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Rush Limbaugh's notorious screed against Sandra Fluke (the precise terms of which I have no intention of compounding by repeating here) offers a striking signifier of the way in which politics and entertainment have become enmeshed within what I call America's entertainment culture. For beyond the appalling personal attack, misogynistic undertones, and apparent display of medical ignorance, what this story reveals is what can happen when entertainers, who traditionally have been governed by a behavioral code that is looser than the codes that govern politicians, become political leaders in their own right. The political rise of entertainers—as entertainers, rather than as performers who choose to enter electoral politics like Ronald Reagan and Al Franken—has been unfolding ever since talk radio emerged as a political force some decades ago. Statistically, but not wholly, a phenomenon of the right, talk radio and its televised offspring have produced such voices as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, men who have never held political office themselves but who wield considerable power, as evidenced by conservative pundit George Will's remark that in the wake of Limbaugh's breach of common decency few Republicans appeared to have the courage to seriously condemn it. Senator Joseph McCarthy once had this sort of power, too, but it is hard to think of any contemporary elected official who does. And it is significant that Limbaugh's two "apologies" for his comments came only after a group of sponsors withdrew from his program: answering to no voters, the political entertainer must still answer to the marketplace in a hypercapitalist society. As I write these words, the Limbaugh story is still news. Women legislators are still proposing legislation to prohibit health insurance coverage for Viagra in a rather deft response to Limbaugh's rant, while Limbaugh himself declares victory because his audience numbers remain high. I will be surprised if his show is yanked from the airwaves (the audience-market is king in a hypercapitalistic entertainment culture), but I suppose that it is always possible. It will be an interesting story to watch. But perhaps the main point of the whole sorry episode is its revelation of the cost to democratic government that entertainment-driven politics can incur. Answering to audiences, who are entertained by smutty humor and shock-jock confrontational politics, rather than to voters, the entertainer-demagogue has nothing to hold him- or herself back.  The result is ever-increasing polarization and an ever-descending trajectory of social discourse. Politics as smackdown and soap opera. "Anyway," as political comedian Mort Sahl likes to say, "onward."
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.