During the campaign, of course, MSNBC emerged as a left-leaning counterweight to Fox, and the two were often discussed as somehow balancing or canceling out each other. This is a false analogy, for while MSNBC was highly partisan and even shrill at times, it did not try to portray John McCain and Sarah Palin as anti-American figures determined to destroy and destabilize the nation. More generally, the Republican candidates (especially Palin) were subjected to often brutal and sometimes excessive criticism in the mainstream media, but they were never called thugs or accused of trying to turn America into a fascist state. After weeks of watching Fox, of listening to Limbaugh, and of surfing the Internet; after hours of hearing repeated references to terrorists and thugs, radicals and revolutionaries, Muslims and madrasahs, I came away feeling that these outlets were helping to foment such hatred and fear of Obama that some members of their audience might feel justified in resorting to violence to stop him. The climate seemed no less toxic than the one that arose in Israel in the months leading up to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
That climate still exists. The election of Obama has done nothing to diminish the frequency or zeal of the attacks against him. As I write in late November, you can turn on Sean Hannity and see him still raging about Obama’s ties to Ayers; you can tune in to Rush Limbaugh and still hear him decrying the radical socialist regime Obama is seeking to impose. These outlets have stoked the politics of personal destruction in America, promoting a mindset in which opponents are seen not merely as fellow citizens to be debated and persuaded but as members of a subhuman species who must be isolated and stamped out.
So what is to be done? The excesses of talk radio have fed support in some quarters for bringing back the fairness doctrine, the legal provision that required broadcasters to provide equal airtime for opposing sides of an issue. Such a move, however, would likely result in the presence of less rather than more speech, and the right is already using the prospect of such a policy change to incite and mobilize its constituents.
A more effective approach, I think, would be to use the tools of public suasion. For too long, moderate voices—not wanting to appear intolerant, perhaps, or to be attacked themselves—have shied away from speaking out against these hatemongers. Mainstream news organizations, when not ignoring them, have tended to coddle them. Last July, for instance, The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on Limbaugh that read like an ad for his show. Calling him an “American icon,” it commended his “basically friendly temperament” and quoted Ira Glass as saying, “Rush is just an amazing radio performer.” Not to be outdone, Barbara Walters included Limbaugh on her “ten most fascinating people” list for 2008, an honor Limbaugh promptly trumpeted on his show. This seems unaccountable. Rather than celebrate such extremists, the press should seek to expose their xenophobia, intolerance, and fanaticism.
Moderate conservatives should join in as well. Speaking out against the malignancy in their midst would be not only moral but also astute, for these zealots have done nearly as much harm to Republicans as to Democrats. During the primary season, Limbaugh, Hannity, and the rest spent months attacking John McCain as a phony Republican and apostate conservative. When McCain received the nomination, they did a quick about-face and redirected their fire at Obama, but by then McCain had been so bloodied that many Republicans decided they could not vote for him; millions, in fact, stayed home on Election Day. It’s time for reasonable Republicans to step forward and denounce the Limbaughs and Hannitys for what they are—un-American.
No doubt the thunderers on the right would respond by pointing to their huge audiences. “We’re just giving people what they want,” they would say. On one level, the millions who tune in to these messages would seem a powerful rebuttal to any argument for restraint. Throughout history, though, demagogues have never lacked for an audience. That, in fact, is what makes them so dangerous.