Puncturing Rush Limbaugh: Is the #StopRush Campaign on Twitter a Success?
There are a few things all self-respecting liberals ought to hate: racism, sexism, poverty, inequality, and Rush Limbaugh. The latter manages the impressive feat of embodying all the worst, reactionary instincts of the American people. And for that, he is rewarded with a massive following, a vast fortune and a great deal of influence over the conservative movement and the Republican Party.
For these reasons, it makes sense that many progressives have set out to silence the infamous talk radio star. The campaign to puncture the putrid windbag, represented on Twitter by the omnipresent #stoprush hashtag, has experienced unprecedented success, pressuring many companies to pull their advertisements from Limbaugh’s radio show.
And yet, Limbaugh remains. His influence may be somewhat diminished, but to a vocal minority of U.S. citizens, he is still an admired spokesperson, a rare counterweight to a perceived left-wing choke hold on the “lamestream media.” Without diminishing the right of citizens to boycott businesses whose practices or affiliations they find objectionable, it is likely that from a pragmatic standpoint, devoting so much effort to thwarting one reprehensible individual may in fact be counterproductive. At a certain point, liberals should ask themselves some questions: First, why are they organizing a campaign to “stop Rush?” Second, what does said campaign ultimately accomplish?
The question of “why” is not hard to answer. Rush Limbaugh embodies everything that liberals hate. His vitriolic rants are offensive and misleading, at times crossing the line into downright slander. They represent a warped worldview that forward-thinking people have good reason to criticize. There is little question that the #stoprush campaign is morally justified.
But is it sufficiently important to warrant the level of attention it has received compared to other causes? Alas, the answer to this question is no. Organizing against Rush accomplishes little beyond giving participants a sense of satisfaction from cutting into the bottom line of a figure we abhor. However many advertisers Limbaugh loses, it is unlikely that he will be stopped anytime soon, unless by “stopped” you mean slightly impoverished. The only ways to get him off the air would be censorship, which is not something any progressive should endorse, or drawing away his audience. The latter prospect is exceedingly unlikely in the short term due to the nature of Limbaugh’s appeal. In fact, targeting Limbaugh may yield the opposite of its intended result, making his followers even more loyal. To understand why, one must consider the nature of right-wing populism in America.
Like many entertainers, Rush Limbaugh thrives on controversy. The fact that his politically incorrect (and that’s putting it mildly) statements strike so many as offensive is no mere coincidence. More than almost any other pundit, Limbaugh is an expert at channeling right-wing populism. One component of this populism is a severe persecution complex, which is inextricably tied to racism. Richard Nixon took advantage of this persecution complex to win over his “silent majority” in 1968 and 1972. Ronald Reagan followed in his footsteps in 1980. And today, Rush Limbaugh and the Tea Party engage in the same old cynical tricks. It is difficult for many liberals to understand how the white males who make up the bulk of Limbaugh’s audience, and by many measures relatively “privileged” citizens, could see themselves as persecuted and marginalized. But for many in the Midwest and the South, where de facto segregation is a fact of life, the notion that the white majority is under siege by “big government,” which allegedly serves the interests of illegal immigrants, dependent minorities, homosexuals, college-educated (God forbid) elitists and slutty feminists is quite persuasive. Limbaugh’s rhetoric speaks to this sense of dispossession, rendered all the more acute by the election of an African-American president and concurrent demographic shifts. It constitutes a form of catharsis for an audience that harbors racial animosities but is unable to voice them due to political correctness.
Now, imagine that you are an uneducated, rural, white male who, to a greater or lesser extent, holds the aforementioned beliefs. You may or may not listen to a certain vitriolic radio personality, but your worldview is certainly in line with the one espoused on his show. You hear through the grapevine that an organized group of progressives, the very anti-gun, unpatriotic, God-hating, promiscuous, socialist boogie men who are out to destroy the America you hold dear, have decided to target good ol’ Rush. How does that affect your view of the man? Does it make you more or less likely to consider him a kindred spirit? Are you more or less likely to see him as the last bastion of defense against the insatiable leviathan out to take your guns away, grant amnesty to illegal immigrants, and open up an abortion clinic across the street?
The above example is over the top. But it nevertheless reflects an unfortunate reality: the more we try to silence high-profile voices of intolerance in America, the more we drive certain Americans into their arms. A certain segment of the population subscribes to the warped worldview of Rush Limbaugh, and if liberals somehow managed to drive him off the air, they would find another standard-bearer. Granted, none of this is to say that liberals should not boycott Limbaugh’s advertisers on moral grounds. But to elevate the #stoprush campaign to a major national issue is misguided and a poor use of time and resources. Limbaugh himself is not the problem, but rather the symptom of many problems that plague America. Focusing disproportionately on him at the expense of more pressing issues that we actually can do something about plays right into his hands. Instead of obsessing over Limbaugh’s ridiculous comments about guns, how about building a strong, politically-effective consensus for gun control? How about pressuring Congress to act on climate change? Why not kick start a populist campaign to overturn Citizens United, or at the very least educate the American public about what it is? These are only a few key issues that would benefit from the level of enthusiasm afforded a campaign aimed at bringing down a radio personality.
Progressives will face many real challenges in the next few years, most notably the 2014 midterm elections. With the Obama administration weakened by the perception of scandal and and the electoral map unfairly stacked in the Republicans’ favor through redistricting, maintaining a Democratic Senate majority and making gains in the House are of utmost importance. Should liberals fail to turn out in sufficiently large numbers, we face the prospect of a lame-duck (or perhaps lamer-duck is more apt) presidency. Such victories as Obamacare will be in peril. Congressional pressure to get involved in Syria could become too strong for Obama to resist. In short, everything liberals have accomplished in the past four years could be undone if the 2014 elections go as badly as many are predicting.
The Stop Rush campaign has reiterated that with proper motivation, progressives can organize on behalf of a cause and act as a unified whole. It’s past time we follow the Tea Party’s example and channel activism over pet causes into electoral and legislative victories. Then and only then will we defeat Rush Limbaugh and his dangerous ideology.