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By Jay Cost

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How Much Does Rush Limbaugh Matter?

With Rush Limbaugh's CPAC speech, the radio talker is back in the news - and some conservatives are wondering whether he is good for the party. Rod Dreher says that Limbaugh's speech was "political crack" and that:

Anybody who challenges Limbavian orthodoxy is, ipso facto, the Enemy. If you suggest reform, even from the Right, you are a useful idiot for the Media, which are the Enemy, and can never be anything but the Enemy. Limbaughism sounds a lot like Leninism.

Meanwhile, Reihan Salam says that Limbaugh is trying to, "remake the Party of Lincoln as the Party of Limbaugh." He goes on to suggest that Limbaugh is over-stepping his boundaries:

What Limbaugh fails to understand is that any successful political movement is built of both true believers and evangelizers. True believers, like Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, fire up the troops. They tell their followers exactly what they want to hear, and they instinctively resist any compromise of their hallowed principles. As a general rule, true believers live and work and worship among other true believers, and they like it that way. [Snip] Every week Rush Limbaugh reaches an audience of over 13 million listeners--a staggering sum by any standard. Yet 13 million listeners plus their spouses, plus the family dog, plus a few dead aunts and uncles thrown in here or there, still doesn't add up to an electoral majority.

That's where the evangelizers come in. Evangelizers are in the business of making converts, and so they are obligated to make their way among people who are opposed--sometimes bitterly opposed--to their views. To succeed, evangelizers need to recognize the other side's strengths and to use its language. Just as missionaries would occasionally "go native" in foreign lands and abandon their original creed, there is a real risk that evangelizers will lose touch with their core beliefs. Yet other missionaries learned to adapt, to take the essentials of their faith and compromise it in such a way as to make it relevant and compelling to the locals.

Are we talking about politics or religion? It sounds an awful lot like religion - and I think we need to reframe the discussion.

Political participation is a mass phenomenon in this country. Aside from going to church and watching the Super Bowl, it might just be the only other activity that commands so many participants. After all, at least 131,370,793 Americans voted in the last presidential election. In comparison to that, just about everything else is niche entertainment.

Obviously, Salam is correct that Limbaugh's audience would be insufficient for a political majority, but a political majority in 2008 required the support of nearly 66 million voters. Ultimately, that undermines his broader point - for we are dealing with a scale so massive that we have little use for "evangelizers."

There are reasons political campaigns have taken the peculiar shape they have taken - that they do not conform to the ideal of "deliberative democracy." We can appreciate just how entrenched our less-than-erudite tradition of politicking is by reviewing one of the first elections that generated high levels of participation, the election of 1840 in which William Henry Harrison squared off against Martin van Buren. From historian Paul Boller:

The log-cabin-hard-cider campaign (of the Whigs) had to be seen to be believed. There was no dearth of spectators. Estimates of crowds assembled for Whig rallies ranged from one thousand to one hundred thousand...Hard cider was plentiful...Slogans, mottoes, nicknames, and catchwords abounded: "The Farmer's President"; "The Hero of Tippecanoe"; "Harrison, Two Dollars a Day and Roast Beef"; and, best of all..."Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!" There were also scores of log-cabin newspapers, log-cabin pamphlets and leaflets; and thousands of Tippecanoe badges, Tippecanoe handkerchiefs, and Tippecanoe products (including shaving cream) of all kinds. Whig songs...were energetic, exuberant, ecstatic, and endless.

Basically, the Whigs campaigned in 1840 by plying the public with booze, music, slogans, and merchandise. Electioneering has, of course, changed over the years - but this reminds me quite a bit of Obama's acceptance speech in Denver!

This is the sort of thing you need to do to engage the mass public. There's little need for "evangelizers" in this scheme, then or now. When appealing to a political audience as broad as the voting public, you are confronting a large majority of voters who pay relatively little attention and are essentially non-ideological in their political orientation. That means the idea of converting somebody from "liberalism" to "conservatism" as a precursor to getting his vote is simply not going to yield many votes. If it did, this is what candidates - who have the greatest interest in winning votes - would try to do. Instead, they speak in sound bytes and they have Stevie Wonder or Hank Williams, Jr. open their political rallies.

You're going to win these marginal voters in part by finding issue positions that solve practical problems they face - hence the reason candidates take so many positions these days. Marketing is a factor, too. But the biggest factor is whether the winds of public opinion favor you. That should remind us of the scale we're dealing with: when we talk about public opinion, we often use nature metaphors, which imply that it affects politicians, but politicians do not really affect it. Ultimately, we can make a pretty convincing argument that campaigns do not really alter the public's thinking - that the great mass of the public has preexisting opinions on the parties and the state of the union, that these translate pretty easily into vote choices, and the hundreds of millions of dollars both sides spends do little to alter the process. That's the scale we're dealing with.

I think that generates two conclusions for the subject at hand. First, from the perspective of electoral politics, Rush Limbaugh is not much of a factor. That's not to say he is unimportant in other ways. He influences lots of people and is certainly important from a cultural perspective. But we're talking about elections - where more than a hundred million people participate. That has to change our evaluation of his influence. Additionally, he might be a hot topic for a few news cycles, but news cycles are drops in the bucket from an electoral perspective.

Second, there is value in the discussion among conservatives about the future of their movement. But that does not mean that the payoff is going to be electoral. This is a discussion by political elites for elites. Electoral politics - at least the difference between winning and losing - is inevitably non-ideological and non-elite.

Think of it this way. Suppose the Republican Party and the conservative movement fail to "reform" or "reimagine" themselves, but the country becomes highly dissatisfied with the governance of President Obama. What happens in 2010? I'll bet the farm that the GOP makes big gains in the House, ideological anemia aside. Now, suppose that the party and the movement do reinvigorate themselves, translate their principles into compelling policy solutions and generally begin an intellectual renaissance on the right - but the country is pleased with Obama and the Democrats. What happens? Again, I'll bet the farm that the Republicans make little or no gains.

When you get right down to it, elections are fought over the state of the union and the country's opinion on how the majority party has managed the government. The parties get to tinker at the margins, and ideology can be a part of this tinkering, but it's important not to make too much of it.

-Jay Cost