The hosts of the various shows – The Spin Zone, Independents Day, Hardball, Up Your Mother Next Door etc – which the cable news networks used to fill up their ravenous schedule, love to shout. They’re the old time populists, new style Huey Longs, standing on the pomo equivalent of the back of a flatbed truck yelling about how the Washington insiders are trying to put one over the average woman and man.

“They think you’re hicks,” Long ‘the Kingfish’, the 30s governor of Louisiana used to yell.

“Well I’m a hick too. We’re all hicks.”

The tone today is one of outraged common sense. How could Washington let the health system collapse? But how could it impose these crippling taxes on business? How could it let all these illegals come into the country? But why is big brother reaching into our lives? “Doesn’t anyone deserve a government that works?” is the tagline of Lou Dobbs, one of the most irritatingly self-satisfied of all these goons, the rhetoric flattering the viewer with the suggestion that he could do a lot better, if only he didn’t have these jumbo Doritos to finish, and this couch to get off.

The shouting is no coincidence or accident – it’s a way of pretending that the discourse is still conducted from the back of that flatbed outside the corner store, beside the water pump, rather than floating out on the ether, from the bunker headquarters of CNN Atlanta. The water pump’s gone, the corner store’s a Walmart near the flyover, and the folksy tone reconstitutes the old time American town meeting.

On radio and TV, the style is replicated across the country, and every local media market, the righteous indignation enacted as if from a manual. Though liberals have tried to replicate this sort of thing, with the faltering radio network Air America, it can’t be done in the same way, because reactionaries always have someone concrete to blame for your woes – not the global economy or structural adjustment or regional shift, but Juan, who just walked across the desert border to clean pools for $2.85 an hour.

But you can’t blame Juan for ever, as Bacharach and David noted in one of their less famous songs, and the woes of the conservatives are contained in the fact that after they’ve flogged terror, immigrants, liberals, immigrants, liberals, terrors and so on, the whole routine becomes a gaping hole, raising more questions than it asks. Why, after seven years of bashing liberals are things getting worse in my life, ‘Bush Democrats’ ask? In response, Michael Moore spoke to them in a different, if no less populist, language and with two films, pretty much pivoted a big section of the country around.

The conservatives meanwhile just kept shouting louder. In the case of Bill Cunningham, it’s like a conversation with someone who was in artillery for the whole of WW2. Why hasn’t the TV screen cracked under the force yet? Cunningham is the Cincinnati Ohio shock jock who introduced a stump speech for McCain with a few catty lines about Obama, ending with calling him “Barack Hussein Obama” a couple of times – which is of course, his middle name. Obama’s competitor gets called Hillary Rodham Clinton by conservatives too, in a nod to the fact that she only took Bill’s name under political duress – but the Hussein is in a league itself, giving the user cute deniability …well, it is his middle name.

In the storm that followed, the guilt-by-nomination slur got mixed up with some fairly anodyne stuff, like the accusation that Obama is a Chicago machine politician, which is far from completely untrue. Nevertheless once informed on the intro – which he hadn’t heard – McCain denounced Cunningham post-speech with a zeal that many suggest went far and beyond the call of duty, and reflected not merely a determination not to alienate the middle ground, but an uncontrolled personal loathing for the sort of “conservatism” that Cunningham and his ilk represent.

The shock jock conservatoriat swung into action against McCain – something they clearly wanted to do far more than lend him the grudging support he has gained so far. It took the New York Times, the great grey Satan, to jam them together with accusations of infidelity by self-confessed serial adulterer (in the 70s) John McCain with a professional Cindy McCain impersonator, and it was never a happy occasion. The populist right deal in fantasy – that America will miraculously return to the state of the first two verses of Billy Joel’s Allentown if only income tax was abolished.

His foreign policy aside, McCain is a bit of a mythbuster, telling his constituency uncomfortable truths about the future of the economy. Politics of the failing side is always about the narcissism of small differences, and McCain becomes a repositry of all the doubts and fears about one’s fantastic vision of the world. The support was grudging; the renewed loathing of McCain was genuine and heartfelt. And unlikely to be reversed again.

McCain must be assuming – insofar as he is not simply acting on principle – that he cannot only detach himself from these goons, he can also detach much of their listenership, and persuade them into an anti-Democrat vote. It’s effectively a repudiation of the power of this sort of conservatism in American life, and only time will tell whether McCain is right or not.

It all came on a significant day – the death of William F Buckley, the founder of modern American conservatism, who welded together disparate groups – libertarians, Burkeans, etc – into a unified force in the mid 50s, grouped around National Review. The fact that he had to hybridise American conservatism indicates its contradictory nature in a revolutionary and imperial society. By the 1980s, the body of Buckley’s conservatism was infected by the thrush of neoconservatism. No opponent of military adventurism himself, Buckley nevertheless lived to see his movement taken over by a weird political cult, who abandoned every insight conservatism had about the relation of society – i.e. Arab society – and politics.

His life’s mission had been to make the Republican party into a conservative force rather than the coalition Eisenhower had presided over. On the day he died that force may have cracked at the root, as another soldier-Republican steered it back towards the middle. Whether those are the lofty uplands of victory or the abyss, we will find out.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey