Gutless, Fundless Liberals


All I know about rightwing Rep. Eric Cantor’s “shock horror” primary derailment by the blissfully named David Brat in Virginia, that cesspool of bad Tidewater politics, is what Rachel Maddow and CNN tell me.  Plus a long history of taking time to listen to “conservative” talk radio that I’ve never been able to persuade my liberal friends to tune into, not even as an experiment.   Talk about closed minds.

Cantor, a Wall Streeter to his fingertips, spent $5 million versus Brat’s mere $200,000 (not all of it used) and lost to a cleverly manufactured populist swell against government “programs that benefit the rich and powerful”.   Brat, an Ayn Rand Calvinist Catholic libertarian – say that again – justly accused Cantor of “crony capitalism”, citing Cantor’s weakening of a bill to prevent members of Congress and their families from insider trading.

Brat was a total unknown until the Terrible Trio of berserk radio hosts Glen Beck, Mark Levin but especially the wild woman of the microphone, Laura Ingraham, took up his cause, organized fundraisers and drummed Brat! Brat! Brat! into their AM listeners’ ears.  Among Cantor’s sins was his mildly decent concession to Obama on immigration.  Ingraham & Co. can congratulate themselves for causing even more misery to Honduran, Nicaraguan, Salvadorean and Guatamlan children currently pouring across our porous border.  Congrats, guys.

Cantor like my liberal friends believed AM driveby talk radio was beneath him.   Five minutes of listening to El Rushbo or Ingraham might have opened his mind to the looming threat from his right.  So Cantor is in good company with almost all my friends who despise talk radio so much they howl at me for listening.

Since the FCC’s abolition of the “Fairness Doctrine” in 1987,  and the 1996 Communcation Act practically mandated radio network “consolidation” (a monopoly like Clear Channel is home to many of the professionally outraged),  half-crazed radio has become the dominant form, opening the floodgates to Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Mark Levin etc.

As of this year Rushbo and Hannity are the most listened-to radio programs in any format with ten of millions of listeners.   (Repeat that last sentence.)  So-called “progressive radio” including the increasingly timid NPR doesn’t even come close.  An attempt a few years ago to create a liberal counter-radio in Air America failed dismally.  Whether with Randi Rhodes, Stephanie Miller or Thom Hartman, we simply don’t know how to do it well, certainly since Al Franken deserted radio for the Senate.

Why are liberals so voiceless?

It shouldn’t be that hard.   Arbitron polls say that the majority of talk radio listeners are 54-plus age males, a dying Tea Party-invigorated constituency that kicks and screams – and votes – on their way out.  Yet we consistently drop the ball when it comes to “progressive” radio.  Properly done there’s a big potential audience in the tech-savvy Occupy generation who know how to nimbly access online, podcast, ITunes and satellite radio, where the lone maverick Bill Maher has his spiel.  But most young probably think talk radio is a boring lost cause.

Mainstream AM (now increasingly FM) driveby  shows are almost a fourth arm of government now.  Its hosts, funded by moneybags like Americans For Prosperity and the Koch boys’ Freedom Works, wield enormous influence on a demographic whose guts churn at the very mention of Obama’s name.   For them we on the left are the moochers and takers, they are the financially or existentially impoverished givers.  These listeners hurt, they’re raging.   What they listen for is a voice that communicates: Yes We Know How You Feel And This Is Why.

Trouble is, our liberal pitch gets constipated by political correctness and a sort of ideological uniformity.  We appeal to the rational head and bleeding heart but rarely the angry gut.  We weep for Darfur and have “concern” (one of Obama’s favorite non-words) for dislocated immigrant children but, on radio, rarely vocalize that same kind of empathy for street-level realities as experienced by most of us.  Emphasizing gay rights, pro-choice, transgenderism, whatever, we lose touch with vast audiences who don’t share our cultural reflexes.  For example, I can’t recall ever hearing a radio host speak, in plain language, to conservative religious preoccupations.  P.c. sometimes blinds us to what’s actually happening to real people in real situations

Yes I know about Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez’s “Democracy Now” and the virtually unlistenable to, in-constant-turmoil Pacifica stations.  Liberals with microphones have a tendency toward misery porn.  Only, in the grand tradition of late lamented Studs Terkel,  Jon Wiener’s KPFK Wednesday 3-5 pm music-comment-and-interview show makes my cut, and is close to what a liberal voice should sound like: Bob Dylan songs, rap-and-rock-n-roll, solid reporting and hard factual history.

Maybe I’m missing something here, and none of us has time for driveby radio.   If so, that’s sheer fatal political snobbery.

Does it come down to economics?   A friend of mine theorizes that gut-punching, emotionally true liberal radio hardly exists because a critical sector of our own demographic – that’s us, presumably – are financially comfortable and simply have lost the moxie that once was synonymous with a fighting liberalism.

Are we too dumb or too rich to have a radio voice?

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives. Sigal and Doris Lessing lived together in London for several years.

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