Political talk at the dinner table is a staple of the holiday season. For me personally, this past break was in large part no different, but one refrain seemed to stand out above the rest, not out of novelty but rather due to sheer repetition.
“Well today, Rush said (insert predictable conservative stance on environmental politics here) and then Rush said maybe even (insert slightly less predictable Hillary conspiracy to retake the White House here).” Rush, Rush, Rush.
“Rush” is, of course, long-time conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh. Now say what you may about the name itself, but far more important to me is the tone with which it was used in this setting. People (at least in my own experience) talk about “Rush” in a sappy tone generally reserved for people with some notion of immediacy or familiarity. A visitor to our dining room table could be forgiven for thinking that “Rush” was a close friend or family member, rather than an obscenely wealthy and divisive media figurehead.
My family is not unique in this respect. Rush Limbaugh averages 14 million weekly listeners, good for the third most of any radio program behind only NPR’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.” He has a net worth reported to be around $550 million and an empire of children’s books, t-shirts, coffee mugs and other paraphernalia all espousing the benefits of conservative politics. By all accounts, Limbaugh has built up a near-cult of personality that has managed to inflame and provoke a large swath of society — all while making him a millionaire many times over. The ramifications of this are devastating. With one single statement or claim, Limbaugh can change or formulate the opinions of millions.
Now on its own, having a large audience is no sin. The problem arises, however, when this audience becomes so mindlessly devoted to its supposed leader that he can change the very political fabric of America simply by appealing to that existing audience, regardless of the validity of those appeals. For what it’s worth, Politifact’s “Rush Limbaugh Scorecard” rates his statements at 5 percent mostly true, 13 percent half true, 26 percent mostly false, 29 percent false, and 26 percent “pants on fire.” Now, this is clearly an incomplete and possibly biased report, but nonetheless, its results are fairly easy to interpret. Mr. Limbaugh is, simply put, not the most reliable of news sources and certainly not a great journalistic torchbearer for his 14 million-plus weekly listeners.
Limbaugh is by no means alone or even new. All across the political spectrum, similar idols are worshipped and their stated opinions accepted as creed by millions. Cenk Uygur, Thom Hartmann, Alex Jones and even established political figures like Bernie Sanders have managed to create enormous followings largely based on a culture of mindless devotion rather than original or outside thought. The danger of all of this isn’t that these pundits have followings — it’s rather how willing these followers are to take everything they’re told as gospel.
One could argue that the fault for this phenomenon doesn’t rest with these content creators themselves. They are simply economic agents filling a role in a capitalistic society. Much more important in their rise than even their own beliefs are the millions who follow them with such reverence. In a world as complicated as that of our own in 2018, it’s all too easy to seek answers from figures who who exude confidence, certainty and commitment to a given viewpoint. The sheer volume of news and content thrown at us every day makes us all feel impossibly small in the grand scheme of things. We then naturally reach out and grasp for anybody who can seem to make sense of it all — as long as that anybody agrees with our personal politics, ideology or whatever other vehicle of self-fulfillment we might choose to embrace. These figures then have a habit of frequently reminding us that the mainstream is biased, the system is broken and that only they have the correct tools and information to fix it all, thus further reinforcing their audience’s aversion to other sources of information.
Man is an inherently fallible creature, and to claim otherwise is disingenuous in the most dangerous sense. The fault is partly in the hands of the media-industrial complex that helps to build the idea of these people up in the name of creating storyline, and partly in the hands of us, the people who contribute to this notion with our mindless reverence — done every day through our consumption and diffusion of different forms of media. Some of us are more guilty of this than others and no one (most certainly not myself) is entirely innocent, but a certain degree of critical thinking and a willingness to see our heroes for what they really are (people just like you and me) can go a long way towards creating a more realistic understanding and sense of empathy for these supposed role models.
There is absolutely nothing wrong (quite the opposite, in fact) with listening to political pundits or other figures with massive followings. The key distinction to make, however, is that we must not view these people through the lens of perfection as we so often tend to do. People make mistakes. No one is right 100 percent of the time. And keeping those small truths in mind can help to restore some of the civility that we may have lost in this age when everything has been made political.
Contact Harrison Hohman at hhohman ‘at’ stanford.edu.