Never mind the old red-state/blue-state divisions this election: Democrats and Republicans aren't even living on the same planet anymore. We don't just disagree on the solutions to the problems we face; we can't even agree on what the problems are. Is Iraq going well or badly? What about the economy? Depends on who you ask -- and who they've been listening to.
I blame talk radio. In recent months, I've spoken to conservatives who've obviously spent hours talking about liberals without ever talking with them. They're constantly surprised to learn, for example, that we don't all think Bill Clinton was a great president. And their surprise is in direct proportion to the amount of talk radio they hear.
Sadly, we liberals hardly ever listen to talk radio, even though so much of it is supposedly about us. But I did the next best thing and picked up three recent books by conservative radio hosts: Sean Hannity, Ben Ferguson and Michael Savage. They're all white males, though at 22, Ferguson is the youngest and least known -- he's on only 100 stations nationwide.
Taken together, the three hosts neatly symbolize the degeneration of conservative thought. In the early days of Goldwater and Buckley, conservatism was young and brash. As it matured, it became the very authority figure it sought to replace -- strong but uncompromising. Now, apparently, it's lapsing into senility, railing at water fluoridation and the fact that tomatoes no longer taste like they used to.
It is telling that the youngest of the authors is the most mature. At first, Ferguson's title, It's My America Too, seems a bit of a stretch: The cover reveals Ben to be a not-very-oppressed-looking chunky white guy. (Later, we learn his sister attends horse-riding lessons and private school.)
Still, as his book details, Ferguson's youth meant he struggled to be taken seriously. He's appointed himself "a spokesman for my generation" and even makes an earnest, though naïve, plea for giving children the vote. True, his chapters include "Donald Rumsfeld, a Hero for Our Times," but you can't hate a guy who says "[I]f you read this book and it makes you angry, that's great. ... Do something about it. That is what needs to take place in America."
More importantly, Ferguson still retains some youthful open-mindedness: He concedes that when he first heard Rush Limbaugh, he admired how Rush "could be brassy and cut people off" if they disagreed with him. Later, however, he decides radio "doesn't work so well if listeners get the idea that you think you are always right."
Ah, youth. Happily for his Arbitron ratings, however, Ferguson is learning to fault liberals for everything -- including what conservatives themselves do. His introduction, for example, claims "Liberals like one-sidedness. ... They think other liberals will tune in if you can listen to a lot of people ... agreeing with one another on everything." Seems to work for conservative radio hosts, obviously, including Limbaugh himself.
Similarly, Ferguson concludes that America today is "just disgusting" morally, because "Conservatives have stopped fighting for what they believe in." This will come as news to liberals who have watched conservatives take hold of the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court. But Ferguson has realized that the fastest way to gain power is to complain about how little of it you have.
Ferguson's book is a coming-of-age story: He is a man-child in radioland, learning that no matter how many branches of government they control, how many stations they are syndicated on, conservatives are always oppressed. And however nice they might seem in person (Ferguson has a "ton of respect" for Demoratic operative James Carville), liberals are always to blame.
Indeed, in case there's any doubt about where Sean Hannity's book Deliver Us From Evil stands, its subtitle is "Defeating Terrorism, Despotism, and Liberalism." Apparently, the difference between offering Medicare and blowing up office buildings is mostly one of degree.
Hannity is probably the most serious of the conservative radio commentators. His book occasionally scores telling points on knee-jerk critics of the Iraq War, and it includes at least one piece of actual reporting: a memo in which Democrats plot to use a government investigation for partisan ends.
Hannity argues that to fight the evil of terrorism, we must be staunch and unyielding in the face of it. We must become moral absolutists, like we supposedly were in our battles against communism and Nazism. Hannity describes the horror of these historic regimes in great detail, piously declaring "the only way to come to terms with such absolute evil is to confront it directly." And throughout, Hannity makes much of how liberals try to avoid this confrontation. "Throughout history, the appeasers have refused to recognize evil," he writes. "They make excuses for it, ignore and coddle it."
But when it comes to evil with Republican ties, Hannity begins to, um, make excuses and ignore it. He excuses Reagan's support of Hussein during the 1980s: "[T]hough aware of Saddam's brutality, the Reagan administration was anxious to bring stability to the region." When Bill Clinton makes a speech noting Reagan's involvement with Hussein, Hannity derides Clinton's "blame-America-first refrain."
Clinton, in fact, serves as the foil for George W. Bush's resolve in the war on terror. "I believe with all my heart that the Clinton administration's delays and hesitations ... paved the way for the attacks of 9/11," Hannity writes.
Isn't suggesting 9/11 was Clinton's fault also using the "blame-America-first refrain"? How can Hannity fault Clinton for ignoring evildoers, but not blame Reagan for arming them? Simple: Clinton is a Democrat.
Ferguson is naïve enough to think Democrats sometimes have principles. They're the wrong principles, but still worth debating. Hannity knows better: Democrats talk about "root causes" of terrorism instead of just agreeing it is evil. They demand evidence that Saddam Hussein collaborated with al-Qaida. He's evil! What more do you need? Hussein "tortured and killed thousands of innocent Iraqis" and "ruled by fear and fiat," Hannity writes. "How can anyone believe he would hesitate to join forces with [Osama] bin Laden?"
Because the evidence shows he didn't, for one thing. He also didn't join forces with Iran, despite their mutual Axis-of-Evilness. They fought each other instead. Hannity doesn't just understand the unity of evil better than liberals; he apparently understands it better than the evildoers themselves.
If Hannity is the father and Ferguson is the son, Michael Savage is the crazy uncle who ought to be locked up in the basement.
I'm told that even Savage's fans don't really take him seriously. It's easy to see why: Much of Savage's book The Enemy Within is just laughably bad, including the analogy in which he compares homosexuality to old people farting in elevators. Other portions are best saved for the psychiatrist's couch, such as Savage's discussion of how liberals are like lions attacking a water buffalo by "ripp[ing] out her anus and nose."
But the fun stops when Savage calls his critics "brown shirts" -- especially when his own rhetoric would do credit to Goebbels. "The day will come, and very soon, when you nay-sayers and leftover leftists are going to become the target of the wrath of America," he predicts. "When [this] generation wakes up and sees what you've done to our borders, language, and culture, not to mention what you've done to our courts, churches, military, and schools, I predict you will be tried for your crimes against America."
Indeed, no institution is free of the contagion. Liberals have ruined the courts ("judges in America today are to be more feared than al-Qaida"); they corrupt our schools ("America-hating subversive schoolmasters are risking our nation's future"); and of course they have spoiled our media, politics and culture.
All of which is to say that Michael Savage hates America.
Savage, of course, professes to love his country; it's only the liberal influence he despises. But he also believes that nothing is untouched by that disease: America is, as he sees it, "[i]nfinitely great, and infinitely corrupted by liberalism."
Savage claims that he "choose[s] to paint pictures of what makes us great," unlike those who dwell on its failures. And yet failure is all his book talks about. ("[W]as there anything positive the '60s gave America?" he asks. "No. Absolutely nothing." What about Martin Luther King? What about landing on the moon?)
With that, talk-show conservativism reaches its logical end. Ferguson thinks liberals have the wrong approach to evil. Hannity thinks liberals have no concept of evil. Savage thinks liberals are evil, and they've ruined the country. The Enemy Within proves an appropriate title: In his unreasoned hatred of all things liberal -- and his belief that liberals ruin all things -- Savage has become the America-basher he despises.
At the risk of succumbing to the same fate, I concede that Savage's book has won me over in one sense: America is sick. Any country that would make these people radio talk-show hosts and best-selling authors must be. A country that would find it compelling, or even entertaining, to peddle hatred for its own people is incapable of civilized discussion. It is barely capable of being a civilization at all, let alone holding a decent election. We are becoming, literally, a nation of savages.