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?