What media has had the most influence on the conservative movement over the past forty years?
Various factions within conservatism will give widely differing responses. The old school intellectuals will have a short list that includes National Review, Bill Buckley’s “Firing Line”, Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, and George Will’s columns. The populist and paleocon wings will name Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, Human Events, and CNN’s Crossfire (Pat Buchanan-era). The more gullible (or cynical) might list books by Ann Coulter or Bill O’Reilly.
But the truth is that the vast majority of conservatives have never read Chamber’s Witness or puzzled over what it means to “Immanentize the Eschaton.” They don’t subscribe to The Weekly Standard or The American Conservative. They didn’t read the book that Goldwater didn’t write (The Conscience of a Conservative) and never saw Buckley cuss out Gore Vidal on national TV.
So what media has influenced them the most? I offer three candidates for consideration: a book, a magazine, and a radio show. All three of which I believe have impacted American conservatism more than any other media.
Paul Harvey News and Comment — Rush Limbaugh is often credited with the dubious honor of creating conservative talk radio. And it is certainly true that Rush paved the way for Hannity, O’Reilly, and other pundits by perfecting the three-hour blatherfest. But the true pioneer and undisputed king of conservative radio is Paul Harvey, a man who never required three hours and 36 commercial breaks to get his message across.
Since 1951, when he joined ABC News, the “largest one-man network in the world” has dominated radio. His show is carried on 1,200 radio stations, 400 Armed Forces Network stations around the world, and his column appears on 300 newspapers nationwide. (His broadcasts and newspaper columns have been reprinted in the Congressional Record more than those of any other commentator.) Despite his dominance, Harvey is often overlooked as a influence even though he has millions more listeners than any other conservative on the radio (including Rush). His “Paul Harvey News and Comment” airs for 5 minutes in the morning and for 15 minutes before noon. Yet the octogenarian manages to say more in those 20 minutes than other hosts say in 180.
While other pundits preach to the choir, Harvey is an evangelist for the conservative perspective. His disarming folksy charm makes his conservative views appear to be nothing more than good old common sense. Harvey has probably done more to promote non-ideological conservatism than any other figure in modern America. In fact, it would be hard to imagine the revolution of the Reagan era if Harvey hadn’t converted so many Democrats to the cause.
Reader’s Digest — Before email made it possible to spam your friend’s inboxes, people submitted their jokes and anecdotes to “All in a Day’s Work”, “Life in These United States”, and “Humor in Uniform.” Before we had PorkBusters and Michelle Malkin, we got word of bizarre government spending and behavior from “That’s Outrageous.” And before there was a conservative blogosphere to digest the news, there was Reader’s Digest — the most widely read conservative magazine in history.
Although it lost its way sometime around the turn of this century, Reader’s Digest once epitomized small-c conservative values. The basic values and writing style, as Wikipedia notes, expressed a worldview centered on:
- Individual achievement Digest subjects often reflect the power of the individual. They fight the good fight against bureaucrats and unfair systems; they risk their own personal safety or fortune to help others; they triumph over a bad turn of fate. Their only weapons are their own courage, cooperation between individuals, and in some cases, their faith.
- Optimism Although many hard-hitting pieces on terrorism, threats to children and other reports uncover crimes and misdemeanors, articles often reflect the best of humanity, with upbeat and triumphant personal stories.
- Family values Though the Digest has from the beginning written very openly on issues of sexuality, abortion, euthanasia, abuse of children, and other tough subjects, it has always been viewed as a family magazine, able to be read by teenagers and adults alike. Curse words that routinely appear in other publications do not appear in the “Digest.” From early times, the magazine has been a frequent crusader against smoking and tobacco use.
As John Miller, the National Political Reporter for National Review, noted in 2002, the Digest “played a vital role in educating the American public about Communism.” Friedrich Hayek claimed that the success of his influential anti-statist book The Road to Serfdom came from the fact that DeWitt Wallace decided to publish a condensed version in the magazine. Even Susan Sontag acknowledged that the little magazine was on the right side of history. Speaking to a group of New York intellectuals, she said: “Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or The New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?”
The Boy Scout Handbook — One of the most conservative books ever published in America is rarely regarded as being a conservative book. That is probably for the best. For if it were widely known how masterly the Scout Handbook inculcates conservative values, the book would, like Socrates, be charged with corrupting the nation’s youth.
Cultural critic Paul Fussell once wrote that the Boy Scout Handbook is “among the very few remaining popular repositories of something like classical ethics, deriving from Aristotle and Cicero.” Indeed, it is literally a vade mecum on virtue ethics. Consider, for example, the Scout oath:
On my honor I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country
and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake, and morally straight.
And then there is the Scout Motto (“Be Prepared”) and the 12 point Scout Law which includes the politically incorrect admonition to be “reverent” for “A Scout is reverent toward God. He is faithful in his religious duties. He respects the beliefs of others.”
Such an earnest and irony-free worldview is naturally antithetical to the South Park-style mock-the-world moronity that pervades the culture. It is also refreshing to see self-sacrifice and manly virtues encouraged in culture that praises libertarian Me-ism and a nanny society that suckles “men without chests.” The Boy Scout Handbook is what all good conservative tomes should be: deeply, irredeemably, and unapologetically anachronistic.
Other posts in this series:
- The Rise of Polyamorous Advertising
- The Passion of the Rappers
- Gnostic Inoculation
- A New World of Blurs
- Whore and Pimp Chic
- An Inconvenient Truth About the Unchained Goddess