Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s Politics Chat. The transcript below has been edited slightly.
Sarah (Sarah Frostenson, Politics Editor): After Rush Limbaugh dominated the air waves for more than 30 years died on Wednesday. (His wife, Kathryn Limbaugh, made the announcement above on his radio show.) Limbaugh is a major political figure, like him spawned the conservative radio talk show formatincluding everyone his anger and bigotry, and in The process originated as a very influential force within the Republican Party.
So let’s talk about Limbaugh’s legacy, to what extent he was a de facto leader of the GOP, and who in conservative politics will now take over his cloak.
Let’s start with Limbaugh’s role within the party. He was not an elected official, but his hugely popular radio show captured a core element of the Republican Party base. What did that mean? And how has that helped Limbaugh to wield power in the Party’s apparatus?
julia_azari (Julia Azari, Professor of Political Science at Marquette University and a contributor to FiveThirtyEight): What is particularly interesting is that Limbaugh himself, although new figures came into the right-wing media scene, did not seem subject to what I will call “the” establishment Effect ”that happens to many Republicans in government. People like former Ohio governor and 2016 Republican presidential candidate John Kasich, or former House Speaker John Boehner – they were very conservative, but because they had access to power or were part of the “establishment,” their conservatives faded Credentials.
Maybe it’s the difference between part of the media and part of government – or some particular quirk that only Limbaugh has to offer – but that doesn’t seem to have happened to him.
Perry (Perry Bacon Jr., Senior Writer): It’s always difficult to prove how a media figure affects a party. A media person does not control the legislative agenda, has no votes on the hill. However, I remember 2007 when George W. Bush tried to get a bill to do so Granting citizenship to some undocumented immigrants, The opposition on the right was strong and intense. even against a Republican President. And part of it was because of Limbaugh and the rest of the conservative talk show wing the party.
In many ways, Limbaugh and others on the party’s talk show wing have played two key roles in GOP politics. First, they have expanded the views of the party’s grassroots views, which are sometimes not represented by more established figures, and second, they have often expanded those views so that more in the party represent them. Indeed, you now have a situation where branches like Fox News, including their high profile hosts like Tucker Carlson, are struggling in some ways explicitly picked up Limbaugh’s coat of both represent the base and slide further to the right.
Sarah: That’s an interesting point Julia, and it makes me think of something that Nick Robins-Early and Christopher Mathias are from HuffPost wrote in her obituary for Limbaugh regarding his conservative references:
“When a Republican politician promoting racist and sexist politics could only use a dog whistle, Limbaugh provided a bullhorn – for example, he was an early forerunner of the racist conspiracy theory about Obama that Trump would later use to drive his political career to advance. ”
Limbaugh, as you said, was unique in that he was able to maintain access to conservative “establishment” figures without having to censor himself to get his points. Indeed, he may have operated in a way that gave others more established Republicans cover these views within the party.
julia_azari: One thing that struck me while reading about Limbaugh is how much he has contributed to the contemporary GOP by creating this political style. But I’m not entirely sure if I’ll buy the Kingmaker label. The Tea Party seems to have emerged from related but different forces. Perhaps a kingmaker in the media was needed for a candidate like Trump because Trump initially had no other elite constituencies. But Mitt Romney? George W. Bush?
Perry: I think it’s hard to prove Limbaugh created Trump. But I think it’s pretty easy to see Limbaugh as Trump before Trump – a white man who wasn’t particularly of the working class or religion and still connected with these parts of the GOP base by being racist, sexist and said bigoted things that drove liberals crazy.
Limbaugh did not care what America’s cultural elites thought, and it showed us that a party in which Limbaugh was a popular, respected, and even revered figure was a party that could elect a Limbaugh-like figure to be its candidate.
Sarah: To the point where Perry speaks of the sheer breadth of Limbaugh’s appeal, these statistic from Washington Post obituary I noticed:
“Although its Democratic critics ridiculed the Limbaugh audience as illiterate and easy to lead, a study of the Pew Research Center found that dittoheads [Limbaugh’s biggest fans] were on average better informed than NPR listeners and were more likely to have a college degree than public radio or C-SPAN audiences. “
It recalls a point that Thomas Edsall of the New York Times made in one of his columns about Trump’s support – that is, it is much richer and better off than we (as in the media) often acknowledge. We saw that with the people who stormed the Capitol on January 6th, also.
meredithconroy (Meredith Conroy, Professor of Political Science at California State University in San Bernardino and contributor to FiveThirtyEight): Another element is that Conservatives, and increasingly the Republican Party, write large, suspicious institutions, especially the media. According to a Tomorrow consult the January poll77 percent of Republicans distrust the media and a pew poll showed that Limbaugh was the third most popular media source among Conservative Republicans. This is important to understand as it explains why conservative talk radio is a thing and liberal talk radio is not.
Perry: I’m not sure we can easily isolate Limbaugh’s influence from the broader conservative talk-radio / Fox News space. But this bloc had and certainly has a lot of power: power to prevent the GOP from moving left on immigration In both 2007 and 2013 the power to bolster Trump in 2015-16 and the power to keep the party base from ever breaking with Trump, even after the Capitol uprising. I don’t think we’re where we are now, with a Republican Party so tied to anti-multiculturalism and white identity politics, without Limbaugh and his husband. Trump didn’t start this party alone.
julia_azari: In relation to my thoughts on the kingmaker question, everyone will write about how politics would have been different if Limbaugh hadn’t been such an influential figure. But I wonder how we would see his legacy differently if, for example, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz had been elected president in 2016.
Sarah: That’s fair Julia, but think about the role Limbaugh played during the Clinton and Obama years. He repeatedly demonized liberals and pushed GOP politicians further to the right on issues such as immigration, government spending and climate change. But, as I think you understand, this is still just one group of the GOP that we are talking about. If Rubio or Cruz had won in 2016, we would likely see Limbaugh’s legacy very differently at this point.
meredithconroy: And historically, Limbaugh’s schtick was less about mobilizing his audience for someone in the GOP than against democratic issues and principles: health care, immigration, reproductive rights. But that changed with Trump. No question about it, Limbaugh was the embodiment of negative partisanshipI think that’s what I’m saying – he knew it made more sense to get people to hate the group they weren’t part of than to love the group they were with.
Perry: Trump gave Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom on his way out of the White House, and on one of his first post-presidency appearances, called on Fox News to praise Limbaugh – this shows that Trump sees Limbaugh as an ideological soulmate.
Also, keep in mind that this was less than 24 hours after Trump destroyed Mitch McConnell, who was actually pushing his agenda through Congress.
julia_azari: It also points to the symbiosis between media representatives and real foreign policy candidates!
meredithconroy: Ding Ding ding. So I think you wouldn’t have Trump without Limbaugh or this media ecosystem. But you can still have a (2016) Cruz or a Rubio where media characters like Limbaugh exist.
Perry: As I read these attitudes and profiles on Limbaugh, I think, Meredith, how important the phrase “conservative media ecosystem” is. Limbaugh was perhaps the greatest figure in this system. Maybe not that relevant now, but this ecosystem has been so important from the 1980s to the present day. It didn’t always select the party’s candidate, but it mattered within the GOP. And it is this ecosystem that more generally pushed Republicans in an apolitical, identity-obsessed direction of their own libraries.
Who was more of a conservative than Limbaugh?
meredithconroy: Yes, Limbaugh paved the wave for so many others like him, but I would agree that he was one of the first to actually “own the libraries” effectively. Conservative media personalities Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter had their own versions of it, but none was as influential as Limbaugh.
julia_azari: Limbaugh definitely ran his own kind of “Culture war. “Take him and Trump. It wasn’t a traditional culture war theme like abortion or gay rights that fueled Trump’s rise. Instead, it was about immigration. And Limbaugh stuck to it, even saying that undocumented immigrants from Mexico “were an invasive species. ”
The meaning of this isn’t that Republican politicians flocked to that position, but many of them didn’t. A significant number of elected Republicans held a more moderate position, which in turn prevented the party from converging on a Trump alternative in the 2016 primary. It also created a wedge between fellow Republicans and Trump’s grassroots.
Perry: Right, part of the reason Rubio in particular failed to win in 2016 was accurate because he moved to the left in 2013 because of immigration and people on the right later attacked him for it. That’s all to say that someone like Limbaugh goes a long way in explaining why a more traditional Republican didn’t win in 2016.
Sarah: Historian Nicole Hemmer addressed a question I would like to end with in a tweet:
Let’s dive into this equivalent branch point that Hemmer is doing here. Is that Limbaugh’s legacy?
That is, the more extreme voices in the party – often officially outside the party but at home in media outlets like Fox News, Newsmax, and One America News Network – are going nowhere. In fact, for the time being they seem to be another equal branch within the GOP apparatus, driving policy, and party direction, and that has to do with Limbaugh, right?
Perry: “Rush Limbaugh … raised the conservative media to an equal branch of party politics and developed a style of rhetoric, argument and entertainment that would define conservative politics.”
I don’t entirely agree, if only because my list of top Republicans for the past few decades may include McConnell and Chief Justice John Roberts. I still think actual power is more important than media power.
julia_azari: I don’t know, Perry. I think many party politicians agree that the conservative media apparatus is a powerful force within the party. And traditionally, elected politicians have an interest in getting divisive, difficult issues (immigration, civil rights) off the agenda as much as possible, while media like Limbaugh have the opposite incentives.
Perry: In a way, are Fox / Limbaugh the civil rights groups on the left when it comes to forcing the party to deal with the toughest issues?
julia_azari: I think the limit of this analogy, Perry, is that civil rights groups want concrete action and the media has an interest in keeping the problems alive, not solving them.
meredithconroy: That’s an interesting parallel, Perry. One difference, however, is that civil rights groups have political requirements … and I would argue that the media ecosystem doesn’t, as Julia says. No doubt they use guidelines to share, but I’m not sure they have guidelines requirements. I might be wrong, but “news media” with political claims is a strange marriage.
Julia wrote about it in detail the dangers of weak parties and strong partisanshipWhat is interesting about the GOP, however, is that conservative media outlets (which now include YouTubers like Ben Shapiro, Dave Rubin, etc.) are on par with party leaders like McConnell and Kevin McCarthy in terms of the influence they wield.
Sarah: It’s hard to believe we haven’t mentioned Shapiro at this point, as he seems a natural successor to take over Limbaugh’s coat. Let me open this question to the group: who do you think will fill that role on the right in Limbaugh’s absence?
Perry: I don’t think Shapiro is the next Limbaugh. I feel like he has a younger audience, or at least younger than the GOP core base, and he also aims for a shakier audience than Limbaugh. I think Limbaugh’s more natural successor is Carlson or even Sean Hannity.
julia_azari: I also thought of Shapiro, Perry, when he reached a very specific part of the base. But he makes a point Attack transgender rightstaking a page from the larger Kulturkriegs Spielbuch. I would argue that the difference is that this is not a problem that is currently breaking the GOP in the way that some other problems do.
It’s also worth thinking about in the larger context of a shrinking GOP and, in a sense, a dwindling cultural war (the assault on gay rights isn’t the rich political streak it once was). The country is also facing some fairly urgent material crises that may not make these issues so noticeable.
Perry: Maybe Limbaugh’s real heir was Trump? I’ve lost track of what Limbaugh has been saying for the past few years, and I wonder if that’s because Limbaugh tweeted his thoughts at the White House. As soon as Trump is really back on social media, I think he will set the agenda for the Conservative “own the libs” bloc.
meredithconroy: That’s a good point, Perry. I would argue whoever heads the “culture void” fee will be the one to take the cloak.