A Response to Jackie Calmes on Conservative Media

The New York Times' Jackie Calmes recently published a paper for the Shorenstein Center entitled, '“THEY DON’T GIVE A DAMN ABOUT GOVERNING” CONSERVATIVE MEDIA’S INFLUENCE ON THE REPUBLICAN PARTY."'

Many of Calmes's points echo things that I've written, both in my recent doctoral dissertation, but also in the pieces that I've published for Politico and Time

While Calmes and I agree on many of the core contentions in her article (albeit often employing different terminology—for example, she talks about conservative media's ability to set the agenda within the Republican Party, whereas I talk about party leadership), there are a few points where my research either amplifies or challenges Calmes's claims. 

For starters, we disagree on the periodization at play. Calmes indicates that the power of conservative media over the Republican agenda (or conservative media's influence over the Republican party) grew substantially thanks to technology (and proliferation of outlets) after 2008. My research, however, demonstrates the ample power of conservative media dating back to the 1990s. 

Conservative talk radio hosts were major party leaders by the middle of the 1990s—exerting precisely the same type of influence (i.e. limiting the ability of elected party leaders to maneuver and govern, albeit not to quite the same degree) and also performing many traditional party leadership functions. My research discusses the way in which Republican politicians and their staffs cultivated conservative talk radio hosts and helped to create the potent political force that many establishment Republicans lament today. 

Calmes accurately explains that conservative media personalities have grown increasingly hostile towards party leaders over the last 20 years, but they expressed plenty of displeasure even in the late 1990s and often threw monkey wrenches into the legislative process. 

Hosts had such great influence that small groups of them had private meetings in the Oval Office with President George W. Bush during the last few years of his presidency (2006-2008). In so much as conservative media's influence has grown, it may owe simply to changeover in the Republican caucus, which now contains many more firebrands who are apt to prioritize the opinion of conservative media over the preferences of the elected leadership. 

Calmes doesn't discuss moderate Republicans at all, but my research details how talk radio hosts also became increasingly hostile towards moderate Republicans after the mid-2000s. This hostility has contributed to the near extinction of elected moderates, which in turn, makes it harder for the party to remain rooted in the center-right. 

On a smaller point, Calmes mischaracterizes Rush Limbaugh's earliest days nationally, describing his product as "caustic conservatism." Limbaugh's show during his first 4-5 years in national syndication is best described, however, as zany, off the wall, and fun— full of parodies, updates complete with their own theme songs, nicknames, etc. No doubt much of Limbaugh's message was conservative, and some of his bits were in poor taste (he apologized for AIDS updates and gave up caller abortions after a short period).

Nonetheless, Limbaugh epitomized lighthearted radio entertainment in those days, and only later shifted more towards tonally harsher political punditry. In many ways his content flipped—in the early days, politics (and his conservatism) provided a vehicle to entertain. Beginning in the mid-1990s, entertainment began to be a vehicle for expressing a message.

It's important to emphasize this point because Calmes does not state directly enough that the conservative media does not care about Republicans' ability to govern because most hosts view themselves first and foremost as entertainers. She accurately notes that conservative talk radio is a business—a point that many others miss—but much of what she describes about conservative media's content stems from conservative hosts prioritizing entertaining their listeners/viewers.

This is a significant difference between the first wave of conservative media that Calmes mentions, and hosts from the era that began when Limbaugh debuted nationally. This distinction explains why, as Calmes' notes, today's hosts conduct profitable programs, whereas sermonizers like Clarence Manion and Dan Smoot relied on the largesse of conservative benefactors.  

The hyperbolic, outrageous nature of talk radio content results from this focus on entertainment. Talk radio often represents a morality play of good and evil, not just in response to the extreme views of talk radio listeners. Rather, this oversimplified real life soap opera is a function of nuance being boring and complicated.

The best talk radio is simple, entertaining, emotional, pushes boundaries, and leaves the listener wondering what a host might say or do next. If a listener knows precisely what to expect, he or she has less incentive not to miss a minute. Compromise, moderation, and nuance simply make for poor radio and cable television. 

This is evident from talk radio's aversion to the necessities of governing, which displayed itself from the minute Republicans assumed control of Congress in 1995. Calmes briefly juxtaposes Limbaugh being an honorary member of the House freshman class after Republicans captured control of Congress in 1994, and the support that conservative media lent to a coup to overthrow House Speaker John Boehner after Republicans again assumed unified control of Congress in early 2015. 

Calmes does not attribute this change to one cause—though she focuses mostly on the increased pressure caused by the proliferation of conservative outlets and the need to maintain and attract audiences. Undoubtedly, hosts' hostility towards establishment Republicans grew over time, but this juxtaposition incorrectly suggests that hosts accepted the compromises required by governance before the Obama years.

They did not. They pressed for the most extreme form of legislation any time that Republicans controlled the White House, the House, or the Senate, and they often lambasted Republican sponsored legislation for being insufficiently conservative. 

Before the 1994 midterm elections (when conservative talkers had perhaps their most substantial impact on general election contests), conservative hosts and Congressional Republicans largely shared the same political goals—defeat President Clinton's initiatives and trigger a Republican takeover of Congress. 

As several Republican Congressional leaders from the mid-1990s explained to me, however, once that achievement occurred, this unity of purpose fractured. Republicans tried to govern, and hosts focused on their 3 primary goals: producing the most entertaining product possible, remaining authentic and true to their principles, and maintaining the bond with their audience. Hosts were no happier with compromise in the mid-1990s and, indeed, railed against it. 

Similar to today, hosts in that period experienced a mixed track record of success when trying to shape the party's actions and policy outcomes. On smaller issues that received less attention, they had the ability to move and shape public policy. On larger issues that received lots of attention from an array of media outlets, they could often serve as a negative—preventing legislation from making it into the statute books—but their ability to positively enact their agenda was fairly small. 

I've documented talk radio's impact on legislation (and congressional procedure) dating back to 1994 and continuing straight through to the present day. Similarly, congressional Republicans, Republican campaigns, and the Bush White House had dedicated outreach operations to talk radio beginning as soon as Republicans assumed control of Congress in 1995.

The rise of the blogosphere lessened the importance of talk radio, but the outreach to conservative media persists today (as Calmes' discusses with regard to Republican presidential candidates courting Iowa host Steve Deace). 

This raises a final point: Calmes writes, "Conservative media indeed draws much of its power, Republicans say, from incumbents’ fear of a primary challenge." This point requires greater emphasis. Talk radio's electoral power is inverse to the size of the electorate/turnout. In other words, it is least potent in presidential general elections and most potent in House primaries (and other down ballot races). 

In a House primary (or a Senate primary) the electorate is small, and tends to consist of the sorts of dedicated voters who consume conservative media. Voters also can't fall back on party labels to guide them in voting. As my research details, talkers also can undermine the major benefits of incumbency by raising an insurgent's profile and improving his or her fundraising. 

The power that talk radio exerts in the Republican Party derives from this ability to influence primary elections. Opposition from conservative media poses a far greater threat to a rank and file member of Congress than does a piqued Speaker of the House or Senate Majority Leader. Unless and until the establishment demonstrates an ability to oust disloyal members in primaries, this will remain true (absent some form of electoral reform that lessens the impact of primaries). As primaries have grown in importance due to redistricting and one party states that render general elections non-competitive, the power of conservative media has also increased. 

Overall, Calmes makes many good points and her paper is worth reading. Far too little attention has been paid to the impact that conservative media has had in shaping the Republican Party and public policy since the modern era of conservative media began in 1988.