It's disappointing to hear people (liberals, progressives, Democrats) dismiss Rush Limbaugh as simply a "clown," or a "blowhard," or "an idiot," or, more thoughtfully, as "a political entertainer and not a political pundit," as if his 14-15 million reported regular listeners didn't count for anything--as if they didn't vote or make political contributions. Let's not kid ourselves. Limbaugh's audience doesn't regard him as a joke. They regard him as a modern day prophet.
As shamelessly full of smears, half-truths, bogus statistics, and outright lies as his radio show is, his listeners pay closer attention and give more credence to what Limbaugh says on the air than to what they read or hear in the so-called "liberal media," and, sad to say, to what they see printed in textbooks and encyclopedias. The man has enormous influence.
And if you don't think 14-15 million regular listeners is a significant audience, just look at what the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the total number of labor union members in the U.S. to be. As of 2011, it's 14.8 million. Those are Limbaugh numbers.
In 1993, my union had its own "Limbaugh moment." I was in my fourth one-year term as president of the local--still fairly popular with the troops, still tight with the shop steward corps--but winning re-election each time by increasingly smaller margins. At the end of one of our regular monthly meetings, a member approached me and asked why we were serving Snapple (along with beer and assorted soft drinks) as one of our refreshments.
He informed me that Snapple was a major sponsor of Rush Limbaugh's radio show. While I was familiar with Limbaugh's brand of politics and rhetoric, I rarely listened to him, so I had no idea who sponsored the show. This member argued persuasively that, in the name of American trade unionism, we needed to discontinue serving Snapple at union meetings. It didn't take much to convince me. I heartily agreed.
For anyone unfamiliar with Limbaugh's views on organized labor, switch to April of 2010, following the Massey (West Virginia) coal mine explosion that killed 29 miners. Limbaugh went on the air and, with those punishing baritone pipes, shrilly and self-righteously railed against the UMW (United Mine Workers), accusing the union of not having done enough to prevent this terrible disaster. His remarks were sarcastic and bullying....typical Limbaugh.
But he was dead wrong. Not only was Massey a non-union facility (having aggressively rebuffed numerous UMW efforts to organize it), it's an undeniable fact that unionized coal and copper mines have much better safety records than non-union mines. Safety costs money, and non-union facilities are unwilling to spend it. His remarks were both stupid and incendiary. Again, typical Limbaugh.
To my surprise and disappointment, the plan to do away with Snapple ran into a couple of problems. The first of which was the 9-person union Executive Board. When word got out to the Board that--without so much as an informal vote, or a consultation, or even a courtesy heads-up--I had taken it upon myself to instruct the master-at-arms (the E-Board officer in charge of refreshments) to immediately discontinue purchasing Snapple, three E-board members jumped me.
One of them ("Linda") objected because she herself turned out to be a regular Limbaugh listener. This blew my mind. Linda was smart and funny and an extremely credible and effective union officer. Call me prejudiced, but her being a Limbaugh fan made no sense. Linda told me that she listened to Rush because she "wanted to keep an open mind" (implying that I was "close-minded"?) and because he was "honest" and "not afraid to tell the truth."
Even though Linda and I had always gotten along well as Board members, she was furious that I'd let my own personal politics dictate union policy, and outraged that I would dare pull a stunt like this unilaterally. She made it clear that she felt betrayed. The other two E-Board members objected for lesser reasons. Apparently, they simply liked Snapple (particularly the grape flavor) and didn't want to see it go away--not for something as trivial as sponsoring some crackpot radio show.
Things got more complicated when word was leaked to the factory floor (by Linda, I suspect), and the membership began a lively and undisciplined discussion of the issue. Not to denigrate the virtues of old-fashioned grass-roots involvement, but from a union officer's practical point of view, this kind of "spontaneous democracy" is always scary. As it happened, there were a number of union members who listened to Limbaugh's show, largely for the same reasons Linda did. Those members instantly mobilized. The Great Snapple War began.
A petition was immediately circulated, demanding that the union continue serving Snapple at monthly meetings. But the necessary ground-swell interest simply wasn't there. Not only were the pro-Snapple crusaders unable to get the minimum number of required signatures on the petition, they either didn't know how or were unwilling to make a formal motion at a membership meeting. Within three or four days, the issue was dead. And that's how we eliminated Snapple.
One wonders what the political landscape would look like without Limbaugh. Arguably, with fourteen million people needing to find another braying jackass to serve as their mentor, his absence would have a salutary effect. But Limbaugh ain't going anywhere. All this fuss about sponsors jumping ship is misleading. With 14-15 million potential consumers waiting to be preached to, there will always be advertisers.