What Right-wing Radio Reveals About the Shutdown Fiasco and the Republican Party

Learning about views you disagree with

iTunes gives you the ability to tune in to pretty much any radio station across the country, so during the government shutdown I listened in to the right-wing echo chamber that is talk radio, trying to understand what’s going on, what’s driving the Tea Partier rage. Very few activists listen and try to grok the “other side of the aisle,” as we increasingly customize our information diet. The future of the Information Age in general and the news/current events commentary media world in particular tends to limit information instead of broadening it, as we ghettoize ourselves in front of voices we agree with, whether that’s TV and radio—plenty of folks in my hometown of Mobile, AL find themselves going from Fox News on public or office TVs to right-wing talk radio in the car to Fox News at home—or the web, which can give you only the sites that echo your worldview, which could mean you only visit certain sites or have content delivered from your self-curated, self-segregated RSS reader. It’s never been easier to retreat into intellectual ghettos, even limiting our news to only the stories that our party or faction or regional subfaction cares about. This is bad in so many ways. It shelters us from potentially important news. Worse, it disconnects us from the grievances and concerns of half or over-half of our countrymen; I would go so far as to call that dangerous.

So…it’s unusual but I listened and tried to understand what’s driving the right-wing activists push for the federal government shutdown.  I vehemently oppose so much of what these guys spout, the overheated rhetoric and the false premises, but I want to be fair here.  I honestly think much of the rage expressed by the Tea Partiers is either directly springing from legitimate grievances or legitimate anger that’s been misdirected (e.g. people who’re saying essentially “in the 80s-90s neoliberals/neocons offshored the jobs previously available to rural whites like me, everyone I know is marginalized in a post-industrial hellscape and without economic hope, but all the problems are *because Obama*“).

So it was October 14th, the Monday before the nation was due to default on the 17th, and what were the activist talk radio guys saying?  Tuning to WABC Radio NY/NJ, Sean Hannity was expressing disappointment that the Republican leadership is going “to cave” to the Obama and open the government.  None of the talk radio guys were enthusiastic supporters of the Republican leadership (Boehner, McConnell, et al) and the members of Congress that seemed radical in the ’90s “Republican Revolution” are increasingly marginalized as too soft, as “the establishment” that needs to be pushed or overthrown entirely by Republican Revolution II, though the different radio hosts each have very different approaches to the developing political ecosystem.  After Hannity on WABC is The Mark Levin Show, and Levin is very different; he’s one of the most extreme anti-federalists out there, believing that anything not among the enumerated powers in the United States Constitution is out of bounds for the U.S. government.  Given this “strict constructionist” view of the Constitution, the states should control nearly all domestic policy, regulations and services and most of the things that the federal government does at present are unconstitutional and illegitimate.  Mark Levin is a really angry guy, and though his ideology would logically put most Republicans and Republican federal policies beyond the pale as well, his wrath is mostly reserved for the Democrats, and there’s definitely a lot of running-up the partisan scoreboard on his show.  The messages given by each of these hosts is surprisingly different.

"Rage radio," political cartoon, painted by Nick Dupree, October 24th, 2013
“Rage radio,” political cartoon, painted by Nick Dupree, October 24th, 2013

There’s scant unanimity among the right-leaning hosts in general, but they were unanimous that hitting the debt ceiling that following Thursday isn’t so bad.  Sean Hannity said that there are more days before default than advertised by the “scare tactics” allegedly put forward by the administration.  Tuning to NewsRadio KLBJ Austin, Glenn Beck was saying that the worst thing that could happen if we hit the debt ceiling is a cut in runaway entitlement spending, an unambiguous positive in his mind, underpinned by the unspoken assumption we’d keep paying foreign creditors while stiffing pensioners.  Really disturbing to hear such unanimity on being outside of financial reality, up is down and defaulting on your debts somehow “fiscally conservative.”  But note the huge gap between what Hannity was saying “few extra days” before default and what Beck and Levin are saying, “default is good.”

Levin and Beck also are really different from Hannity on the future of the Republican Party too.  While Hannity is exasperated with the GOP leadership and wants to push them, I get the sense the furthest he’d go is elect Ted Cruz-types everywhere, whereas Glenn Beck wants to replace the GOP.  Beck said that the GOP is “over,” to be taken over or displaced because of its corruption and willingness “to cave” on Obamacare and the deficit, replaced like the Whig Party was replaced by the Republican Party in the 1850s.  Beck tends to take you down this rabbit hole of elaborate historical exegesis, an alternate history of the 20th century that casts Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson as villainous “progressives” that ruined the United States.  Both parties are too “progressive,” the Republicans are “progressive lite,” he says, and because of this, he predicts we’re on the verge of our political system being wiped out and America being “reborn” in some sort of financial and/or ACTUAL armageddon, which maybe will include a cleaning out of the immoral; a great purging via apocalyptic violence is certainly hinted at occasionally.  Beck and Levin both emphasize the illegitimacy of our national system and the need for state, local and hyper-local leadership and organizing—and stockpiling food and ammo in your fortified bunker—but Beck actually flames the Republican leadership.  If John Boehner is mentioned at all on The Glenn Beck Program, it’s to call him “awful” or “orange and crusty.”

What I’ve Learned

So, what are the pertinent lessons to take away?

1) I wasn’t entirely correct when, in a previous blog post, I described the House GOP members behind the government shutdown as “regressed from comparably responsible businessman-types to incoherent lunatics so rage-inebriated that they’re about one notch above tantrum-ing toddlers scribbling ‘WHO IS JOHN GALT’ in their own feces on the walls of the Capitol rotunda.”   The current crop of Congress-critters don’t command much respect to be sure, the toddler-esque aspect and the “rage inebriation” certainly is present, but I’ve learned they’re not unhinged ideologues, they’re businessman-types pretending to be unhinged ideologues in order to CYA and look out for #1.  They definitely are convinced they’ll lose their jobs and possibly get pulled down into the political “dustbin of history” with a GOP collapse if they vote for a hike in the debt ceiling.  All these guys, even House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, want immunity from primary challenges, so can’t leave themselves open to accusations they capitulated on the debt ceiling and long-term “deficit catastrophe.” This explains why Cantor supports the shutdown even though it has meant furloughing a broad swath of the working age population of his northern Virginia district. House Republicans are trying to stay relevant to the increasingly radical fundraisers and activists that could oust them.  The government shutdown was ultimately a craven attempt to reassure the activist base that elects and reelects Republican candidates “we’re true believers too.”  The House majority wants to cater to the activist base as the activist base increasingly slides into radical, unhinged Ayn Rand-land.  The credit rating of the United States is getting downgraded because certain Congressmen wanted political cover.

2) the Republican party is rapidly changing.  We’ve not seen a party so in flux in my lifetime.


Guys I didn’t think could be more conservative are being branded as RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) and overthrown in primaries across the U.S..  Such flux could bring about unexpected changes, but it’s doubtful that “the establishment” or more moderate elements of the GOP (like consultant Mike Murphy) is going to win out, for the same reason that John Kerry’s talk about “a cadre of hard core moderates” to fight Assad and steal the jihadists’ thunder in Syria is so ridiculous.  Radicals always are more motivated and the deck is stacked in their favor.  In terms of the establishment GOP pushing back at the Tea Party types, what little there is isn’t covered beyond what Tea Partiers would call “the liberal media.”  In talk radio land, the activist base has monopolized all the megaphones and created a hermetically-sealed echo chamber devoid of non-Tea Party Republicans.  If the only Republicans devoted to fighting back against the Tea Partiers are like Murphy, who doesn’t really engage the underpinning economic pain behind the arguments or offer much substance aside from “shooing away tomorrow’s voters to pander to yesterday’s,” the far-right has already won.

“Teapublican Party” logo

Conclusion: in the most probable scenario, the GOP is all-but-completely transformed into the “Teapublican Party” prior to the key midterm primary elections in 6-9 months and the general elections to seat the 114th Congress in 12 months.  But after the far-right is running the show unopposed, we don’t yet know which direction the party will go or which faction will dominate.

3) Rage radio is symptomatic of real anger, real grievances that spring from a legitimate place, and so I do try to be fair.  Glenn Beck is saying stuff like “don’t let them tell you America is over,” that we will be reborn, that you can still find a place to thrive.  He’s wrong in so many ways but at least he’s responding to the post-industrial agony out there.  When I tuned in last Friday night, Beck was talking about getting suicide emails, men who have lost a job, a home, a wife, a life.  Hannity is helping people find jobs on the air, in a climate where a good job is something you only get if you win a reality show.

Our political and intellectual leaders shouldn’t be dismissive of the despair and desperation driving Tea Partier rage.  Ignoring the economic marginalization of “flyover country” is going to come back to bite us big time. Already our clueless liberal class—I say this as an activist who’s part of said liberal class—is wondering aloud why the heartland is sending radicals to Congress.  Radicalism is always a byproduct of poverty, whether financial, social, or spiritual poverty, and I’d say the U.S. has all three, in spades.  Why they’re going for far-right radicalism instead of far-left radicalism isn’t clear to me, but it’s possible they end up with some far-left ideas because they hurtle so far right on the weird mobius strip that is the political spectrum that they’ve come ’round the other side.where right blurs into left.  I certainly understand why hatred of the federal government is a prominent part of the movement, as federal economic policies have put sustainable livelihoods—and a chance for a positive male role, to be a provider instead of a “loser on food stamps”—out of reach for millions of Americans.    I don’t fully grasp how that anger ends up channeled into a movement to gut food stamps and other economic assistance, but I think that this has a lot to do with how deep-seated the ethos of bootstraps-individualism and self-reliance is in our psychosocial fabric, especially in the red states, and intensely acculturated in men and the male gender roles Americans yearn to retrieve.  There’s a dilemma on how we bring a program of economic inclusion to great swaths of the country that despise the government; it might require a Republican president.  I worry that another decade without a program of economic inclusion to ratchet down the desperation could lead to a future where our pondering on the left could be “how come this Mussolini with a Texas drawl just disbanded Congress?”

To summarize:

• listening to “the opposition” will give you insights you won’t get elsewhere

• Republican Revolution II is transforming the GOP and the country. The Republican party is in revolutionary flux and we don’t yet know what it will become.  Stay tuned!

• we ignore the desperation and despair in the rust belt and heartland, and resulting crisis in healthy male gender roles, at our own peril.