Who could have realized how much damage he was capable of doing back then? Who could have imagined that one individual could contaminate American politics to the extent he did?
I’m not talking about Vladimir Putin. I’m talking about another right-wing hero who effectively sabotaged our democracy.
This Wednesday, August 1, marks the 30th anniversary of the national syndication of Rush Limbaugh’s radio program. Just a year after President Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission repealed the Fairness Doctrine, Limbaugh spearheaded the right-wing effort to keep Reaganism in power long after the conclusion of the 40th President’s second term, by demonizing Democrats and savagely attacking perceived moderates in the GOP. The objective was to drive the American political system as far to the right as possible. The objective, in many respects, has been accomplished.
There are endless examples of Limbaugh’s perfidy with regard to our politics, but perhaps there is no greater example than his impact upon the national discussion, such as it is, over climate policy. Just 30 days after the national syndication of Limbaugh’s radio program, Vice President and GOP presidential nominee George H. W. Bush delivered a major environmental speech in which he declared, “”Those who think we’re powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect are forgetting about the White House effect. As President, I intend to do something about it.” Just two months later, Bush’s running mate, Sen. Dan Quayle (R-IN), agreed with Democratic vice-presidential candidate Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-TX) that human-caused climate change was a priority issue for the next president. That was, of course, before Limbaugh convinced the Republican base that climate change was a hoax–and attacked Republicans such as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) for supporting policies to reduce carbon emissions.
In a 2007 Vanity Fair article, James Wolcott noted that Limbaugh had arguably done more than any American political or media figure to prevent the United States from formulating sensible climate policy:
It was Limbaugh who inscribed the term “environmentalist wackos” into the political lexicon and hung the “loser” tag on them. He caricatured the fight for wildlife preservation—a broad-visioned tradition that spans from Henry David Thoreau to John Muir to Rachel Carson to Edward Abbey to David Brower—into something weedily hippie-dip. In his 1992 [book], The Way Things Ought to Be, Limbaugh fobbed himself off with a faux barefoot humility over how far he had come in his Horatio Alger saga, the book’s cover photo presenting him as a chubby-cheeked cherub with a grinning hint of mischief—a “lovable little fuzzball,” to use his own pet phrase. “I am in awe of the perfection of the earth,” he proclaimed inside, a perfection crafted by the Creator who made us all, draping the stars in the firmament like the ultimate interior decorator. For all his wide-eyed wonderment, Limbaugh fashioned himself as less naïve than the stereotypical “long-haired maggot-infested FM-type environmentalist wacko” whom he professes to have reasoned with over the plight of the spotted owl, Rush’s ineluctable train of logic leading to the final junction: “If the owl can’t adapt to the superiority of humans, screw it.” It was during this early, jaunty period of Rush’s fame that the theme music for his “Animal Rights Update” was the title song from Andy Williams’s Born Free punctuated by gunfire and animal sounds—the perfect soundtrack for Dick Cheney hunting porn. Limbaugh acknowledged in The Way Things Ought to Be that there were “some decent environmentalists” out there, they weren’t all maggot-infested mulletheads, but portrayed even the sincere ones as socioeconomic parasites…
With the follow-up, cash-in collection, See, I Told You So (1993), Limbaugh put aside any puckish pretense of modesty and exulted in pure gloat. Having a mega-best-seller will do that to your glands. His environmental chapter here is largely a rehash of the environmentalist-wacko section in The Way Things Ought to Be (once again he highlights how wrong Dr. Paul Ehrlich got it with The Population Bomb, in 1968, where Ehrlich prophesied that the 70s would be a massive die-in of disaster-movie proportions—a Malthusian vision of mass starvation), one of its few original additions being the introduction of a new bête noire and butt of humor that goes by the handle of Algore. Converting the name of then vice president Al Gore, whose green tract Earth in the Balance was published in 1992 (retitled by Limbaugh Earth in the Lurch), into shorthand for the entire environmental movement was a neat rhetorical trick, pinning a note of absurdity onto every mention of his crusade. “Even though quite a few scientists are now backtracking on their once-dire predictions of melting ice caps and worldwide flooding, Algore and a few hard-line doomsayers are sticking to their thermostats.” Since the publication of See, I Told You So, the “once-dire predictions of melting ice caps” have become more dire. Similarly, Limbaugh scoffed in See, I Told You So, “Despite the hysterics of a few pseudo-scientists, there is no reason to believe in global warming”—a blithe distortion then (as if Limbaugh could ID the difference between a “pseudo-scientist” and the genuine article) and a ludicrous one now, given the overwhelming consensus in the scientific community that climate change is real, unfolding, and momentous.
Yes, Limbaugh influence has declined during the course of the 2010s, but the damage he inflicted upon our country during the 1990s and 2000s will take decades to be repaired, if ever. When Reagan repealed the Fairness Doctrine, thus paving the way for Limbaugh and his right-wing radio cronies to take over our public airwaves, Ralph Nader warned that the abandonment of the policy would severely harm our democracy. 30 years after the rise of Limbaugh, those who knew he and his ilk would poison our politics are more than justified in declaring: see, I told you so.