22 November 2010

More Tea Leaves: Is Glenn Beck the Medium or the Message?

When people said they hate us, well, did we deserve 9/11? No. But were we minding our business? No. Were we in bed with dictators and abandoned [sic] our values and principles? Yes. That causes problems.
-- Glenn Beck, April 2010.

The December 9 issue of The New York Review of Books is a tale of three rallies in Washington D.C. While Janet Malcolm scornfully contemplated the October 30 Comedy Central rally while wistfully admiring the October 2 One Nation Working Together gathering, Mark Lilla looks further back to Glenn Beck's August 28 Restoring Honor event. Lilla, who wrote about "Tea Party Jacobins" earlier this year, has two pieces in the new issue. The shorter piece is a comment on the midterm elections and a warning against identifying the Tea Parties simplistically with the Republican party. Republicans themselves are wrong to see the TPs as "a fundamentally right-wing phenomenon," while Democrats are wrong to ignore the "passions" behind them. For Lilla, one of the defining characteristics of TPs is their "conviction that self-interested elites are running the show." It's a lingering passion, he admits, but one that only Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have managed to exploit effectively. By comparison, the current President "has put the limousine back in American liberalism," while his partisan supporters "seem unreconciled to the fact that in democratic societies you go into elections with the nation you have, not the nation you'd wish for." This sounds like a call for pandering or, as Lilla euphemistically puts it, "economic populism." He's confused by Obama's perceived failure to appeal to populist impulses and his alleged inability to connect with "those people with the misspelled signs." All they want, after all, is a more fair society.

There is still one powerful symbol the Democrats could capture because today's Republicans explicitly reject it: fairness. 'Life isn't fair' is a refrain you hear constantly from the right. Yet there is a strong sense in the nation today that things are rigged, especially at the top of the economic ladder, and this has only intensified since the bailouts of early 2009....This is the one area where [Democrats] could get a toehold, if not with the Tea Party hardcore then with the vast numbers of independents who sympathize with it and have floated back to the Republican party because of it.

To get a better sense of what the independents believe or feel about fairness or other concerns, Lilla thinks we need to take a closer look at Glenn Beck. Lilla's longer piece is a sprawling review of books by and about Beck, whom Lilla calls "the most gifted demagogue America has produced since Father Coughlin." Beck succeeds, Lilla claims, because he acts as a kind of mirror to his public.

I’m coming to the conclusion that searching for the “real” Glenn Beck makes no sense. The truth is, demagogues don’t have cores. They are mediums, channeling currents of public passion and opinion that they anticipate, amplify, and guide, but do not create; the less resistance they offer, the more successful they are....what makes him particularly appealing to his audience is not his positions, it is that he appears to feel and fear and admire and instinctively believe what his listeners do, even when their feelings, fears, esteem, and beliefs are changing or self-contradictory. This is the gift of the true demagogue, to successfully identify his own self, rather than his opinions, with the selves of his followers—and to equate both with the “true” nation.

What do Americans see in themselves when they contemplate Beck? One thing they don't see, Lilla insists, is orthodox Republicanism. The epigraph, quoted by Lilla, isn't the typical language of a Republican cheerleader. In his published works, Beck also takes a tone unexpected by those who've only heard about him instead of listening to him. For instance: "Under President Bush, politics and global corporations dictated much of our economic and border policy....politicians on both sides have gathered illegitimte new powers -- playing on our fears and desire for security and economic stability -- at the expense of our freedoms."

Beck apparently comes close to self-parody in his novel The Overton Window, which Lilla describes as "a kind of inverted Ayn Rand novel" in which the author "idealizes the common folk who resist the John Galts and Howard Roarks of the world." Rand and Beck, whom Lilla identifies consistently as a libertarian, are nearly opposite poles of that movement. While Rand might applaud rule by the right kind of elites as a meritocratically just result, Beck expresses an utter aversion to elitism in any form that is shared, Lilla presumes, by his listeners and readers. This seems to be more than class envy or anti-intellectualism -- a deeper fear that masses of us are being shut out of power when we're actually supposed to rule.

Lilla is especially interested in the newest stage of Beck's evolution, revealed in his religious rhetoric at the August rally. Beck argues lately that the nation needs a moral if not religious revival (Lilla claims that Beck is ecumenical on this point) before real social or political reform can happen. He rails against a culture of casual indebtedness in an implicit reproach to what Lilla calls "the grab-it-all gospel preached by the Republican Party since the Reagan years." This is part of a groping effort to "sketch out some kind of prophetic vision for his Tea Party followers, linking the libertarian politics they say they want to the individual spiritual transformation he now says they need." Lilla claims that Beck is positioning himself as a "Moses" figure, but finds him reminiscent of Gary Cooper's character in Frank Capra's Meet John Doe: an opportunist hired to read a script but transformed by its message. The metaphor is unclear: is Beck the transfigured mouthpiece or the manipulator behind the scenes who plots to exploit the movement for personal political gain? Or is he both at once? Lilla's account isn't entirely convincing. I suspect, for instance, that many Beck fans feel that the rest of America, not themselves, need to change their ways. But this analysis of Beck is instructive insofar as it shows us that there are potentially dangerous, but also potentially malleable forces in the country that don't fit the Republican stereotype. If we see the Republican party as our primary problem, or assume that every reactionary element out there is under its power, we may well be missing the point as badly as if we were speeding past in the archetypal liberal limousine.


hobbyfan said...

Orthodox Republicanism? That spells oxymoron to me, Sam.

Anonymous said...

I feel I have to interject here. First, I really detest the notion of the teabaggers claiming that "self-interested elitists" are running the show. Since teabaggers seem to represent the idea of "self-interested non-elitists" running the show. The point being that a large part of what is wrong with our government is the notion of "self-interest" period.

Next problem I have is with "those with the misspelled signs". If you aren't even educated well enough to write simple messages in your own native language correctly, why should anyone assume you have the education or intellect necessary to deal with the complex issues we are facing?

Basically, the teabaggers represent nothing more than mob rule with demigogues such as Beck not leading so much as pointing out targets. These people need to be made to understand that as long as they remain stupid and willfully ignorant, selfish and self-centered, they have no more place in leadership positions than the current crop of DC insiders.