If some of America’s most well-known conservative talk show hosts are not on the payroll of the Democratic National Committee, I believe they should be. Why would I aver such? As bizarre as it may sound, I believe they may be partially responsible for the election of our current president.
One would have to be incredibly naÃ¯ve for the last two decades to be unaware of the explosion of conservative “talking heads” in America. Beyond the half-dozen or so most well-known, there is a myriad of them who are less known and are less syndicated. They appear on weekends, on less desirable time slots or substitute for a prime timer who is sick, on vacation or headlining a conservative gathering. In either case, their lines are consistent and predictable. Republicans are always or almost always right. Democrats are always wrong.
For example, when the Maersk Alabama piracy-and-rescue incident took place in April, I wondered how the talking heads would spin it to further discredit the president. What I heard was a combination of “He didn’t do it right,” “He didn’t do it soon enough,” “He didn’t do it firmly enough” and “He didn’t have anything to do with it.”
More recently, as Judge Sonia Sotomayor prepares to be considered for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, the criticisms I have heard have been loud, virulent, relentless and devoid of a hint of respect. To be sure, some of her comments and rulings are cause for concern to all conservatives and to many centrists.
However, unable to find consistent, solid evidence of an “activist liberal agenda” in her history of decisions, one host said it was appropriate to theorize that she has avoided controversial decisions in order not to do potential damage to her future judicial aspirations. In short, he said bad decisions on her part were fodder for criticism while any seemingly “correct” or neutral decisions on her part were attributable to a hidden agenda. According to the rhetoric, anyone who is not ultra-conservative in every way is always wrong, either in action or in motive.
What, one might ask, does any of this have to do with their helping to elect our president? Consider this. It is standard political wisdom for each major party to rely on certain constituencies for their support in most any election. These constituents may have to be motivated to cast their votes, but not with regard to how to vote. Campaigns are, then, primarily aimed at the growing millions of Americans who are undecided with regard to whether to vote or how to vote.
I admit to vacillating around America’s political center. I regularly cross party lines in the voting booth. Additionally, I expect a measure of civility, mutual respect and honest attempts at bridge-building in political discourse. Right or wrong, I am as quick or quicker to dismiss an angry, arrogant ideologue for their manner and spirit as I am for their positions.
I don’t think it is an accident that my home state of Virginia will almost always elect the less virulent candidate to public office. On the one hand, I think the pattern speaks volumes about a state’s expectations that its leaders must avoid unnecessarily divisive rhetoric. On the other hand, I think it is a shame that a good message may be hidden by a bad manner or that a marginal message may be hidden behind a more civil tone.
The last statistic I heard on the American political milieu is that about 40 percent of Americans consider themselves conservatives, 25 percent consider themselves liberals, and the balance are uncommitted or independents. How can that mix have elected an arguably liberal president?
While there are many reasons for the political crossover between 2004 and 2008, I have to wonder how many people in the broad center of America voted for the president so as not to be associated with those whose political method often seems to be a steady stream of strident, disrespectful, divisive rhetoric, either by the candidates or by those who presume to speak for them.
I have to wonder how many Americans opted for Obama because they could not bring themselves to vote for a candidate whose party seems to be in the pocket of, under the spell of or intimidated by the influence of talking media giants.
I don’t credit these media magnates with sole responsibility for their stature and influence. They couldn’t sell their wares in a free society unless there were plenty of buyers. Besides that, our society’s mountain of problems calls for some “voices to cry out in the wilderness.”
However, if there is any truth to the adage that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, I think it applies here. To push the fire analogy, I think political discourse should contain at least as much light as heat.
As a political moderate with pronounced conservative leanings, I hope to see a growing number of Republican leaders who have the inner and combined strength to dismiss the directives and venom of talk-show heads. I would like to feel good about voting for persons and platforms rather than having to consider whether I want to risk supporting the influence, tactics, arrogance or presumption of the political party’s unelected leaders.
Reggie Warren is a Baptist pastor and a board director for the Baptist Center for Ethics.