. What they never fail to consider is that as the United States declines from superpower status, what that means for Europe – which has been second fiddle for the past several decades. It is more likely that Europe will collapse first under it’s massive welfare systems and lack of a sustainable birth rate.

  7. It seems like Mr. Derbyshire doesn’t establish his premises on which he bases his arguments. Rather, he sets up straw dogs, which he then knocks down.

    I think the question of the role of talk radio and promotion of conservative philosophy is a good one, but Mr. Derbyshire’s article isn’t worth a response.

  8. I admit to listening to Talk Radio (WAPI1070, Birmingham, AL) usually getting a daily dose in the commute to and from work. From that exposure, I’ve listened to diverse voices in the form of Hannity, Ingraham, Boortz, Savage, Beck, Levin, etc. I’ve spent mimimal time with Rush Limbaugh who’s on another station.

    If you listen enough, you learn that all of these guys have their own form of BS to offer in addition to some rather solid information on current events/legislation. Hannity is the one most apt to provoke boredom in me mainly because of an insistence on ramrodding his talking points over the attempts of his callers to gain some further enlightenment or merely to express their own frustrations with politics as is. I get the sense that Hannity never quite listens to the voice on the other end of the phone line.

    Boortz is the rude, infuriating one who rides roughshod over his callers in a more abrasive (as opposed to droning) manner than Hannity. But the occasionally self-deprecating Boortz offers a bonus of inviting a more soothing, pragmatic, and engagingly conservative black voice substitute for him in his absence.

    Savage often comes across as a savage with a deep fury running through his opinions, but he can be engaging and sharply intelligent when he isn’t being misogynistic beyond belief (as a female I resent that deeply).

    Now after the above rambling, I will offer that I don’t listen to any of these shows to gain any great intellectual insights (I seldom see evidence that any of these personalities are engaged in intellectual pursuits) because I suspect that careful reading/research will yield more in that respect than these people who make a lot of money by stirring up the political arguments (this is not to say they are hypocrites, only to say that they are entrepreneurs more than teachers).

    I consider myself reasonably intelligent if not that well-read in serious subjects (call me a dilettante). I became mildly interested in politics while working for a political science professor nearly two decades ago. He called himself a libertarian, but I think he sympathized more with a progressive agenda, leaping at the chance to participate in a conference in Cuba. Needless to say, the longer I worked with him, the more I came to support a more Rightish viewpoint.

    I suggest that these “entertainers” in the political arena do offer easy access to the universe of political ideas for those who are politically naive. They can be persuasive. They offer an alternate view of reality from that given by the mainstream media outlets.

    I have found that alternate reality to be accurate and sharp, street smart so to speak. And rarely boring. I only have to listen to a few minutes of liberal drivel to find my eyelids beginning to close, which is quite dangerous when in the midst of traffic.

    Conclusion: These men and women can hurt the Right. I don’t believe they have that much except for offending the elites on the Right who may be operating from envy of their vocal ability to reach out to voters and to move them to action (and, of course, envy of all that syndication lucre). I offer the hypothesis that without these voices crying in the liberal wilderness the Right would be even more diminished than it currently is.

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