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By James Ruhland
The Liberal radio network, Air America, launched with such fanfare and lavish funding, and free-media promotional support, is already floundering. It has experienced trouble with two flagship stations, KBLA Los Angeles and WNTD in Chicago, and indifference from potential audiences. Reasons are obvious. High-handedly arrogant management, a hallmark of modern Liberalism, alienates potential carriers of the network. They went so far as to refuse two stations in Florida that wanted to air Al Franken's program, because they also carry Limbaugh's program. So much for Liberal tolerance and regard for diversity. This behavior makes their frequent claims that they're being "shut out of access" to stations ring all the more hollow. They shut themselves out. The other obvious reason for lack of audience interest in the new Liberal network is that radio audiences who want to hear Liberal programming have NPR and see no reason to switch.
But the biggest problem undercutting Liberal talk radio's audience appeal is deeply seated in modern Liberalism itself: an ideology that once led the country with optimism has aged into a sour disposition, telling Americans they've never had it so bad. Their "scare America" tone goes far beyond one radio network or the election year talking points of the party out of power. Even during the eight years of Clinton, much of Liberalism's tone was negative. It emphasized what people could lose if the policies of the Right were adopted, rather than how people would benefit from theirs. The partial exception to this, which goes a long way to explaining his success, was Clinton himself. Though not reluctant to speak ill of the policies of the other side, "The Man From Hope" was the closest thing to a "happy warrior" that the Democrats have produced in some time. He spoke optimistically about such things as the benefits of trade.
But the Liberal community as a whole seemed to absorb only the worst and most cynical attributes of their leader. Where Clinton exuded optimism, Democrats in general come off as whiners. Al Gore's campaign was especially guilty of this. After eight years with a Democrat in the White House, Gore ran a campaign focused not on how he would improve things but rather a "people vs. the powerful" campaign, trying to tell us that only his election stood between us and a harsh fate. Tom Dashle's brow is furrowed with deep concerns, and Kerry is on the same road. He became the Democratic nominee not because he offered an inspiring vision of the future, but because he was seen as the candidate best able to beat Bush. Liberal writers and pundits continually emphasize the negative. NPR, the reigning Liberal radio network, and PBS, its television cousin, offer shows like Bill Moyers' Now, infused with unrelieved pessimism, distrust, and gloom about the economy, trade, government, society, the environment, freedom, and anything else you can think of.
That isn't necessarily the nature of being out of power. Sure, when a party is out of power it is critical of the policies and direction the party in power is taking. But one doesn't win power on criticism alone. If we look at winning candidates and ascending political movements over history, they won not primarily on a platform of negativism, but by offering an optimistic alternative. This was true of the Gingrich revolution, of Reagan, and even of Democratic candidates in the past.
The inability of today's Democrats to appeal to the better angels of our nature is a sign of their intellectual impoverishment. Air America embodies it. They whisper the concept of a positive, progressive alternative but shout only criticism. Their arguments are aimed at scaring people about the nature of their opponents. The dominating message is "support us, or the Republicans and their corrupt backers will do you ill . . . . Support us or what little you have in the way of freedom and even your livelihood will be taken away . . . . Our opponents policies are really aimed at destroying your most cherished government programs; support us or you'll be eating cat food. You can't accomplish anything against the powerful forces arrayed against you, but we can protect you." It's a generalized message of fear rather than of hopeful expectations, aimed at scaring voters rather than inspiring them.
Such messages have often worked on Continental Europe, whose politics Democrats admire and often try to emulate. But this has rarely, if ever, been a winning message in America, which has always been a nation of optimists.
James Ruhland lives in Colorado and writes at www.porphyrogenitus.net.
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