Satire on the Left, Talk Radio on the Right

One question that came up at one of the panels today at the Midwest Political Science Association conference here in Chicago is why is it that the left does satire so well (Stewart, Colbert, etc.) while the right does not.   Or as one person put it, why is Dennis Miller so lonely?  Conversely, why does the right do talk radio so well, while the left does not?

Each of these are forms of political entertainment.   Satire, to be sure, is by its nature not only anti-establishment, but disruptive of conventional perspectives.   It looks for hypocrisy, contradictions, and absurdities not just from individuals, but within the very fabric of society.   That would suggest a progressive bent — by its nature it’s pushing the boundaries, questioning authority, and making fun of what society holds to be proper and true.    There is an irreverence there which requires a bit of rebelliousness, something contrary to core values of conservatism, which aims to protect societal norms.

Talk radio, on the other hand, has a more evangelical flair.   When Glenn Beck says that God is giving him a plan and tells people that the country as we know it is being transformed into  something contrary to American values, there’s an urgency there.   This isn’t just politics, this is akin to a crusade, an ideological jihad.  You don’t get ironic and funny if you think the country’s core values are under assault, you become committed.   Comedy seems frivolous.

To be sure, talk radio can be funny.   Beck has his jokes, and Limbaugh often engages in satire, exhibiting a type of bravado (“talent on loan from God”) which has its own wit and humor.   Whereas Beck seems certain he’s fighting the fight from God, Limbaugh seems to understand he’s doing a shtick, and despite his claims, doesn’t take himself so seriously.    But it’s still cutting political monologue, vicious attacks against Liberals, and assertions of ideological certitude.   Hannity, Beck, Limbaugh and the others belittle the left in an often insulting and misleading fashion.

On its face, satire may seem far superior to three hours of radio bombast, but there might be a core similarity at play.   Satire works in part by making the audience feel superior.  When Jon Stewart rips Fox news from hypocrisy, or juxtaposes Cheney quotes from 2003 and 2006 to show him hypocritical on Iraq, the viewer feels like “their” side is the side of reason and honesty.   Republicans look as bad in Stewart/Colbert land as Democrats look in Limbaugh/Hannity world.

And of course conservatives who revel in talk radio are certain that they are on the side of truth, and that Democrats are just driven by emotion or weak thinking.   Ironically, talk radio Meisters like Beck and Limbaugh are masters of emotional manipulation.   You don’t get audiences by intellectual connections, you get it by getting listeners riled up.   You get them mad about Obama, angry about health care, and fearful that they are losing their country.    But in both satire and talk radio, the listeners (or viewers) feel superior, their political leanings are vindicated.   How on earth can those liberals (or conservatives) not see the obvious failings of their perspective?

Still, back to the question.   Why does satire work for the left, and talk radio for the right?   Is there something psychologically different about liberals and conservatives?   Liberals tend to say that they believe more in reason, rational thought, and improving society.  To them, conservatives are fearful (of enemies, change, gays, and whatever) and thus prone to like tough talk and bombast.  Conservatives dislike weakness and see the world as fundamentally dangerous, according that argument and thus enjoy the tough style of talk radio appeals.

Conservatives, however, accuse liberals of being out of touch with reality.   They believe too much in ‘good will’ and that enemies can be rationally persuaded not to do things like engage in terror attacks.  To conservatives, talk radio is a break from the  dull indoctrinating din of “meanstream” media.    It is real Americana speaking through,  standing up against a growing government taking more money and exerting more control over our daily lives.   To them liberal satire is cute but petty.   Sure, Jon Stewart may cherry pick quotes and incidents, then use funny ways to mock FOX, Jim Cramer, or Republicans, but it’s not serious.   Liberals who think such things really speak to the complexities of America’s problems and vulnerabilities are, in conservative eyes, naive.

So perhaps liberal/progressives have a distaste for bombast and talk radio because its style of belittling others and playing to emotion runs against their world view.   Perhaps conservatives can’t make satire funny because it seems to trivialize issues in their eyes.   Or maybe it’s literally that conservatives so believe they are defending their world from leftist dangers that they have to be serious, while liberals are more willing to break with the past and undertake new policies to reshape the polity.  Satire is a way to show absurdities in the way things are done.

Fox tried a Stewart like show (“the Half Hour News Hour”) and it failed.  Liberals tried talk radio (Air America) and it failed.   So I ask again, why can the left do satire but not talk radio, and why can the right do talk radio but not satire?

  1. #1 by patrice on April 23, 2010 - 15:35

    Interesting post, Scott. It reminds me…I seem to remember a story on NPR not too long ago about a “study” (I think) that suggested conservatives (or Republicans?) have a better sense of humor than liberals (or Dems?). I wish I could remember more of the details. I’ll see if I can find something about it.

    But anyhow. The satirists (Stewart/Colbert/Maher), while certainly openly liberal, do poke fun at liberals too, when they deserve it; e.g. Rep Eric Massa’s (D-NY) “tickle fights” or Rep Hank Johnson (D-GA) who worried that Guam would tip over and capsize. They also get on Obama’s case when they don’t think he’s performing up-to-snuff (e.g. stalling action on don’t-ask-don’t-tell).

    I admit, I almost never listen to conservative talk radio, but I don’t get the sense that most of them *ever* go after one of “their own”. I could be wrong.

    On a related note, I was at a Colbert Report taping on Monday. Extremely fun (and funny). Colbert spends some time out of character with the audience before the show, which was pretty cool. The guest was George Will, who seems like quite a ‘reasonable’ conservative – one who doesn’t play to peoples’ basest emotions. (I guess you might be right in your assessment, based on my own feelings about it).

    • #2 by Scott Erb on April 23, 2010 - 18:58

      Here at UMF we have a retiring faculty member — Margaret Gould Wescott — who recently met Colbert and his wife because her son was on the show (he had won a gold medal in the winter Olympics for snowboarding). She said Colbert and his wife are exceedingly friendly and down to earth. I do like George Will (though I don’t often agree with him), and did see that episode on TV. Cool that you were there, I’ll have to re-watch it (it’s on DVR) and see if I can pick you out when the scan the audience!

      • #3 by patrice on April 26, 2010 - 14:03

        I watched it back, and they didn’t really show the audience during that show. I was sitting in the very top row, right at the top of the stairway in the middle. But I couldn’t see me – doubt you can either. 🙂

        I tried several times unsuccessfully to post this link on Friday. Not sure why it wouldn’t go through. It’s to an article about the study I mentioned above.

        I thought this comment was interesting:

        “Conservatives tend to be happier than liberals in general,” said Dr. Martin, a psychologist at the University of Western Ontario. “A conservative outlook rationalizes social inequality, accepting the world as it is, and making it less of a threat to one’s well-being, whereas a liberal outlook leads to dissatisfaction with the world as it is, and a sense that things need to change before one can be really happy.”

  2. #4 by Mike Lovell on April 23, 2010 - 17:19

    “Conservatives dislike weakness and see the world as fundamentally dangerous”

    Well, I think all sides of teh ideologies here dislike weakness, I just think they have different determinations of what is considered weakness.

    As for the world being fundamentally dangerous…well, technically speaking the world is a dangerous place. It always has been, even in its most natural state where there is no civilization. the problem I have with the liberal bent of things, is that they are working their darndest to take away all risks, which in turn eliminates the idea of earned rewards. And to me, that whole idea is the antithesis to what made America what it became, as a general idea. Granted we need some safety nets in certain areas for sure, but sometimes I feel that our politicians on both sides are overextending that idea to the point where my control over what risks I choose to take are no longer mine.

    • #5 by Scott Erb on April 23, 2010 - 18:15

      My most read blog entry is the one I did last year on freedom and risk:

      I have a picture of Laura Ingalls Wilder as a young girl and at least a dozen people read that post each day after googling Laura Ingalls Wilder!

      Is the world dangerous? Well, we all eventually die, and there are dangers all around. Yet most people and most situations are ones we can deal with, even if risk levels are high. I agree that efforts to eliminate risks have been going too far.

      Ironically, the current financial crisis was caused by big banks wanting to eliminate risk. First mortgage companies sold mortgages to big financial organizations, so they’d have no risk. That meant they simply focused on selling homes with no worry about whether or not the buyer could pay. Then banks wanted to eliminate risk by selling mortgages as securities, and to insure these securities with credit default swaps. Everyone tried to assure they had no risk, and once they felt that was the case they could gamble for big money without fear. The risk, however, was still there — it simply became systemic, meaning all would suffer.

      I think life is like that too — we can’t really eliminate risk. But if we think we are protected (by government, laws, etc.) then we do things that could ultimately hurt our whole society. Or maybe not. I’ll have to think about that point!

      I guess what gets me sometimes about the right is, for instance, the criticism of Obama for supposedly apologizing to the world (I haven’t seen any real apologies) and “making us look weak.” We spend half the world’s military budget, there is no fear that people will see us as weak. Same with fear of terrorism, or fear that a new nuclear doctrine will somehow weaken us. I just don’t get that. Yeah, there are risks out there, but both the left and the right have their own way of over-hyping the risks they are concerned with.

      • #6 by Mike Lovell on April 24, 2010 - 16:54

        I almost forgot about that post. I re-read it along with the commentary afterward…
        I realy do love that post!

  3. #7 by Michael Arnis on April 24, 2010 - 03:28

    Scott, a simple but tough question…in part, because it’s difficult to know what Talk Radio is. I know what satire is. Talk Radio is the medium but I don’t know what to call the style/format.

    I grew-up and live on the west coast, and so talk radio (in my lifetime) started with late nights with Larry King. He discussed current events and we thought he was tough on his callers (we were young).

    Maybe call Talk Radio “argumentative” — take a side (that is always conservative or liberal), never waiver. Maybe that provides a partial answer: generally, liberals push an agenda, and conservatives are generally in the position of responding and opposing. When making a sale (pushing an agenda), you argue the whole and not the parts. That takes paragraphs. You prefer MTP or giving a speech. You are better off being brief and glib when you oppose. Death panels and Cornhusker Kick-back were memorable and pinpointed tiny parts of a bill.

    Why was Crossfire so easily replaced? Could be that no one controlled the microphone, everyone talked over everyone else, and no one won (at least not consistently), and so the audience never got the validation you described. But, it was real.

    I’m looking forward to your research on the media.


  4. #8 by The Glenn Beck Review on June 1, 2010 - 20:57

    Beck is not just a liar and a hypocrite. I caught him with his pants down. See The Glenn Beck Review for details.

  1. The Death of Satire | A Numbers Game

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