Lawmakers become buffoons in talk radio's ratings strategy
The Tennessee General Assembly functions in a private world, with the people who make decisions for the state usually safely protected from the public by layers of obscurity, reinforced by cosseting staff members and lobbyists. One could hardly blame the members if they held the public in low regard. Their contacts tend to come around election time, when they must feign obsequious regard for the opinions of their ill-informed constituents, or during more normal times, when they are getting harangued on some random basis by some demanding citizen over their positions on obscure issues.
Mostly they regard the citizenry as this hulking menacea sleeping leviathan capable of periodically stirring from the primeval ooze to hurl them from office should they behave in a way too closely aligned with their consciences. Generally, they offer tribute to the beast by sacrificing their best judgments, thus protecting their tenure in office, which for some reason they believe is important to the state.
They got another clue this past week as to what can stir the beast when small hordes of loud and angry citizens descended on the capitalor honked in its clogged streets outsidein protest of the prospect of a state income tax. The catalysts for the outburst were the ringmasters of an alternative realityTennessee’s minor-league stars of talk radio.
In the denouement of the special session on taxes, a number of talk-radio hosts moved their operations to the capital, cashing in on a chance to ride the bile.
Normal people tend not to know much about talk radio. It is an alternate reality that channels and exploits a certain strain of alienation for commercial purposes. Normal people tend to be engaged in productive activity during the hours when talk radio is at its loudest. In small doses, for those with a sense of irony and a reasonably firm attachment to reality, it can be amusing. For anyone curious about the pulse (or pulses) of the nation, it cannot be ignored.
Basically, it is the fervent conversation writ large from some loser bar, in which the bench warmers from the winning side of a protracted argument bitterly bemoan their defeat. For even as the nation has become more conservativeas the Republicans rode the tide of conservative resentment to a sweeping electoral realignment in 1994so much of talk radio is focused on a declining America, undermined by “liberals,” “feminists,” and the “media,”all portrayed in a sufficiently cartoonish way as to render the terminology meaningless.
The voice is almost relentlessly conservative, but it is not so much a gentle kind of philosophical conservatism as one of resentments. Although it may be a fringe phenomenon, it is not a small one. Rush Limbaugh’s popularity has waned from his peak in the early 1990s, but he still commands an audience of 17 million.
Locally, the personalities are less slick, but no less virulent. That was the beast that ran loose around the Legislature and turned the membership from being merely nervous about what was before them to falling into utter collapse. Lawmakers always have difficulty distinguishing a small crowd jamming their outer offices from a large ground swell. With the income tax, a proposal that is certainly widely unpopular but subject to reasonable discussion became undiscussable when a magnified sense of public indignation was projected on the proceedings.
In the end, the superannuated John Wilder left Bob Rochelle, the man who has propped up his Senate speakership for 10 years, cold and alone. The House Republicans decamped on their leader, and Gov. Don Sundquist was left to fume about bringing the legislators back a third time.
What is interesting about the role of the talk-radio hosts in all this is their unfettered opportunity to propagandize. Conservatives generally enjoy railing about the “liberal media” interposing themselves between the truth and their audience. But while members of the conventional press may be personally somewhat more liberal than the population at large, they also work under the strictures of professional standards that assert the importance of fairness, objectivity, and evenhandedness. Any little bit of liberal editorializing they may be sneaking into their coverage certainly pales next to the three hours of right-wing bombast one gets from Rush Limbaugh or a Phil Valentine.
Propaganda sells. There is a market for resentment. Rush and Phil and G. Gordon and Ollie and Darrell are on the air not because the companies that broadcast them are engaged in some sort of ideological mission. They are on the air because that’s where a significant fraction of the listeners are.
The really interesting question for the turn-of-the-century zeitgeist is: what was the corporate process for identifying the niche market in alienation and resentment? The process that gave us talk radio may be amoral; but individuals are part of the process and might do well to ask themselves what they are doing. The talk-radio personalities who showed up on Capitol Hill were not there to take part in democracy. They were there as part of a corporate marketing strategy.
The legislators who quaked before one of the uglier faces of the people may want to consider how much weight to give to the heat generated by talk radio. Perhaps they should understand that talk radio viewed them not as the legitimate leadership in a democracy but as mere foils and buffoons in talk radio’s marketing strategy.
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