What’s the point of being annoyed with Glenn Beck? He’s an opinion commentator, not a political decisionmaker.
Beck strikes me in some ways as being a philosophical bellwether of a large segment of the people. That’s one thing that accounts for his popularity. It seems to me that we are seeing him on the same trajectory as many of our fellow countrymen: rediscovering (or discovering for the first time) the great debates that have shaped us as a nation, and understanding for the first time why we are where we are today.
I literally grew up, from my earliest years, steeped in this history and these debates. Fellow conservatives like Bill Bennett and Peter Wehner came to them earlier in life too. But I think anyone of our generation (OK, I’m WAY younger than Bennett) would agree that it was unusual to have that interest and perspective at the time. Glenn Beck is a slightly younger contemporary, and he’s much more like most Americans his age in not having absorbed much history — and certainly not political and philosophical history — in his teens and 20s. He would be the first to admit that; I’m not saying anything about him that he hasn’t said about himself.
It has to be startling and galvanizing to be in your forties and realize that as a kid, you were sold a bill of goods about your country’s origins, the meaning of its history, and what it stands for. That you were taught, for example, that there was a groundswell of sentiment during the FDR years for state dirigisme and collectivism, when in fact FDR had to railroad Congress and the people just as Obama is trying to now, and he excoriated and plotted to undermine the Supreme Court for deeming his agenda unconstitutional. To think of the multigenerational collusion it took, in academia and the media, to subvert and whitewash the actual history – it’s mind-boggling when encountered for the first time.
I grew up knowing that history. I grew up knowing the things Jonah Goldberg brought to public view again in Liberal Fascism, and Amity Shlaes in The Forgotten Man. You couldn’t read James Burnham, Ludwig von Mises, Friederich Hayek, William F. Buckley, Jr., M. Stanton Evans, Whittaker Chambers, Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, and Robert Conquest – and not know them. Long-time conservatives from the Buckley-Goldwater-Reagan tradition have always known these things, and have also been very clear over the years on the divisions and “types” in the Republican Party. The existence of RINOs doesn’t have the immediacy of offense for these “legacy conservatives” that it has for Beck.
I think legacy conservatives need to be understanding of where many Americans are philosophically today. They haven’t spent their sentient lives recognizing how our polity has been deviating from the concept of the Founders, and watching it happen with varying degrees of anger, frustration, prayer against calamity, and resignation. They are seeing it clearly for the first time: the proposition that you can’t have just a little bit of entitlement and dependency, or just a little bit of government intervention, and only against the things you, personally, dislike. They didn’t understand before that liberty can’t, in fact, survive centrally-directed collectivist programs. Nor did they understand that centrally-directed collectivism is exactly what too many of our 20th-century government programs are.
I would give Beck time, because we have to give the American people time. The good news about Glenn Beck is that he is educating himself using largely the right tools. Through educating himself, he is educating millions of Americans – people who would otherwise never see key political propositions examined critically as they are in Beck’s broadcasts.
Conservative commentators fill different roles, and sensitizing his audience to history is – surprisingly, perhaps, for a self-styled rodeo clown – a key element of Beck’s. He gets it right more often than not, and he highlights things no one else with such an audience does, like the history demonstrating the essential, philosophical antithesis of left-progressivism and limited-government constitutionalism – and the fact, known by hardly anyone today, that presidents as revered as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were on the side of the former.
The popularizing of rare intellectual insights is never pretty. But it’s necessary. I’d rather it were happening than not, especially in such a time as this. Legacy conservatives cannot, after all, claim to have been so effective over time that we’re the only ones the people should listen to. Whether we enjoy it or not, the blunt, uncompromising attitude that there simply must be less government, and that those who are willing to settle for more cannot be our leaders any longer, is the main thing that is necessary to actually roll anything back. If we could do it without that attitude, blowing across America like a cleansing wind, it would be done already. But we can’t.
Glenn Beck isn’t the Man with the Plan: the one who is ready to step forward and govern when that widespread attitude shift creates the charter we need, to navigate toward government that is once again limited, constitutional, and federal. But neither is Bill Bennett, much as I esteem him. I don’t know that we see that individual on the horizon yet. I do think we’ll know him – or her—when we see him. Until then, I consider it healthy rather than not for conservatives of all stripes to hear from the Beck contingent: the contingent for whom the indignation is still fresh that we have squandered so much of what the Founders labored to endow us with.
Liberty isn’t preserved by the pursuit of intellectual perfection, after all – that’s a luxury that is consequent on liberty. Like anything worth having in life, liberty is gained and preserved through passion, exertion, tenacity; through prioritization and singlemindedness; through the dropping of bad habits and the cultivation of good ones. This doesn’t mean there’s a 12-step program that guarantees liberty, but most of us know through experience that the adjustments we all need to “get it right” in life are very simple ones: not intellectually complex, just hard – and more rewarding than we ever dreamed. That’s a more useful message for many Americans right now than almost any other. I don’t disdain Glenn Beck one bit for being the messenger.
Cross-posted at The Optimistic Conservative.