The New York Times
Bestselling Hardcover Nonfiction for October 22, 2010:
- Earth (the Book) by Jon Stewart
- Trickle Up Poverty: Stopping Obama's Attack on Our Borders, Economy, and Security by Michael Savage
Jon Stewart is a left-leaning political satirist from Comedy Central. Michael Savage is a right-wing radio host who has trouble distinguishing comedy from communism. Analyzing one Stewart routine, Savage told radio listeners, "Not only is this idiotic and illogical, it is not funny. It is the product of inbreeding." For the record, while inbreeding can cause many congenital defects, it is not known to affect the sense of humor. The comment by Savage was actually one of his more temperate remarks. For instance, he was famously fired from MSNBC after sweetly telling a caller, "Oh, so you're one of those sodomites. You should only get AIDS and die, you pig."
The competition between these very different books by Stewart and Savage neatly encapsulates the difference between contemporary liberal and conservative literature. The most successful liberal authors are comedians like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Al Franken. The most successful conservative authors are choleric talk show hosts like Michael Savage, Bill O'Reilly, and Glenn Beck. Neither angry liberals like Markos Moulitsas (American Taliban, and DailyKos.com) nor funny conservatives like P. J. O'Rourke (Don't Vote: It Just Encourages the Bastards) usually make the bestseller list these days.
Why are liberal books funny and conservative books angry? Listening to Michael Savage, it's tempting to conclude that conservatives have no sense of humor, but as with inbreeding, scientists have never demonstrated any causal relationship between political preference and comic disposition. Furthermore, it wasn't always this way. P. J. O'Rourke was producing funny, trenchant political bestsellers back when Al Franken was playing effeminate self-help guru Stuart Smalley. In fact, the angry conservative bestseller is a relatively new phenomenon spawned by the success of right-wing radio and Fox News. Most popular conservative authors of the past decade got started at one or the other. By contrast, the top liberal authors began their careers at Saturday Night Live or Comedy Central.
But that just begs the question. Why do so many liberals love late night Comedy Central while so many conservatives tune into Rush Limbaugh and Fox News?
The answer is not related to political temperament but more simply, politics. Starting in the 1970s, right-wing strategists began deliberately stoking bitter resentments among conservative voters. Sometimes they played on racial animosity, attacking "reverse discrimination" and welfare programs for benefiting black people and Latinos at the expense of white people. Other times, they accused secularists, feminists, and homosexuals of trying to destroy Christianity, emasculate America's he-men, and seduce schoolchildren with the exciting prospect of rampant homosexuality. Richard Viguerie, a founder of what was called the New Right in 1978, explained his political methodology by observing, "People are motivated by anger and fear much more so than positive emotions."
When political talk radio bloomed in the 1990s, conservative hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage applied the tactics that the New Right had pioneered, exploiting resentment against blacks, Latinos, gays, and those ubiquitous liberal elites. "Talk radio is an emotional medium," explained Viguerie, "It's a populist medium, and most of these gut populist issues are conservative issues, not entirely, but mostly...And also, liberals deal with a lot of nuances. They say well on the one hand there's this, then we must consider this. And nuances don't work on the radio." But it wasn't just radio. Rush Limbaugh translated his nuance-free ideas to print and turned the niche world of conservative political nonfiction into a major industry.
In the late 1990s, Rupert Murdoch took the formula to cable television. His Fox News station spawned megastars like Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck who regularly compose ill-tempered bestsellers to compliment their ill-tempered television programs. Such books have been especially popular since Obama took office, but even during the Bush years, conservative readers exhibited an impressive appetite for reading about how demented liberals are persecuting white Christian conservatives.
Maybe it's an acquired taste. Liberals are not without rage, of course, and there is a robust niche market for angry liberal books like Sweet Jesus, I Hate Bill O'Reilly and the more comprehensive The I Hate Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage... Reader. (The ellipsis is actually in the title.) But such books have never come close in popularity to dozens of right-wing polemics. That is largely because there has been no New Left in recent years to mobilize liberal voters around a durable sense of resentment. The animosity engendered by George W. Bush dissipated almost as soon as he left, allowing liberals to slip back into a comfortable slouch of frustrated apathy. Anger doesn't work on the indifferent. If you want them to read, you have to make them laugh.
As a liberal political author, I take this responsibility seriously. It has been, I confess, tempting to grab the angry ball and run for a quick touchdown at the niche end of the field. Lacking a comedy show of my own, this would probably have been the easiest way to get sales. But in the end, I prefer to make people laugh more than they shout. And maybe, just maybe, I can really break the mold by making people think a little bit.