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Are Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh Part of the GOP?

- October 2, 2009

bq. Only in America can you make that much money crying.

That’s Senator Lindsey Graham, on Glenn Beck (here). He also said:

bq. Glenn Beck is not aligned with any party as far as I can tell. He’s aligned with cynicism, and there’s always been a market for cynicism.

And this on Rush Limbaugh:

bq. What do I think of Rush Limbaugh? Well, I think he makes hundreds of millions of dollars being able to talk on the radio for three hours a day. It is what it is, but here’s what I worry about: how many people in my business are going to be controlled by what’s said on the radio or in a TV commercial? Base politics is what we’re talking about.

Since the 2008 election, there has been an ongoing debate about the state of the Republican Party — who are its leaders, is it just a regional party, etc., etc. This is the standard stuff that happens to any party after it loses an election or two. The same stuff was said about the Democratic Party in 2005. Like Jon Bernstein, I tend to take the long view:

bq. Conservative ideas aren’t dead; a set of ideas going back (at least) a few hundred years doesn’t die just because the people who champion those ideas have a few policy setbacks. And the odds are good that Republicans will revive themselves at some point in the not too distant future. It could, for all we know, happen very rapidly.

But the visibility of Beck and Limbaugh — especially in cases when Republican politicians criticized one or both and then felt compelled to explain, apologize, genuflect, etc. — raises an interesting question. Do Beck, Limbaugh, and their kindred sit outside of a political party, as Graham suggests, or are they essentially part of a political party?

Perhaps the most dominant perspective in political science sees political parties as tools of ambitious office-holders. This is John Aldrich’s _Why Parties?_ (Amazon). A recently published book by Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller, _The Party Decides_ (here), suggests a different view. Parties, they suggest, are tools of “intense policy demanders,” who include activists, interest groups, and some elected leaders and who are less interested in holding and keeping political office and more interested in policy outcomes. This definition may suggest that media personalities like Limbaugh and Beck could be part of the GOP.

I posed the question to David Karol and Hans Noel: Are Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and other conservative media personalities intense policy demanders? David wrote:

bq. The short answer is yes, they could be seen as demanders. The partisan press was certainly a crucial part of the party apparatus in the 19th century and talk radio and bloggers can be easily analogized to them.

bq. However, the long answer is more interesting. One argument that has been made, which we discussed recently, is whether Beck and Limbaugh etc. are different from the typical demander — if such a beast exists — because they are entertainers and their business is arguably better when things are worse for the GOP and conservatism. You see that argument on blogs. That would give them somewhat perverse incentives compared to those of other demanders who would, if motivated by policy, be somewhat more pragmatic. But of course interest groups and leaders that are on the defensive policy-wise can also benefit greatly from an organizational standpoint. James Watt was a great fundraiser for the Sierra Club, George W. Bush was the best thing that ever happened to Markos Moulitsas, etc.

bq. So it’s a question of degree. But I think that if you look at the career trajectories it tells you something. Both Limbaugh and Beck seem to have always been conservative, but both were radio performers before they were professional conservatives, whereas interest groups are more often led by people with a history of caring about the cause, even if they become professional activists.

David’s point that what’s bad for the GOP is good for business is echoed in the Fox News ratings, I think.

Here is Hans Noel:

bq. I’d say that Beck and Limbaugh are “ideologues.” One thing ideologues do is tie issues together…the way they do influence people is they convince partisans that all of their issues are important ones. So when cultural conservatives start fretting about socialism, that’s coming from the ideological link between social conservatism and economic conservatism.

bq. In a pithy diagram, I’d say ideologues –> policy demanders –> political party platforms.

In my view (not theirs necessarily), David and Hans are contradicting Marc Ambinder, who writes:

bq. Limbaugh and Beck may not represent a set of issue positions as much as an attitude about politics…

I do think that Limbaugh and Beck have issue positions, but, as both David and Hans suggest, they are not policy demanders in the way of the NRA, labor unions, the Chamber of Commerce, ADA, etc.

In the midst of this exchange among the three of us came David Brooks’ editorial, in which he comes down strongly against Limbaugh and Beck and suggests that GOP politicians exaggerate their influence.

This prompted David Karol to write:

bq. He [Brooks] doesn’t want to imagine that maybe many of those members of Congress often AGREE with the talk radio people.

And this gets us to a final point. Who’s to say that the cleavage here is Beck and Limbaugh vs. the institutional GOP, as Graham’s comment suggests? The cleavage may simply be ideological. Some GOP officeholders and conservative pundits stand more or less with Beck and Limbaugh, and others of a more moderate bent (Graham perhaps; certainly Brooks) do not.

Which raises another question. Brooks seems to see GOP lawmakers as tools of what Steve Schmidt just called the “conservative-entertainment complex.” But are not Limbaugh and Beck actually useful voices for conservative politicians and their kindred policy demanders who want to push policy in a conservative direction?

The dynamics here are far more complex than the simple story of how a couple of media personalities highjacked a party.