I was in the third row as Rush Limbaugh spoke for nearly 90 minutes to a wildly exuberant audience as he closed this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C. I was also in the third row to hear former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum open the day’s proceedings. Santorum’s speech may be more important for conservatives than the now-famous Limbaugh speech.
In a nutshell, Santorum said conservatives need to recognize that conservatism is a three-legged stool comprised of social, economic, and 9/11 conservatives, and they had all better get along. He added that conservatives need to engage popular culture, and they need to pray.
It’s the point on popular culture that I want to address here. Santorum said he didn’t realize how important popular culture was until after he lost his election in 2006. He noted that while making arguments on the Senate floor, conservatives would use pie charts and graphs, whereas liberals would counter with a picture of someone sleeping on a grate … and the liberals would win.
The Pittsburgh native said that he’s concerned that conservatives are focusing on the "P" in CPAC, politics. Conservatives are focusing primarily on government rather than those things that are more important, "upstream," in shaping the culture: popular media, higher education, and K-12 education. He noted that the only popular media arena that conservatives dominate is talk radio because it "engages and stimulates the mind." Conversely, he said Air America, the liberal establishment’s unsuccessful foray into talk radio, fails because "it’s emotional blather." And "Hollywood is emotional blather." But, he warned, conservatives should not yield Hollywood and popular media to liberals because these are the things that shape culture.
Although Santorum was "perhaps the greatest senator from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the modern era and without peer in the last 50 years," according to his introducer, Tim Goeglein, Santorum lost overwhelmingly in 2006 for several reasons, not the least of which was that he was perceived as being combative and arrogant—things that don’t play well in our emotion-driven culture. When Santorum encouraged the CPAC crowd to learn to appeal to the heart as well as the head, I was quietly cheering for him and hoping for a Santorum comeback. If he does come back, I think he’ll be a different man— a politician who will seek to appeal to hearts as well as minds.
In the meantime, President Obama’s team is picking a fight with Limbaugh. Since there is no dominant conservative politician, he is trying to create a bogeyman in Limbaugh because polling data show that Limbaugh has low approval ratings among the under-40 crowd. And his advisors loved the way Limbaugh sounded and looked in his Johnny Cash black outfit speaking to CPAC on national television. It was great fodder for creating commercials with edited soundbites taken out of context.
Liberals dominate the realm of emotional soundbite politics. In his 1985 classic "Amusing Ourselves to Death," Neil Postman argues that America has moved from a "typographic culture" in the 19th century—a culture created by the printed word and rational discourse—to an "entertainment culture" formed by emotional televised imagery in the 20th century. The typographic culture appealed to the head while today’s entertainment culture appeals to one’s emotions or heart. On October 16, 1854, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas each spoke for three hours and the audience hung in there for the duration of the debate with only a break for dinner. Today, politics is dominated by 30-second commercials and YouTube shorts.
If Limbaugh and Obama were to debate for six hours, who do you think would win? It depends on the medium. If it were on radio, I’d be "all in" for Limbaugh. If it were on television, I’d bet on Obama.
So why is Obama taking on Limbaugh? It may seem like a brilliant move in the short-run, but in the long-run it could prove to be political suicide. If Limbaugh stays behind his Golden EIB (Excellence In Broadcasting) Microphone and off television, he will eviscerate Obama with logic. Let’s face it, printing and spending truckloads of money to alleviate economic disaster appeals to the emotions but not the mind. If Obama keeps picking on Limbaugh, he will increase Limbaugh’s audience. The King of Emotion can’t win on the King of Talk Radio’s turf.
Santorum is right: Conservatives dominate talk radio because it engages the mind. But if we want to win elections in this pop-culture, emotion-based age, we had better learn to appeal to the head and the heart. I’m rooting for Rush now and Rick later because America is too great to amuse itself to death.
Lee Wishing is administrative director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.