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Ron Radosh

The Conservative Debate Over Glenn Beck

September 21st, 2009 - 1:13 pm

There is a major debate going on in conservative ranks about the role being played by radio and TV talk-show host Glenn Beck. David Horowitz and David Frum have been expressing their disparate viewpoints on their websites (www.newsrealblog.com and www.frontpagemag.com for Horowitz and www.newmajority.com for Frum). On Monday, both agreed to carry out a formal exchange that you can find here.

Frum argues that Beck often makes unsubstantiated or exaggerated charges. As an example, he  points to what he considers a crude and undocumented attack on Cass Sunstein, amounting to the  reiteration of the charge that Sunstein, now confirmed as director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the OMB, favors animals having the right to sue individuals via lawyers representing them against humans.

Frum contends that rather than being a wild-eyed radical, he is a choice conservatives can not only live with, but should support. He notes accurately that Sunstein’s decisions and views have been praised by scores of conservatives and besides, he is the best candidate that they could hope for in an Obama administration. Moreover, Frum argues that Sunstein does not support the rather far out views of Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer on animal rights.  Indeed, I have heard Beck continually cite Singer’s views as if they were the same as Sunstein’s. They are not, and to date, Beck has not withdrawn these claims.

Frum says Beck is a right-wing populist, whose rantings create a serious danger for conservatives who seek to reach the American people, especially the middle class and independents who are not conservatives but who are on the center-right. He’s afraid that by supporting Beck’s reckless style and thereby legitimizing him, conservatives risk further marginalizing the Republican brand. Conservatives, Frum writes, must emancipate “ourselves from leadership by the most stupid, the most cynical, and the most truthless.”

Horowitz responds that the lengths Frum goes to for the purpose of demonizing Beck are indefensible. Moreover, he argues that Glenn Beck is “on our side,” – the side of conservatism. If not for Beck, Van Jones would not have been exposed and lost his appointment, and the ACORN videos would not have had the impact that has forced Congress to vote to defund them and the Census Bureau to break its contract to use ACORN employees to canvas for the new census. In this, Horowitz is undoubtedly correct.  As for Sunstein, he agrees that Beck may have exaggerated or distorted Sunstein’s actual positions. But he argues that Frum ignores the fact that Sunstein is willing to serve with the radicals that Obama has appointed and has not spoken up about the attempts of the administration to use its power to stop dissent and isolate conservatives from a serious debate.

On Monday, Frum’s arguments were endorsed by former White House speechwriter Peter Wehner. Writing at Contentions, Wehner argues that as he sees Beck, the TV host is “more of a populist and libertarian than a conservative, more of a Perotista than a Reaganite.” He sees many of his claims as “unfair and not good for the country” and his contempt for all political parties as anti-Burkean. Wehner’s attention is focused mainly on Beck’s style, and he calls his shtick as “a mix of fear, resentment and anger.” Acknowledging that much of what he has done is “fine and appropriate,” he concludes that the role Beck plays today  is “harmful in its totality.” Like Frum, he is upset that many are content to see Beck as the public face of today’s conservatism.

Indeed, I would agree that Beck does often go over the top. Wehner is correct that Beck throws out words like American imperialism, and last week I heard him complain about how America became an empire. He does not seem to comprehend that many of these assertions are those of the Left and men like Van Jones, whose job in the administration he rightfully fought against because of Jones’ Communist views. No one seems to have told Beck this or stopped to correct him.

I have my own tiff with him. In the chart he put on this famous blackboard on Friday, he put Woodrow Wilson at the bottom as the centerpiece and creator of the radical statist or socialist country that he fears America is becoming.  He rattled on about the number of political prisoners Wilson had in jail, and the war he brought the nation into. Now I realize Beck gets his view of Wilson from a chapter in Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, but aside from this, I doubt whether Beck has read anything else about Wilson. If he had, he might have realized that Wilson was an opponent not only of the Bolshevik regime in Russia, but of America’s domestic radicals at home. The people Wilson thought of as dangerous to America were the counterparts of those Beck is fighting today. Yes, Wilson violated civil liberties and used the Espionage and Sedition Act of 1918 to imprison dissenters- including my own cousin, who became the subject of a major Supreme Court case, Abrams v. United States.

This week, Beck achieved the ultimate — the cover of Time magazine.  He also received an extended analysis from the New York Times’ ultra-liberal columnist and former theater critic, Frank Rich. The Time article by David Von Drehle , despite some real negatives about Beck, has guaranteed perhaps a tenfold increase in his audience, at least this week. Whatever the article says, the cover photo of Beck, who characteristically shows his disdain for the MSM by sticking his tongue out for the magazine’s photographer, makes it clear that the man is important and cannot be ignored — and perhaps is somewhat of a clown.

Some conservatives have challenged the accuracy of comparing Beck to the Birch Society of the 1950s and to invoking historian Richard Hofstadter’s classic book on the “paranoid style” in American politics as a vehicle for explaining Beck’s appeal. They are particularly upset about Von Drehle’s line that “you’d think the Palm in Washington had been replaced with a Munich beer hall,”  a snide way of intimating that Beck is a nascent Nazi, without saying so openly. Yet, as David Swindle points out in his piece on the article, the left-wing Media Matters condemns the article as a pro-Beck puff job, while the conservative News Busters site regards it as a generally fair assessment.

Swindle himself argues the unfairness of equating Beck with the fringe Right long ago expelled from the ranks of conservatism by William F. Buckley Jr., but he does praise the magazine for admitting that some times, Beck gets it right. Von Drehle writes:

This flexible narrative often contains genuinely uncomfortable truths. Some days “they” are the unconfirmed policy “czars” whom Beck fears Obama is using to subvert constitutional government — and he has some radical-sounding sound bites to back it up. Some days “they” are the network of leftist community organizers known as ACORN — and his indictment of the group is looking stronger every day.

That paragraph alone must have come as a shock to many of Time’s readers. Of course, Beck’s defenders will not like Von Drehle’s conclusion that Beck is “at once powerful, spellbinding and uncontrolled, like William Jennings Bryan whipping up populist Democrats over moneyed interests or the John Birch Society brooding over fluoride.” But that is his opinion, and he has a right to it, and he can be argued with. Overall, he has not written an anti-Beck screed, but a fairly balanced assessment. Indeed, he makes the same argument as Horowitz, that Beck is responsible for both the forced resignation of Van Jones and the collapse of ACORN.

One cannot, of course, say the same for Frank Rich, whose columns make the other liberal pundits at the New York Times appear to be rather conservative. In his weekly column on Sunday, Rich calls Glenn Beck the only hero of the crowd that marched on Washington on 9/12. Rich realizes Beck is something different than Rush Limbaugh, and is not one of the Republican Party’s stalwarts. He is not “cranky or pompous,” Rich acknowledges, and is not part of the old Christian Right that Rich and other liberals feared not so long ago.  Beck, he says, owns up to his mistakes, and makes it clear that in the recent past, he was hardly a model citizen.

He describes Beck as a combination of Randian libertarianism (although as yet I don’t think Beck has ever spoken about Ayn Rand), “self-help homilies and lunatic conspiracy theories.”  He says Beck is a “right-wing populist in the classic American style,” and he compares him to Father Coughlin during the Great Depression and George Wallace in the 1960s.

In so doing, Rich seems unaware that  Coughlin was originally a fierce defender of FDR and the New Deal and  used his radio platform to proclaim the New Deal as “Christ’s Deal,” and was only disowned and called a demagogue after he turned on Roosevelt and engaged in blatant anti-Semitism and isolationism.  Up to that time, liberals of the day had no problem with his outrageous style. As for George Wallace, the governor filled a void left as mainstream liberals refused to face the class issues Wallace exploited; it was not racism that got Wallace major support, but his backing of issues others would not touch. Thus Wallace castigated forced busing in Boston, a technique that was  supposed to attain desegregation, but which alienated white Irish working class voters and inflamed divisions existing in America. Had other mainstream Democrats done the same — only Scoop Jackson of Washington tried — it might have resulted in minimizing the inroads Wallace was making before he was shot at a campaign rally.

Yet Rich is correct (even a far left columnist like Rich can be right occasionally) when he writes that a Southern Republicanism will not be able to capture the White House. The reasons, however, are not those advanced by Rich, but can be found in the important essay in The Claremont Review of Books by Henry Olsen, vice-president of The American Enterprise Institute, which appears in their current issue. In the essay “The Emerging Republican Majority?” (unfortunately not posted online) Olson points out that the suburban drift away from the GOP, pointed to as a reason for a Democratic resurgence in 2001 by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira in their own book, seemed wrong when it was published “but soon seemed prescient.”

Olsen understands that these two authors of the Left were correct when they argued “that demographic changes would usher in a Democratic majority by the end of the decade.” Republicans, he writes, must recognize that the Republican base has changed since the 1980. And that means that “social conservatives cannot win by themselves.” Moreover, a “united base” has to appeal to suburbanites outside of the Deep South, and that a majority cannot be built from Southern and rural states alone.  He decries Republicans who talk in “sectarian and admonishing tones” and denounce those who do not support their own agenda.

My digression to Olsen’s essay is important because it talks to my problem with Glenn Beck. Yes, David Horowitz is right that Beck forcefully raised issues that others shied away from, and forced action that otherwise might not have been taken.  Yet I think he is not correct that the problem is simply, as he writes in answer to Frum, that Republicans and conservatives play by “Marquis of Queensbery rules,” and that in a war when the other side is out to destroy conservatives, they have to fight equally to destroy the Left. In-your-face conservative masses who are energized and angry, contrary to what David thinks, are not sufficient to win a majority anytime soon. A base is necessary to provide energy and enthusiasm, but as Olsen shows, without attention to demographic trends and public opinion, it is hardly enough to win.

Another final defense of Beck appears from another friend of mine, Harry Stein. Writing on the website of the City Journal, Stein argues that although some conservatives view Beck with “embarrassing disdain,” he is good for conservatives and good for America.  But Beck is not seeking power, he says, but only seeking to curb the current abuses of power taking place within the ranks of the current Democratic administration. And like David Horowitz, he agrees that no one has been more effective than Beck in getting results.

Stein notes that few on the other side complain about the incivility of MSNBC or The Huffington Post. True enough—but conservatives and centrists always do. Indeed, some would argue that Beck is the conservative twin brother of Keith Olbermann, and the ranting that turns so many off when Olbermann talks works equally to turn many off when engaged in by Beck.

So where do I come out? I would say that a consensus has thankfully been reached. And let me give the last word to David Horowitz, who reasonably accepts part of what David Frum has said, when he makes the following point. Beck, he says in one of his blogs, has done good things and must be given credit for this and not be read out of the conservative movement. Yet he agrees that Beck must be “reined in” and corrected when he goes too far. If those in the conservative ranks who support Beck do just that, Beck’s excesses can be tempered, and those who do not like him will listen to him more carefully when he is right. Now that Beck has become so important, it is imperative that those who do think he should be supported and who disagree with Frum and Wehner, carefully watch what he says and call him on it when he goes too far. If they do not, only the conservative movement will suffer.

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