Escaping the Asylum
One author’s journey from dittohead to Democrat
If you've ever wondered what goes on inside the mind of a Rush Limbaugh fan, let us introduce you to Jim Derych. For more than a decade, Derych was a loyal, self-assured Limbaugh follower—a so-called dittohead—who uncritically accepted the ideas Rush advocated on his syndicated national radio program. But by the time George W. Bush took office in 2001, Derych found himself questioning the wisdom of Rush's ideology, ultimately concluding that Limbaugh's social, economic and political principles sounded better in theory than they worked in practice. In 2004, Derych deserted Limbaugh and the Republicans and switched his allegiance to the Democratic Party.
Yet Derych couldn't find the words to break the news of his political conversion to his father—an "unreachable" hardcore dittohead—so he organized his thoughts in writing, using the popular blog Daily KOS as a public forum. Derych's insights into the dittohead mindset fascinated readers, and before long a publisher invited him to produce a full-length book—Confessions of a Former Dittohead (Ig Publishing). With Confessions … developing into an underground hit, Failuremag.com sat down with Derych to discuss Limbaugh, the right-wing media and the prospects for converting other dittoheads.
What is the definition of a dittohead?
A dittohead is a self-describing term for a fan of “The Rush Limbaugh Show.” To a fan there is no negative connotation at all.
It certainly sounds derogatory.
It does, but it's not. Nothing ruins a good derogatory term like pride [laughs]. The word dates back to the early days of the show when callers would begin by saying, "I'm so glad to hear someone on the radio who is articulating the conservative position and believes the same thing I do." At one point, someone let loose with this huge, flowery praise and then the next caller got on the air and said, "What that last caller said. Ditto." That's how the term dittohead was born.
It's unfortunate—at least it should be unfortunate to the dittohead nation—that it equates with mindlessly parroting whatever Rush says. If you ask a dittohead, "Why are you so proud that you mindlessly parrot Rush?" a lot of them will claim to disagree with him about a bunch of different issues. But when you say, "Like what?" they say, "I can't think of anything right now, but I'm sure there are things I disagree about."
Can you describe the typical dittohead? Are they really the smartest, most informed radio listeners in the country?
[Laughs]. I believe that's how they feel. I know I did. Rush makes you feel like an insider—like you know what's going on politically and everyone else is an idiot. Having been a dittohead I can tell you that the only benefit is you really know one side of an issue; you know nothing about the other side of that issue. You maintain a blissful ignorance about anything that disagrees with your worldview.
What separates Limbaugh from the other right-wing talk show hosts?
What makes him special is that he's the originator—the one who framed the debate for the right. He spawned this entire right-wing media empire and to a large degree it still looks to him as the voice of the movement. A lot of people ascribe these really nefarious motivations to him, but I don't think he's evil. I think he developed a worldview that made sense to him, and by the time he took to the airwaves it was a very polished easy-to-understand message. It worked well for him in the early ’90s when Clinton and the Democrats were in charge.
What has happened is that since the Republicans have taken power he has become an apologist for a party that is no longer conservative at all. Plus, a lot of the principles Rush espouses have been destroyed by reality. For instance, lowering taxes is supposed to equal more federal revenue, but for the first three years of George W. Bush's administration, federal revenue declined every year. That's the first time that has happened in the history of this country. Now Rush is defending his principles reflexively, even though there's not a whole lot he can point to that supports them.
I also think things are starting to get away from him a little bit, because Sean Hannity [syndicated radio host and cohost of FOX TV's “Hannity & Colmes”] has eliminated the idea of coming up with an original message. Hannity just reads whatever the GOP's talking points are for the day. It wouldn't surprise me to see Hannity move ahead of Rush in the next two or three years in terms of audience size, because he's already very close—within a quarter-million listeners. Yet a lot of true Rush fans can't stand Hannity. They don't like the way he debates, he's inarticulate and not a good flag-bearer. Hannity is the Simon Cowell [“American Idol,” “Pop Idol”] of political conversation. He says horrible things and people apparently have an affinity for people who say horrible things.
Since you mentioned Hannity, I'd like to ask about a few other right-wing media commentators. What comes to mind when you hear the name Bill O'Reilly?
The funny thing is that if you are a conservative you don't consider O'Reilly to be a conservative commentator. I know that sounds crazy. My dad doesn't like O'Reilly because he says he's too liberal, which to any liberal is just high comedy. But because he identifies himself as an independent, and one out of every hundred positions he espouses doesn't toe the party line, people tend to get turned off by him. I think he's a gift to the left because he unashamedly makes stuff up. He's a poster child for unexamined conservatism.
He is what Rush was about 10 years ago. When Glenn is not talking politics he is entertaining. When he is talking politics he sounds just like everybody else. Of all the conservative commentators, he's the one I would consider to be most entertaining, even though I don't agree with him politically.
He's just bat-shit crazy. If there's an edge, Savage can't even see it from where he is. That's how far over the edge he is.
She's over there with Michael Savage except she doesn't have the strength of conviction. I think she says what she says because it sells books.
What effect do you think right-wing talk show hosts like Limbaugh have had on political races in the past 15 years?
I think without question Rush was responsible for the Republican revolution of 1994. I think without question the right-wing media was responsible for the election of George W. Bush in 2000 and for the expansion of seats in 2002. At that point it reached its critical mass and has since been contracting a little bit. I know viewership for FOX News and listenership for a lot of these talk shows is down. Rush used to have an audience of 20 million listeners; now he's down to 12 million. People are getting burned out on the right-wing political debate, and I don't think it can have the same impact going forward. But it definitely will continue to form the core political beliefs of anywhere from 25 to 30 percent of the electorate.
What goes through your mind when you hear Limbaugh today?
I have been out since Feb. 25, 2004—that was my last day in the [Republican] Party. Ever since then, when I listen to Rush I think, "Can you believe this crap? Where is he even getting this?" I hear him harping on one thing that is completely destroyed by the four other things he fails to mention.
Today I can listen to Rush for about 45 seconds before I have to turn him off. Part of it is I'm ashamed that I never questioned anything he said and that it should have been obvious to me sooner. It's uncomfortable for me to go back and realize, "Oh, I totally would have bought that." But I sometimes feel obligated to listen because I'm the former dittohead guy and people want to know what I think about what he says. A couple of weeks ago he said Bush's popularity was waning because everybody knew we'd won the war in Iraq. Now that's just laugh-out-loud stupid.
In your opinion, does Limbaugh still believe everything he says or is it just about money now?
I don't think he's just doing it for the money. I think he's doing it for the sake of the Party. He still believes it's better for Republicans to be in control than Democrats. And I think he realizes that in 1992 he probably cost George H.W. Bush the election because he was very critical of Bush, and all the dittoheads threw their support to Ross Perot. That's what split the vote. I think he blames himself for that, and as a result he doesn't want to be the guy that costs the Republicans anything. Rush used to be intellectually honest and would let the chips fall where they may. He's too afraid to do that now because if he turns on Republicans it might put the Democrats in power.
How do dittoheads rationalize Limbaugh's drug addiction?
The drug addiction and marital problems should be a bigger issue than they are. I can't tell you why they didn't bother me, although to the dittohead nation prescription drugs are a much more elegant form of drug addiction. Dittoheads can say, "Oh, it's just prescription drugs. That's not a big deal. That's not like real drugs."
When it first broke that Rush had a drug problem he went on the air and said something like, "This is what I did. It's nobody else's fault. It's not society's fault. It's my fault and I will deal with this." There is a doctrine of personal responsibility in the Republican Party, and you have to take responsibility for your actions. He went on to say, "I don't want you to think of me as a hero because I'm not. I'm a flawed person." To have the balls to say, "Don't think of me as a hero," after being exposed as a drug addict, that takes some pretty good-sized cojones. I've never before or since seen any celebrity come out and say that.
My first thought was, "Of course he's a hero. He took one for the team. He knew people would be all over him, yet he admitted what he did wrong." That was pure, unadulterated genius. That was how he responded and it worked.
Who do you see as the audience for your book?
The audience for the book is any person who has a dittohead in their life and wonders, "What the hell are these people thinking?" What I've tried to do is take the reader inside the dittohead mindset. It's not something you can hand to a dittohead and have them admit, "Wow, I've been full of crap all these years." It's likely they are going to find defenses. But it does make a good retaliatory gift if someone has ever purchased an Ann Coulter book for you. If she's going to get rich off of it, why shouldn't I? I would like to sell one of my books for every Ann Coulter book sold in this country.
A lot of people are purchasing copies to give to dittohead friends and relatives. Do you believe it may help others to see the light?
Well, there is more than one type of dittohead. There are recreational listeners, there are hardcore listeners, and there are people who know of Rush but are unexamined conservatives. I think if you are an unexamined conservative and have an open mind to different sides of a debate it could be very beneficial. What it will do is disarm the idea that voting for a Democrat is dangerous. We have gotten so bad in this country that people actually think, "I can't vote for a Democrat because it's just too dangerous." I am helping to demystify the Democrats—illustrating that it's not a party of insanity, as it has been portrayed for the past 15 years.
Do you see yourself as part of a larger trend?
All I have is anecdotal evidence. Most of the ex-dittoheads that I meet are ex-military guys. They come back from Iraq and say, "Every night I watch FOX News and they tell me, 'This is what is happening in Iraq.' And it's not what’s happening."
Look at the upcoming midterm elections. We have 12 Iraq war veterans running for Congress as Democrats and one running as a Republican. That tells you something, and I think that's where the largest contingent of former dittoheads is going to come from.
Now that you are on the Democratic side, how is the Democratic experience different from the Republican experience?
Oh, it's like herding cats over here. It's so difficult to get everyone marching in lock step [laughs]. The experience is very different because there are a lot of varied opinions and a lot of single-issue Democrats. I think Howard Dean said it best when he said that the Democratic Party looks like the state of California; the only majority in the Democratic Party is women. It's that level of diversity that makes it difficult to walk in lockstep. But I find that Democrats really do like having an honest, open discussion about the issues. Republicans sort of know what the issues are and know their side of the issues very well, but they don't want to hear any other opinions so there's no discussion. The greatest strength and greatest weakness of the Democratic Party is its diversity.
If you could change something about the Democratic Party, what would it be?
It's not because I disagree with them or are mad at them, but I think it's time to change the leadership. I think it's time for there to be new talking heads for the Democratic Party because the old ones have been demonized to hell and back. Their image has been pushed so far out of the mainstream that it's almost more difficult to try to get them back than to say, "We are going to elect new leadership." It's time to step aside and let a new generation of leadership take over.
Another thing the Democrats need to do—and this may seem counterintuitive—is to stop responding to Republicans. They should just tell the voters what they are going to do. When Democrats respond with their own catchphrases they are acknowledging the legitimacy of Republican catchphrases and making it a battle of catchphrases, which doesn't serve the public discourse at all.
Right now the whole left-right debate is so far removed from resolving any issues it's not even funny. I think we need to get away from that. The way to do that is not to react to Republicans but to say, "We're moving beyond you now."
What mistakes do you see the Republicans making heading into the midterm elections?
I think theirs is an error of arrogance. At this point, they are convinced that Democrats have made themselves irrelevant. Republicans are running on a single issue. In 2004 it was gay marriage. In 2006 it's going to be immigration. But each time they use this single-issue approach the outrage factor is losing traction. And they are not changing their playbook to reflect a changing electorate. People are mad about real issues: The economy is bad, health insurance is incredibly expensive, gas prices are through the roof and you can't respond to that with a “blame the Mexicans” message. At some point, you have to address the issues that mean something to the average person. They haven't gotten there yet. And they haven't had to. They've been able to rest on their laurels for a very long time.
Today most Americans think this country is going in the wrong direction. Most Americans are uncomfortable with the situation in the Middle East. Most Americans are uncomfortable with their personal financial situation. There's one party in control of the White House, the House, Senate and Supreme Court, and it's a two-party system. So if you're unhappy you really only have one choice. It should be a very easy decision to make.
In general, how has the right-wing media reacted to your book?
I have been on four or five local right-wing talk shows. I keep waiting for a conservative to read my book and show me that I'm wrong. Obviously, I went from being a dittohead to a liberal so I am willing to admit I'm wrong. But that hasn't happened yet. I think their plan is to ignore the book and hope it will go away, which I hope will not be the case.
I'm sure Limbaugh will never acknowledge your existence.
My ultimate goal is to have Rush sue me, and I really wish that would happen. But he's too smart for that. He wouldn't give me that kind of publicity.
This article was originally printed in failuremag.com.