Opinion Columns & Blogs

Millard Grimes: The talk show campaign

Constantly we are told that the current political climate in the nation springs from anger, outrage and disappointment with the government. "I love my country, but I hate my government" is the outcry of many, and that is reflected in the statements and debates by the various candidates, and by the apparent voter support for the most outspoken (outrageous) candidates on both sides of the political spectrum.

But what policies are the outcry and anger specifically about? Why has outrage gained such power in a time when there are fewer major reasons for concern than in the past? For example, during the Great Depression 25 percent of the people were out of work; during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, there were fiery riots in many cities, and the divisions were deep and defined; during the Vietnam War students on campuses throughout the country stormed college offices and closed down campuses; and during the Watergate hearings criminal activity was exposed in the federal government and political campaigns that eventually led to the resignation of President Nixon; President Clinton admitted to disgracing the oval office with sexual activity there with a 21-year-old intern.

There was anger and dismay on all these occasions, but today's upheaval seems fiercer, even though less focused. What are its deeper roots, what are the solutions?

Certainly there are people in the U.S. who have reason to be angry and bitter: for example, the thousands who have lost jobs in recent year and are now working longer hours for lesser pay or perhaps not working at all; students who've done all the right things, gotten their degrees and find the job market stripped of the rewards they were promised; manufacturing workers who discover that too many factories have moved to other countries; people who worked in the newspaper business (where I worked for so many years) who find newspapers are no longer in fashion or have replaced their jobs with computers or the Internet. Yes, there is plenty of suppressed anger to go around, but those are not the people from which the most anger and distrust of government seems to be coming from.

As a news junkie, I am a devoted viewer of cable TV, as well as a reader of newspapers and magazines, and also a longtime listener to what is called "talk radio." There are now 3,800 talk or all-news radio stations in the U.S., compared to a handful in 1986 when Congress passed the Telecommunications Act, which loosened the rules about equal time and other regulatory controls on radio stations. It is no coincidence that 1988 was the year Rush Limbaugh emerged on national radio as a talk show host. Limbaugh was an immediate success, spreading an unabashed conservative (and mostly Republican) gospel that caught the wave of public unrest from a minor economic recession and adjustments in foreign policy as the U.S. moved from its 50-year conflict with Soviet Russia to a world without the Soviet empire.

Limbaugh's success spawned many imitators, most of them as conservative as or more than he was. More distressing than the hosts were the callers to these programs who sounded as if they were calling from another country than the United States of relative progress and prosperity. They were more shrill than Limbaugh himself, usually complaining that the government was burdening them with too many taxes, too many regulations, trying to limit their gun ownership; and forcing them to accept social changes they feared and resisted.

Limbaugh was soon joined in Atlanta talk radio by Neal Boortz and Sean Hannity, both of whom became huge stars on talk radio, with Hannity becoming one of the top television personalities.

The talk shows ramped up the volume of anger in political campaigns, and we certainly hear echoes from the talk shows in the oratory of the Republican presidential candidates and even in the tone of some of the Democratic candidates. Liberal-leaning talk show hosts have never caught on, despite the fact that the more liberal presidential candidates had the most popular votes in four of the five elections since talk radio became so dominant.

There is no question, however, that the tone and emphasis of the national debate has been affected by Limbaugh and his followers. The rise of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries is also a result of the growing partisan divide in the nations. Sanders, a professed socialist, who has never run as a Democrat, is easily the most liberal serious candidate in recent history; he is also 74, older than any previous candidate. He is also Jewish and from the second smallest state (Vermont) in the union, population 608,000, just above Wyoming at 493,000.

Sanders thus faces several major precedents against his election. Meanwhile, the Republicans keep playing to the talk show listeners who admittedly are numerous but have a narrow focus.

Trump, you may recall, first gained political attention in 2008 for his persistent efforts to prove Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. and therefore ineligible to be president. That is one reason for his continued appeal. Obama got only 39 percent of the white vote in 2002. Trump gained his lead in the primaries by being the most adamant anti-immigrant candidate,although two of his three wives were immigrants from Eastern Europe (his second wife, Marla Maples, was from Dalton, Ga.).

Actually, Trump has some good ideas, and he is undoubtedly charismatic. He'd probably be a better president than Rush Limbaugh, for instance, or Marco Rubio, a favorite of the so-called moderate Republicans, who obviously haven't been listening to any of his speeches.

My guess is that the so-called anger will subside as the election nears. The unemployed seldom vote.

Millard Grimes, editor of the Columbus Enquirer from 1961-69 and founder of the Phenix Citizen. is author of "The Last Linotype: The Story of Georgia and Its Newspapers Since World War II."