I won't be Rushed
For the sake of conservatism, Limbaugh’s defenders need to get his fallibility through their heads
Tuesday, February 19, 2013, 4:16 AM
Over the weekend, I was quoted in a New York Times magazine feature on the future of the GOP, for a project I’m spearheading to revamp party messaging. I, along with my colleagues in the project, discussed the ways in which we need to take the party back from the old guard, which has failed to adapt to a changing political and technological landscape, allowed undisciplined candidates to define our message and maligned the very groups of voters we’re hoping to attract.
In the piece, we talked about an injurious primary system that pushes candidates to lunge to the far right, and, conversely, the misguided efforts by establishment types to purge tea party conservatives from the movement. From candidate training to policy polishing, adopting new technologies to embracing new demographic realities, we acknowledged the hard work ahead for the GOP. It is important work, nonetheless.
There wasn’t anything earth-shattering in what I said, though you wouldn't know it from looking at my Twitter timeline, which exploded in apoplexy when news of one quote in particular spread across conservative media. I’d very much like to explain the quote, and respond to my critics who, I think, prove an interesting point.
“And we can’t be afraid to call out Rush Limbaugh,” I say as an aside in the piece. “If we can get three Republicans on three different networks saying, ‘What Rush Limbaugh said is crazy and stupid and dangerous,’ maybe that’ll give other Republicans cover” to feel comfortable disagreeing with him as well from time to time.
Rush’s fans, who call themselves “Ditto-heads,” did not appreciate this. “He’s done more for conservatism than you ever will,” one angrily tweeted. “You are a troll hack who has to kiss arse at MSNBC” tweeted another, referring to my show on the left-leaning network. “She will now enjoy her invites to the left wing Manhattan cocktail parties,” one wrote; another insisted that I “Name one thing that Rush has said that is crazy,” as if that would be an impossible task.
Some demanded I apologize. Others implied I just committed career suicide. Others still politely suggested I commit actual suicide.
I’ll end the suspense for some: There will be no apology. I make a living disagreeing with people who are far more successful, famous, wealthy and important than I am. I have spent thousands of hours on television and thousands of column inches criticizing the President of the United States. If you think I’m going to apologize for suggesting that it might be okay to disagree with a radio host sometimes, you don’t know me at all.
But I guess I’m not surprised at the rancor. For one, part of the point I was trying to make was that the impulse to defend anything and everything that a party heavyweight says — to the death — has the deleterious effect of making conservatives seem irrational and herd-like. No one is right all the time, and no one is above reproach. Limbaugh, who has frequently criticized Republicans, knows this better than anyone.
As for the gentleman on Twitter who dared me to cite an example, I’m happy to. If calling Sandra Fluke a “slut” last year for her position on contraception wasn’t the epitome of “crazy and stupid and dangerous,” allow me to explain the obvious.
It was crazy because it invented an irrational connection between her private sex life and her political position. It was stupid because calling someone a name is intellectually lazy. Make an actual argument. And it was dangerous because it trafficked in the same kind of misogyny that liberals use when they blast conservative women for being sluts, prudes or sexually repressed. And that fell right into the well-crafted but dishonest “war on women” narrative that liberals had set up to (successfully) get President Obama re-elected.
Rush is free to say whatever he wants, but how was that productive? And why did anyone defend it?
The other point that the reaction to my Rush comments proves is that conservatives continue to view criticism (even the constructive kind) through a lens of ideological suspicion. Even though I defended conservative principles as right, strong and popular, and explicitly said this isn’t about casting strident conservatives out of the party but reworking our messaging, Rush’s fans still decided that my conservatism was discredited. Disagreeing with him, or merely offering that we should feel comfortable disagreeing with party leaders now and then, suddenly made me an untrustworthy, sell-out liberal.
I care deeply about the conservative movement, which is why I regularly put myself in a position to defend it in hostile territory, on liberal media outlets where I am usually outnumbered. It’s why I am my party’s biggest cheerleader when our leaders do the right thing. And it’s why I travel the country telling as many people as possible why conservative policies are better for them than liberal ones.
But it’s also why I risk friends and fans by calling out Republican elected officials, operatives like Karl Rove, the Republican National Committee, and conservative pundits when necessary. It’s no profile in courage, but merely common sense. We’ll never win credibility with new voters if we insist everything that every conservative says or does should be defended and justified.
It’s not my desire to silence anyone, but amplify other voices, many of whom don’t feel like they have permission to disagree with party heavyweights. We don’t need permission, and in fact conservatism has a hallowed tradition of healthy skepticism toward authority. It’s that skepticism toward authority that has made Rush Limbaugh a very successful man.