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Commentary: Rush Limbaugh's Complicated Legacy

Rush Limbaugh died on February 17.  He leaves a complicated legacy. 

He was the Kansas City Royals’ most famous former group sales director.  He was Southeast Missouri State University’s most famous dropout.  Interestingly, and maybe not coincidentally, America’s other household-name conservative media personality, Sean Hannity, is also a college dropout. 

Understanding Limbaugh’s impact requires a sense for what preceded him.  The Federal Communication Commission’s Fairness Doctrine, introduced in 1949, mandated that commercial broadcast outlets give a platform for all sides of a political controversy.  Of course this made sure that there was little actual controversy on the air.  To be sure there were still some kooks ranting their bizarro theories and conspiracies.  Thank goodness those days are past, right?  But I digress. 

When the regulation was abolished in the late 1980’s (President Reagan vetoed a bill that would have made the regulation into law), commercial radio was wide open for “market segmentation.”  Limbaugh stepped up, artfully speaking to a particular subset of the American population, fueling their beliefs, and ignoring those whose viewpoints didn’t align.

Since Limbaugh, politics in the media has never been the same.  Now ninety percent of political talk radio is conservative.  It’s not that liberals were censored; it’s just that their programming – remember “Air America?” – was lame and never found an audience.  Liberals are content to listen to legacy media and NPR.

His radio show, at one point, was number two in audience size, second only to NPR’s All Things Considered.  I would listen to him some.  It was part of my quest to understand the conservative movement that was shifting seismically under my feet.  Limbaugh called himself an entertainer and he was that.  As with President Trump, it was about The Show. 

I’d be driving and listening, fascinated by his edgy, often offensive diatribes.  Many times I’d say out loud: “Rush, you know that’s baloney,” except I may have used a word other than “baloney.”  Granted, I’d do the same when listening to Democracy Now in an attempt to understand the progressive movement.

As time went on much of Limbaugh’s audience was convinced that this wasn’t just entertainment – it was The Truth.  His attacks on political correctness ultimately had the effect of legitimizing, or at least normalizing, crassness and cruelty.  In effect he was saying “polite society” is not just unnecessary, not just hypocritical, it’s a sign of weakness.  By the end, his content was unprincipled and shallow, reduced to “owning the libs.”  And by the end his content was often tame compared to that of his heirs.

Limbaugh’s career most strongly influenced, and was bookended by, the ascension of the two major modern figures in Republican politics: Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump.  Gingrich made the GOP hyper-partisan in the 1990s and Limbaugh popularized both the party and its tactics.  Fast forward more than twenty years to Trump’s capture and makeover of the GOP into a vehicle for aggressive white nationalism.  Limbaugh popularized that too.

May Rush Limbaugh rest in peace.  If he does, he’ll be better off than the country he leaves behind -- a country his media legacy leaves uncivil and bitterly divided.

Dr. Terry Smith is a Political Science Professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.