Mount Rushmore: The Rise of Talk Radio and Its Impact on Politics and Public Policy

Rosenwald, Brian, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Balogh, Brian, Department of History, University of Virginia

Mount Rushmore: The Rise of Talk Radio and Its Impact on Politics and Public Policy explains why modern talk radio emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It explores the format's apolitical roots, why it took off commercially, and subsequently, why it became predominately political and conservative.

Mount Rushmore also details how, contrary to popular perception, the lack of opinionated liberal political talk radio stems not from biased executives, but rather, from a myriad of factors including the failure of liberal hosts to prioritize entertainment, the poor fit between liberalism and traits that produce the best talk radio, and a target audience that has many more media choices than conservatives do.

Mount Rushmore then segues to the political world. It looks at how the two parties interact and engage with talk radio, and argues that hosts have emerged over the last twenty-five years as Republican party leaders. Hosts are not, however, traditional party leaders who choose nominees in smoke filled back rooms. Instead, they exemplify a new type of outsider party leader whose main focus is enacting a policy agenda. These leaders utilize primary elections to shape the party in such a way as to achieve their policy goals. Hosts do perform many traditional leadership functions, including fundraising and getting out the vote, and they also use their platforms to aid Republicans.

Hosts also affect elections, especially low turnout primary elections, and public policy by directing the sentiments of their listeners into political and policy campaigns. In fact, talk radio has far more impact on Republican primary elections than on general elections. Mount Rushmore explores the roots and ramifications of this power to influence primary elections.

While talk radio largely benefits Republicans, Mount Rushmore also details how talk radio has constrained elected Republican leaders and made it more difficult for them to build a big tent party by enacting an agenda that has broad appeal. Indeed, because of the commercial imperatives of their business, talk radio hosts often have goals that diverge from elected Republicans.

Hosts aim to be entertaining, authentic, and principled, and to communicate clearly and unambiguously. As such, talk radio is often a better fit for bombastic outsiders and their ideas, than for deal cutters who are looking to govern, which often requires compromise and nuance. Indeed, over time hosts have become increasingly hostile towards deal cutting and moderate Republicans. As elected Republicans have to fear antagonizing hosts because of their ability to affect primary elections, talk radio has contributed to the increasing conservatism of the Republican party, and to political polarization and gridlock.

Mount Rushmore also chronicles how Democrats have failed to take maximum advantage of talk radio, and discusses the political consequences of this failure—namely even worse treatment from hosts, and a segment of the electorate that only receives a conservative message.

Finally, Mount Rushmore explores the ability of talk radio to prevent legislation from being enacted. Talk radio's impact on public policy and the policymaking process is sometimes quite evident, as was the case when the Senate failed to enact immigration reform legislation in 2007. Other times, however, the impact is almost invisible because talk radio has altered the institutional culture in Congress, and/or silently affects the congressional leadership's decision making. Many legislators simply won't support legislation opposed by prominent talk radio hosts, which necessarily affects legislative calculations. While talk radio isn't typically able to force an idea into law, hosts do work to force through the most conservative version of legislation possible when Republicans control Congress.

Overall, in spite of apolitical roots, talk radio has become a major political force over the past twenty-five years and Mount Rushmore chronicles this development, while correcting misperceptions in our understanding of politics and the radio business.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Politics, public policy, American history, radio, talk radio, Congress, political communications, Rush Limbaugh
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: