After blogger Andrew Sullivan announced last week that he was “leaving the right,” I argued that there is no longer much room on the political right for conservatives in the original sense of the term. Conservatives who favor gradual change and take a modest view of what governments can accomplish are being pushed aside in favor of more radical, activist conservatives, who want to transform the country into their particular idealized image of what it should be. And after eight years of wild deficit spending under President Bush and—for the most part—a solidly Republican Congress, it is difficult to see Republicans any longer as the party of smaller government. It’s not, of course, that there are no small-government conservatives left in the Republican Party, but rather that they are increasingly marginal figures.
Consider that a recent 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll found that 26% of Americans considered radio commentator Rush Limbaugh the most influential conservative in the country. Fox News host Glenn Beck got the second most votes, with 11% of respondents saying he was the most influential, followed by Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney with 10% each. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) came in last with 4%, after Sean Hannity, which isn’t surprising since most Americans probably don’t even know who Boehner is. While the poll didn’t include a number of other notable conservatives—and 15% of the respondents said none of the people listed were the most influential—there probably aren’t many more who should have been included. John McCain, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee could all have been added, although I doubt any of them are either popular enough or have a clear enough vision to compete with Limbaugh. Political commentators like David Frum and Bill Kristol clearly don’t have enough of a following or enough influence. Probably James Dobson, the evangelical Christian founder of Focus on the Family, would have gotten some votes.
All of the figures at the top of the poll—Limbaugh, Beck, Palin, and Cheney—have devoted, passionate followings. It would be a mistake to dismiss any of them, since they are all smart and extremely gifted politically. But as popular as they are among a certain part of the Republican Party, none of them have much broad appeal. As much as Limbaugh’s followers love him, Pollster concluded earlier in the year that just 25% of Americans have a favorable impression of him, about half as many as have an unfavorable one. Former Vice President Cheney is similarly unpopular. Sarah Palin is the most widely-liked of the bunch, with 40% of American having a favorable impression of her. Nevertheless, even more—48%—have an unfavorable impression of her, with only 29% of independents saying she would be an effective President.
None of those figures have much appeal to moderates or even to a majority of Americans because their ideas are generally so far from the mainstream. Limbaugh, of course, was recently dropped from a bid to buy the St. Louis Rams when many players said they wouldn’t play for a man who had said, among other things, that professional football often “looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips.” Even Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele dismissed Limbaugh as merely “an entertainer” whose rhetoric was “ugly”—although Steele took back what he said after facing a firestorm of criticism from Limbaugh’s followers. Glenn Beck, meanwhile, was described in a recent Time profile as having “a knack for stitching seemingly unrelated data points into possible conspiracies”—he has said, for example, that President Obama’s support of health care, college aid programs, and environmental programs is part of a secret plan to get reparations for slavery. Beck’s disingenuous technique of “just asking” implausible questions as a way of legitimizing them was recently parodied on both South Park and The Daily Show. Cheney’s extreme views on national security and executive power helped him rival Dan Quayle as least popular modern Vice President. And Sarah Palin, as I wrote before, doesn’t seem to have much to say at all, and typically comes off sounding, as Jon Stewart put it, like “a conservative boiler-plate mad-lib.”
Yet these are the most prominent voices of the right wing. They may speak strongly to the sizable alienated minority that feels that “the real America” is being destroyed by demographic changes, but they don’t offer a coherent philosophy of government with any real broad appeal.