From Entertainment to Outrage: On the Rise of Rush Limbaugh and Conservative Talk Radio
How the Alienated Margins Arrived at the Center of American Politics
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, no media executive plotted to reach disillusioned conservatives. Most had no inkling that this potential audience existed. Even Rush Limbaugh was flying blind in this regard—he launched his show with no political goals. Rather, he argued that people “turn on the radio for three things: entertainment, entertainment, entertainment.” Yet caller after caller celebrated him for his views, so he adapted his show to satisfy his fans and fulfill a newfound sense of duty to them.
“As millions have tuned in,” he explained, “there is now incumbent upon me a responsibility to be honest, credible, believable, and to not do things that are perceived to be outrageous, or off the wall just for the purpose of being noticed or making a splash.” This meant sacrificing some of the irreverence that characterized his program in its early years and instead providing more traditional political commentary. While this change repelled some liberal fans, it engendered even more loyalty from conservatives. They had finally found their champion.
This was a crucial aspect of Limbaugh’s appeal: he connected with alienated conservatives because he was one of them. In the words of the Washington Post’s Henry Allen, Limbaugh was “a lonely small-town guy who was just as smart and funny as the people who sneered at lonely small-town guys.” His massive success, and the trappings of it—he discussed on the air cigars and rounds of golf and other luxuries he bought with his riches—thrilled his conservative audience.
Here was one of their own, striking gold in hostile territory by strongly expressing their values and their anger over the media’s infuriating bias. Fan Nathan Willis told an interviewer that he appreciated Limbaugh’s morals, which Willis considered otherwise “dead in America.”
A 1992 discussion of youth violence epitomizes the unyielding approach to traditionally defined morality that captivated Limbaugh’s conservative listeners. In one monologue, he embraced conservative values, pilloried the cultural forces challenging them, and amplified conservatives’ sense of grievance by lamenting how the changes wrought by poisonous liberalism made it impossible to fix the problem. In this particular instance, Limbaugh blamed the constant barrage of sex and violence in music and movies for a dramatic increase in the number of teenage girls having multiple sex partners.
To critics of this analysis, who might argue that every generation had “destructive” music, Limbaugh countered, “In my generation, the destructive music people thought was the Beatles . . . The Beatles did get into psychedelic stuff and so forth, but you can’t play Beatles music today and compare it to Ice T and 2 Live Crew and all these kinds of things.” Worse still, liberal victories had ensured that nothing could be done to offset this destructive content:
We can’t teach ’em values except homosexual values in school in New York City. But you can’t teach—you can’t put the Ten Commandments in school even though it’s great advice, it’s remarkably instructive, and there are no better ten things to teach people how to live with one another than the Ten Commandments.
You don’t need the children of the rainbow curriculum. You don’t need “Heather has two mommies” or “daddy has a roommate” to teach people how to live with each other. Ten Commandments does it. It’s all right there. But you can’t do that because it has a religious foundation and so it’s not constitutional, it’s not qualified. So when kids start hacking each other to death, the answers are plain and simple.
This sort of blunt, full-throated defense of cherished values—replete with entertaining insults, winks, and nods—struck a chord with millions. As Jerry “Boogie” Gallant, a California oil-field worker, told a Wall Street Journal reporter, Limbaugh “is articulate to the common man like me. Most of us out there are working people, and we get tired of getting blamed for everything.”
Garrett Headrick, a 58-year-old fan, described Limbaugh as “a man who expresses my sentiments, and does it with wit and humor. I appreciate the clarity of his thinking. And when he articulates my thoughts, I get a sense of not being alone. Now we have someone who can speak for us, against the mean-spirited nature and intolerance of the left.”
Neal Boortz resonated in a similar way. He argued, “If I’m tapping anything . . . it’s the frustration of people who have something to say at work or home or in some social setting and just can’t do it. I do it for them. I don’t take prisoners.” Even more gratifying, when liberals or the media pounced on these sentiments, hosts gleefully doubled down.
After provoking outrage by questioning why none of the victims of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre defended themselves, Boortz “started counting down the days until I once again said something that many people were thinking, but were afraid to express, and the howling dogs of the left-wing media would once again rise up in outrage.” This unwillingness to cave to the lords of political correctness reinforced hosts’ almost heroic stature in listeners’ eyes. One caller begged Bob Grant, the New York talker, “Please, please don’t leave us. You are our only voice.”Hosts flaunted opposition to political correctness and sneered at the new norms promoted by the rights movements that inflamed conservative sensibilities.
Talk radio provided precisely the kind of anti-establishment medium through which conservatives could connect to the political process and freely express their views. Their favorite hosts discussed all the thorny issues—race, politics, religion, sex—that listeners believed they had to avoid in public for fear of offending people. As Susan Douglas explained, “So many white men came to feel that they were walking on eggshells, that they didn’t know what was right and wrong to say anymore, that they wanted a place where they, too, could exhale. Talk radio gave them that refuge.”
Callers could vent and voice their sentiments to likeminded, sympathetic people. And the virtual anonymity offered by the medium meant that callers and listeners need not worry about being identified and scorned by spouses, friends, bosses, customers, or neighbors who might disagree.
Even at his most entertainment-focused, Limbaugh may have had an inkling that his brand of humor and fun had special resonance with a conservative audience. He sensed that he offered something liberals couldn’t match because they took politics so seriously. On this point Limbaugh disagreed with those around him who thought he would have been equally successful as a liberal.
He believed liberalism would have inhibited his success “for the simple reason that liberals don’t laugh about things. I have a sense of humor.” While the rise of liberal comics on cable television in the 2000s and 2010s has proved this impression wrong, the connection Limbaugh drew between entertainment and ideology explained why he garnered such fervent adoration specifically from those on the right. His style of humor and entertainment was rooted in his decidedly conservative sensibilities. This electrified an audience that shared his values and his “Middle-American” upbringing.
These values pervaded the conversation on talk radio, even though hosts did not focus single-mindedly on spreading conservative political ideas. This sensibility made talk radio even more enticing: the conversation was not so different from the sort one might find at the dinner table in any conservative household. Hosts chatted about the news of the day. Local hosts spliced discussion of national politics with local stories; national and local hosts worked in the latest celebrity, sports, legal, or business news.
Laura Ingraham, for example, typically devoted her third hour each day to lifestyle topics. Conversation on talk radio routinely included largely apolitical issues, from the best ways to handle mosquitoes to popular movies, hosts’ travel woes, the proper location for new stoplights, and the perennial competition between lovers of white and dark meat.
As Sacramento host Joe Getty explained, he and partner Jack Armstrong had a “human relationship with our audience.” They considered their listeners “friends” to whom they could talk about many topics, including politics. Armstrong and Getty estimated that their show ranged from 70 to 75 percent political content on a heavy news day to less than half on a slower news day.
Whatever the topic, the ethos of talk radio shined through. Hosts flaunted opposition to political correctness and sneered at the new norms promoted by the rights movements that inflamed conservative sensibilities. As radio executive David Hall put it, Limbaugh was “always looking to turn somebody’s sacred cow into some delicious hamburgers and a couple of steaks.” This style permeated the business.
Economic developments during the 1980s, and the Democratic Party’s response to them, made this ethos especially alluring to middle- and lower-middle-class white men. Between 1982 and 1994, real earnings for white men with high school diplomas and white male high school dropouts declined 9.1 percent and 22 percent, respectively. By contrast mean earnings for white men with master’s degrees rose by 24.3 percent. Minority men with low educational attainment experienced an even more severe earnings drop, but, as one writer argued in the Washington Post, minorities at least benefited from the care and sympathy of progressives.
The “college educated, privileged and politically correct” population viewed declining minority earnings as the byproduct of systemic injustice, while reserving for blue-collar white men condescension and even contempt. Americans who shared this sense—themselves often blue-collar white men—found much to like in Limbaugh, who frequently railed against affirmative action, mocked Reverend Jesse Jackson, and highlighted what he perceived as extreme and hypocritical statements made by civil rights leaders.
It was not just economic alienation—and its links to racial resentment—that made American men hunger for the sort of conversation that occurred on talk radio. Societal changes spurred by the women’s movement also attracted men to conservative talkers. As host Jack Armstrong described, talk radio appealed to “angry white males” who were tired of being disrespected—by their children, who used them as ATMs, and by bosses and wives who were perpetually angry at them. A 2004 Annenberg survey found that men comprised a full two-thirds of Limbaugh’s audience.
Hosts, who were also predominantly men, oozed testosterone and frequently objectified women. Talker G. Gordon Liddy, of Watergate infamy, described himself as virile, vigorous, and potent; after a three-day weekend he told his audience, “Ladies it has been a long dry period, three days, but we’re back and the hour of free release is upon you.” In the same episode, the former FBI agent amped up the masculinity by holding court about guns and bragging about the numerous ways he could kill a person.
Boortz’s show was similarly animated by an ethos that objectified women and appealed to men who found feminism stultifying, even as he venerated his wife and dubbed her “The Queen.” For instance, during a 2005 discussion of a NASCAR race, Boortz’s sidekick Royal Marshall thought female driver Danica Patrick had been lucky not to “bust her ass right there in front of God and everybody.” That “sounds like a woman to me,” he added. Boortz followed up by observing that Patrick was “hot.”
Later, a not particularly repentant Marshall issued an “apology” for criticizing Patrick, explaining, “Apparently that’s a sacred cow.” Boortz responded, “Oh she’s not a cow.” When female guests appeared in studio, hosts often focused on their looks, not their ideas. For example, in 2005, when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sent a costumed “Santa’s little helper” to debate Cincinnati host Bill Cunningham on the merits of Tofurkey vs. fried turkey, Cunningham and his sidekick spent most of the segment objectifying her. At one point Cunningham remarked, “Looking like you honey, I can see people buying whatever you’re selling.”
Many hosts also tried to discredit feminist arguments, often by highlighting what they saw as inconsistencies and double standards. For instance, in 1992 Limbaugh accused feminists of merely being partisans after they failed to come out behind a hairdresser who accused Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye of sexual harassment. The same people, Limbaugh noted, had been all too ready to support Anita Hill the year before. Then there was the time Liddy argued with a female veteran until she conceded that women were not fit for certain combat roles because they could not perform well enough to avoid getting themselves or members of their units killed.
When the caller added that some men presented the same problem, Liddy replied that people accepted those men getting winnowed out, but that when the military winnowed women out, it faced accusations of sex discrimination. In one fell swoop Liddy sought both to delegitimize gender-discrimination complaints and strike a blow for traditional gender roles.
Part of the political genius of talk radio was its promotion of a message that could comfortably resonate with two different, sometimes contradictory, flavors of conservatives. On the one hand, hosts appealed to the persistent rage of the Nixon-era “silent majority.” Diane from Los Angeles, a 2005 caller to Sean Hannity’s program, observed that—in spite of Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and the 1994 revolution that delivered Republicans full control of Congress—for 40 years the silent majority had no voice, until talk radio gave it one.
Talk radio won over Diane and likeminded conservatives by championing the interests, opinions, and frustrations of blue-collar whites and anti-feminist traditionalists. Hosts had great appeal to so-called Reagan Democrats. Limbaugh attracted many former Democrats, such as St. Louis listeners Patty O’Neill and Barbara Potzman. Potzman, the Catholic daughter of union member, came from a traditional Democratic background.
On the other hand, talk radio also offered up something for the new Sunbelt suburban conservatives and wealthier Americans more broadly. Hosts equated economic success with deregulation, low taxes, and personal responsibility. At times Limbaugh referred to the graduated income tax as “an assault on achievement.” In his view tax cuts should benefit the wealthy because “there’s nothing wrong with earning a lot of money—you do it the right way—hard work.”
Limbaugh was so successful in pairing the fury of the dispossessed with the optimistic terms of “achievement” economics that, by the early 2000s, the majority of his audience were members of the middle and upper-middle class.Even if Limbaugh was not trying to tell listeners what to think, he undeniably advanced the Republican and conservative agendas.
This fusion of two strands of conservatism in Limbaugh’s broadcasts makes sense when one considers his background: as David Remnick put it in 1994, Limbaugh’s “conservatism is a mix of the traditional Republicanism of his father and grandfather and the fury of the pro–George Wallace forces that became so popular in his hometown” of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Limbaugh is a son of Missouri political royalty; his father even ushered vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon and his wife through town during a 1952 campaign stop.
One in a long line of well-to-do lawyers, Limbaugh’s father represented many corporations and appears to have imparted in his son a great deal of respect for the social value of unfettered profitmaking. Whether Limbaugh shaped his listeners’ opinions, or simply voiced them, was difficult to discern. He admitted that he liked “to try to persuade” but with the caveat that he wanted “it to happen genuinely. I don’t want to be pointing fingers in people’s face . . . and force them to agree. I want them to come to it on their own.”
Limbaugh sensed that he thrived “because I validate what millions of Americans already think.” But this didn’t mean he was pandering to them; rather, he was espousing what he genuinely felt to be true. Early in his time in New York, he explained to McMahon that he refrained from covering certain newsworthy topics on his show because he hadn’t decided what he thought about them; he would not discuss them until he had.
He eschewed other hot topics because he didn’t care about them, which was to his benefit: the intimacy of talk radio required authenticity from hosts; those who frequently changed positions or lied to listeners had ratings trouble. Limbaugh’s beliefs just happened “to fit what a certain number of Americans think who are not being satisfied by the mainstream press.”
Even if Limbaugh was not trying to tell listeners what to think, he undeniably advanced the Republican and conservative agendas. By applying his and listeners’ worldview to issues and campaigns, Limbaugh helped his audience turn their values into votes and activism. Importantly, in the pre-Internet age, Limbaugh was a news source, directing his loyal audience to matters they otherwise would not be familiar with.
Limbaugh also had something of a clean slate to work with, as a portion of his audience knew little about politics or cared minimally about them. These listeners still tuned in because, as one put it, “Rush makes politics fun.” For millions who shared Limbaugh’s values and were entertained by him, his show was the gateway to greater political awareness.
Overall the rise of talk radio was in many ways an accident; there was no conservative plot to build a right-leaning political medium. The new style of conservative talk was a byproduct of AM stations’ financial straits and Limbaugh’s discovery of an audience yearning for an in-your-face conservative media product. True, almost from day one, talk radio caught the eye of some in the political world, but only those who were most desperate to find a platform. Indeed, at the moment when those in politics began to experiment with talk radio, the medium wasn’t conservative. It was diverse in topics and political orientations.
The development of almost uniformly conservative political talk on the AM dial would come gradually over the next decade. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was still real uncertainty as to how talk radio would develop and what, if any, political impact it would have. Radio executives were still trying to figure out what would be the next step for the industry, and those in politics were slowly feeling their way along, wondering how to engage the medium.