Liberals Should Give Up the Dream of a Lefty Limbaugh

The left will never find its Rush Limbaugh – and shouldn’t be looking anyway.

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Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh speaks during a secretive ceremony inducting him into the Hall of Famous Missourians on Monday, May 14, 2012, in the state Capitol in Jefferson City, Mo.

A few days ago, Politico offered five ways to rescue liberal talk radio. With the 2014 midterm elections looming and no replacement for the shuttered Air America in sight, finding the progressive Rush Limbaugh, the piece argued, "has become more important than ever."

Liberals have longed for a Limbaugh of their own since 1994, when Republicans credited Rush with their historic victories in the midterm elections. A few months later, the Wall Street Journalreported Mario Cuomo had been approached to host a show that would "counter popular conservative Rush Limbaugh." The headline: "Democrats Try to Play Catch-Up on Talk Radio."

Two decades later, they're still trying.  

Rather than rescue liberal talk radio, it's time for progressives to abandon it. Here's why:

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

1. Conservatives have a 50-year head start. Well before Limbaugh went into national syndication in 1988, conservative talkers had built loyal listening audiences.  Right-wing radio shows like "The Manion Forum," "The Dan Smoot Report" and "Life Line" aired on hundreds of stations across the nation in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. Though most Americans have never heard of them, this first generation of political radio hosts trained conservatives to scour the radio dial for right-wing talk. That half-century lead may well prove insurmountable, no matter how much effort liberals pour into the project.

2. Liberals lack the rationale for partisan media. "Liberal media bias" is the underlying justification for all conservative media enterprises. In its first issue, National Review positioned itself as the scrappy outsider standing up to the "Liberal orthodoxy" of the day. Talk show hosts like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck offer themselves as alternatives to the left-wing "mainstream media."

This belief in liberal media bias has no real equivalent on the left. True, some progressives have put forward trenchant critiques of corporate and conservative bias in media. But those media critiques have not become a core part of liberal identity, and so have not sent progressives searching for left-wing media en masse.

3. Liberals need to look forward, not back.  When it comes to political media, the trick is to innovate, not replicate. Conservatives carved a space for themselves on AM radio at a time when most popular programming had fled to the FM dial. With relatively little competition, conservative hosts had an opportunity to experiment and ultimately transform the AM landscape. Today they dominate the medium, leaving little room for liberal upstarts.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Progressives did something similar with online political media in the early 2000s. As Dave Karpf argues in "The MoveOn Effect," the left used their years in the talk radio minority to experiment with new modes of communication and organization. Their efforts netted them a major digital advantage that the right still labors to close. Why should liberals waste time trying to get a toehold in a market conservatives dominate when they can create new media forms elsewhere?

4. Focusing on talk radio confuses format with function. Conservative talk radio flourishes because it marries politics to entertainment. It is no coincidence that the top three right-wing radio hosts (Limbaugh, Hannity and Beck) began not as political theorists or movement leaders but as apolitical radio DJs. Limbaugh got his start as Rusty Sharpe, spinning records in Cape Girardeau in the hopes of one day becoming a top-40 DJ. Glenn Beck's roots run through "morning zoo," not "Morning in America."

Talk radio is political entertainment, something liberals already have in spades. It just takes a different format: comedy shows. "The Daily Show," "Colbert Report" and "Real Time with Bill Maher," though different from talk radio in tone and style,serve a similar function.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the tea party.]

The key difference between the radio of the right and comedy of the left is influence. Which brings us to…

5. Talk radio's political influence is a liability, not an asset. When progressives dream of a liberal Limbaugh, it's his blend of ideological and political success they envy. Along with other conservative media activists, he helped move the Republican Party to the right while being feted as a "majority maker." Likewise Glenn Beck, the id of the Tea Party, helped foster a movement that led the GOP to victory in 2010.

But the litmus tests and purity standards of conservative media also helped produce the 2012 Republican primaries. While many progressives long to see Hillary Clinton challenged from the left in 2016 (witness dreams of an Elizabeth Warren run), do they really want a left-wing version of the GOP primaries? Imagine a nomination fight stretching into June, alternatively led by Nancy Pelosi, Dennis Kucinich, Anthony Weiner and Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's. It would be great fun, no doubt, but hardly a recipe for a more successful, more progressive Democratic Party.

And make no mistake: a more successful, progressive Democratic Party is what the dream of liberal talk radio is actually about. Progressives will be more likely to achieve that when they realize their path to victory doesn't run through a radio station.

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