He discovered that many people didn’t want their politics served nicely on a china platter, with a smattering of ideological courses served for edified sampling. They wanted the political equivalent of backyard barbecue, served smoking hot straight from the grill with the chef’s heavy sauces. Moderating qualifiers such as “perhaps,” “on the other hand,” or “it’s just too soon to say” were not regular vocabulary in his airtime. For hours every day, Limbaugh’s self-described “dittoheads” — the listeners who would call in just to say “Ditto!” — knew exactly what he thought on every issue known to mankind.
It’s impossible to understate the influence that discovery wrought. Cable news shifted from the understated presentation of facts and left-right discussion shows to the host-centric, opinion journalism that prevails today. The early Internet bloggers were essentially digital Limbaughs, opining without reserve through writing rather than the spoken word. Even mainstream journalism adapted to Limbaugh’s ways, as “news analyses” and the liberal use of adjectives became more acceptable. Just as Babe Ruth’s discovery that an uppercut swing could launch massive home runs created modern baseball, so, too, did Limbaugh’s discovery that people wanted opinion to color the presentation of facts create the modern political news industry.
The fact that Limbaugh’s opinions were uniformly conservative was also revolutionary. Conservative opinion writers were well-established by the 1970s and 1980s, but virtually no television or radio personality could be said to be firmly on the right. Television’s most famous personalities were the anchors of the then-dominant nightly news programs whose authority always came from a serious, cautious demeanor rather than colorful opinions. It’s not that they didn’t have opinions; they did, and they were invariably centrist or center-left. It’s that they did not openly express them, preferring to let the subtleties of their language or editing tell the tale. Limbaugh, however, rarely wasted time with subtlety. In fact, he often stepped over the line.
Nevertheless, Limbaugh’s unabashed conservatism made him the first conservative mass media hero. His radio show went national in mid-1988. By 1990, he was syndicated in hundreds of markets. By 1992, he had authored a best-selling book and was the host of a daily television show. By 1994, the shocking Republican takeover of the U.S. House — the first time the GOP had won control of that chamber since 1952 — made him a political superstar. The Republican freshman class thought him so important to their victory that they made him an honorary member.
His influence changed conservatism, too. Along with his pugnacious Republican comrade in arms, the Georgia congressman and later House speaker, Newt Gingrich, Limbaugh’s no-holds-barred assault on liberal verities fueled conservatism’s confrontational and often angry modern tone. Tens of millions of ordinary Americans loved their country just the way it was, and Limbaugh told them they were right to think that and right to be angry at the people who wanted it to change. Limbaugh was not merely reactionary, but he did prioritize conservatism’s innate opposition to change over Ronald Reagan’s focus on building a conservative “shining city on a hill.” Limbaugh may have honored the 40th president, labeling him “Ronaldus Magnus” (Latin for “Ronald the Great”), but under his tutelage, conservatism became more defined by what it was against than what it was for.
That has become both a strength and a weakness. People united in fear can be resolute and strong. America’s greatest presidents all mobilized their supporters this way, from Lincoln telling Northerners that the country could become a slave nation if slavery’s expansion were not halted to Franklin Roosevelt’s likening his opponents to despotic barons and “economic royalists.” These great figures, however, also offered a positive vision of the country under their leadership. Too often, modern conservatism omits the positive in favor of grinding the negative ax. That limits its appeal to millions who could swell our ranks.
Thirty-five years ago, Republicans in California’s state Senate reportedly tried to recruit the then-local radio personality to run for a competitive Sacramento-area seat. Limbaugh’s decision to decline that request allowed him to influence countless more legislators than he could ever have done in office. RIP, Rush. Your legacy lives on.