Talk radio -- bad for Republicans?


Steven Stark makes a lively observation: the national fade of the Republican Party coincides with the rise of conservative talk-radio:

Rush Limbaugh's show was syndicated in 1988. It's been a steady climb toward the top of the ratings for him and his imitators ever since, but pretty much downhill for the party they all support. Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and the others are enormously successful media performers and they may have single-handedly rescued AM radio from financial oblivion over the past two decades.

But while wildly popular with their devotees, these partisan bloviators are enormously unpopular with the electorate as a whole. Limbaugh, for example, has about a two-to-one unfavorable rating nationally, according to a Rasmussen Poll.

As Stark notes, the favored politician of many of these talkers was Ronald Reagan, whose cool disposition stands in contrast to their hot temperament.

Today, in a media universe of thousands of choices, the key to economic success is to find your intense minority and play to it for all it's worth. But divisiveness is as profitable in radio as it is fatal to a mass political movement.

One can see this tension being played out even now. Sarah Palin energizes the talk-radio base and is already being pushed as the inevitable next GOP leader. But Palin — like most talk-radio champions — is enormously divisive. Good for ratings; bad for politics.

The Republicans do have a Reagan/Godfrey-like figure right in their midst. Aside from Barack Obama, of course, the biggest political success story of 2008 was Mike Huckabee, who emerged from absolutely nowhere, with no money, to become a national figure. He is quite conservative but virtually alone in his party. He speaks the language of economic populism in an amiable way that reassures voters.

The key to a Republican revival will be whether they head in the direction of Huckabee and the stylistic mainstream embodied by Reagan, or in the discordant direction of Palin. The economic imperatives of talk radio will push them toward Palin. But unless the Republicans learn how to preach to the masses and not the choir, they're going to remain in the proverbial wilderness for a very long time.

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