Rush Limbaugh, a legend in conservative talk radio, passed away yesterday after a battle with lung cancer.
After news of his passing, I saw many different “He was such a talented storyteller” commemorations. Conservatives lauded how captivating he was to his audiences and even folks with opposing politics noted how talented he was. As I read the tweets about him, that recurring compliment felt indicative of something important. Commending Limbaugh’s storytelling abilities struck me as good metaphor about conservatism as a whole.
So much of conservatism is storytelling.
Though the word has it’s fair share of both positive and negative connotations, I mostly mean it to be descriptive.
A favorable view of conservativism is that it knows there are ideas, values, morals rooted in the past that are worth preserving. Conservatives believe in social cohesion through shared values — which can manifest in a range of issues like fiscal conservatism, abortion, gun rights, sex and gender discourse, etc. They predict that the farther we move away from shared values, the worse off society is. Conservatism is William F. Buckley standing in front of history and yelling “Stop!”
Linguists and anthropologists have posited that oral cultures tend to be more culturally conservative. With this in mind, it makes sense that one of American conservatism’s biggest icons and most influential figures is a talk-radio host. There is a range of good scholarship on how cultural, technological and policy factors helped radio become immensely effective for the political right.
On the positive end, storytelling is a powerful tool. As humans, we learn the best through storytelling. It’s engaging and personal. It provides a worldview but also embeds emotions into that worldview. Arnold Bennett said that “There can be no knowledge without emotion.” Storytelling isn’t merely the relaying of histories, facts or opinions, it’s affective (see “Politics is downstream from culture”). When your mother reads you a bedtime story as a child, that story gets inextricable linked with other things like the warmth of the bed, the smell of her perfume, the comfort you feel in her presence. If you call yourself a “patriot,” odds are you not only assume or assert that the positive story told about your country is true, but you genuinely feel good when you hear that story.
On the negative end, some of the best stories are myths. Narratives offer simplicity, but they can also reject complexity. The simpler a story, the more likely it isn’t exactly what we would call “the whole truth.” For example, Americans are taught that peasants from Europe settled this land to escape tyranny and practice religious freedom. It’s a partial truth and righteous narrative that gets a bit fuzzy when you throw in significant things like Native genocide and relocation, and slavery. I’d surmise that many Europeans left for a whole host of reasons. I’d also assume many stayed, not all of them because they were accustomed to tyranny, but because the economic, social and cultural arrangements benefitted them. But the narrative we learn doesn’t make room for much nuance, let alone contradictions.
Writer James Baldwin once said that “a complex thing cannot be made simple.” I find myself perplexed at how often conservativism is unwilling or unable to wrestle with how the contradictions within it plays out in people’s lives. It’s why elite conservatives who give speeches on and write books about conservatism’s historical and philosophical foundations, seem shocked when they witness its ugly side, which is, in Corey Robin’s terms, “the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” It’s why so many conservatives don’t see the contradiction in arguing that “liberal indoctrination” can be defeated with “patriotic education.”
For me, the clearest example here would be “Make America Great Again.” You would think that this statement would immediately beg a whole host of questions. But if you have a certain story about the past, especially a nostalgic one, I can’t say those questions would come up. If they did, it would likely trigger strong cognitive dissonance, and what we know about this battle in the mind is that positive self-image tends to win out. My guess is that this dissonance was at play when many on the right pushed back against the George W. Bush term “compassionate conservatism.” It certainly will be present when historians write about President Trump.
Going back to the the MAGA phrase, I have a running joke in my head when I think of it: if time-machines existed, I imagine they would be about as segregated as the Jim Crow South or public schools in 2021. So many white people would be teleporting to the past. So many black folk would buy one-way tickets towards the future. Regardless of color, I don’t think it would be a stretch to predict what direction most conservatives would be headed to.
African American big “C” conservatives certainly do exist, even if they are a clear minority in Black communities. But I often wonder if conservatives of any color or class ever reflect on the stories of America, and stop to think about how absurd their framing would sound to an average Black person, especially those of us whose ancestors survived American slavery. How does “land of the free, home of the brave” sound to an average indigenous person? But that’s “identity politics,” so never mind.
I can’t speak to whether or not Rush Limbaugh was a great storyteller. I’m inclined to take folks word for it. But his life’s work shows all the affordances and limitations of stories.
The power of stories is they provide quick, heuristic, visceral answers for life’s questions. They can be entertain, inform and connect. The problem of stories is they at least create blind-spots, and at most, they can have an adversarial relationship to truth; they can solicit misinformation, disinformation, and half-truths to defend ideology asserted as “the truth,” like looking at a photograph and asserting that what is true is only what is inside the frame.
Conservatism is a story.