Limbaugh's fans are certain they're right

topic posted Thu, November 13, 2003 - 12:26 AM by  Unsubscribed
By Paul Ginnetty, Newsday

The coming return of Rush Limbaugh to the famed "golden microphone" of his national bully pulpit invites us to ponder the reasons for the remarkable success of his kind of radio programming. Liberals have made numerous unsuccessful attempts to create an equally popular propaganda vehicle for the other side of the ideological spectrum. What they may lack is the element of simplicity.

Limbaugh's message is usually resoundingly and blessedly simple. (One should not assume that simplicity and truth are synonymous here.) His genius lies in reducing rather complex issues into deceptively straightforward terms. For example, the challenge of crafting environmental policies that balance legitimate economic considerations with a responsible awareness of the finitude of natural resources is dismissed as the neurotic hand wringing of tree hugging "environmentalist whackos."

Any examination of gender inequities is spurned as the fascist agenda of "Feminazis." And so forth with every potentially thorny issue with which his listeners might otherwise have to wrestle.

Such concreteness and black-and-white certitude is psychologically appealing to a number of people. In an increasingly complicated world that presents the richness but also the challenges of all kinds of diversity, such a clear-cut gospel can seem like good news indeed.

Limbaugh's listeners are only too glad to circle their electronic wagons, protected by unequivocal truths, insulated from pesky nuances and grayish shades of meaning. They've got it totally right.

They live in the right country whose perpetually pure motives and universally good intentions are obvious to everyone, except for a handful of "limousine-liberal" whiners. They are even righter than right if they happen to be the correct kind of American - Republican, Caucasian and preferably male.

But their certitude consigns them to what psychoanalyst Erik Erikson called the state of psychic foreclosure. Foreclosed persons are easily attracted to the beguilingly simple, one-size-fits-all belief systems of powerful others that they adopt as their own so as to avoid the sometimes lonely rigors of personal searching. The foreclosed are the ready disciples of demagogues in every age.

Social psychologists also point to the normal, near-universal need for "social comparison," the tendency to check out our impressions - say, of a movie or, better yet, an ambiguous scene such as a bar fight or car accident - by instinctively comparing notes with other observers. Our hope is to confirm our own impressions and opinions in an effort to make the world feel more stable, less random. It's reassuring to be reading from the same page as others.

Limbaugh's brand of talk radio provides a pathologically intense version of this wish to be singing from the same hymnal. Crucial to this phenomenon is the absence of any real controversy during the broadcast. There are constant sparks of apparent conflict that make for engaging entertainment as he shadowboxes (with one hand tied behind his back, of course) with select sound bites of Hillary Rodham Clinton or Ted Kennedy.

Note that there are never any actual guests on the program; guests, even conservative ones, risk obscuring simple truths with inconvenient facts or alternative hypotheses.

There are seldom any real disagreements between the host and the already converted choir to which he bombastically preaches. Their collective nickname says it all - they are the well-scrubbed ranks of "ditto-heads" - people who can be counted on to shout "amen," who have little to add but a grateful and admiring "ditto."

Sadly, the tradeoff seems to be worth it for them. What they sacrifice in terms of individuality and intellectual integrity is seemingly more than offset by the potent narcotic of reassuring simplicity. Many of them probably also derive a sense of inclusion and pseudo-intimacy via this electronic fraternity of kindred spirits. Consider the somewhat pathetic character, Marty, who checks in daily with his radio "buddy," Sean Hannity, a Limbaugh clone. There are plenty of other Martys out there who regularly light up the call boards of right-wing talk jocks - among them G. Gordon Liddy, Matt Drudge and Laura Ingraham - who unabashedly mimic the Limbaugh formula of ideological simplicity.

What's more, callers may get a sense of derivative celebrity and charisma from seeming to hang out - if only for a minute or two - with a mega-rich and politically powerful figure like Limbaugh. They get a chance to feel real smart when the master seems to agree with them, failing to see that it is actually they who are agreeing with him. Further, they are mindlessly agreeing with the powerful economic interests he insidiously represents.

That's perhaps the most maddening, diabolically clever thing about his show, the faux populism that persuasively claims to be looking out for the little guy, all the while touting policies that tilt tax codes and regulatory policies further in favor of him and his kind.

To cite but one example, the privileged need not fear any thoughtful scrutiny of the conceivable wisdom of maintaining some kind of inheritance tax as long as Limbaugh can keep referring to it as an unnatural "death tax." With such an engaging apologist, the rich are home free. As Limbaugh is wont to say, "Now listen, you people, it's really quite simple."

Paul Ginnetty is a professor of psychology at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue.

Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.

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