The GOP's 'Beck Problem'

The debate over Glenn Beck is fascinating, but both sides have missed the real truth. Glenn Beck’s current position of prominence is a problem, but not for the reason that his opponents imagine.

The debate has come down to a question of whether Beck is good for conservatism. Dan Riehl argues Beck is made prominent by the media because he hurts conservatism. Bernard Chapin provides the counterpunch that Beck is under attack by the media because he’s good for conservatism and revitalizes it.

The problem is that few people are as strategic as Chapin or Riehl suggests. Certainly, Fred Phelps and his ghoulish family are given prominent media play to tar actual conservative Christians, and the media never mentions Phelps’ support for Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 1988. Similarly, I’ve seen people I know to be reasonable, decent folks turned into monsters by the media in order to marginalize them.

However, this can’t be said of all media action. Would anyone say conservatives are attacking Keith Olbermann to make him prominent to give us election wins? Your average voter could care less about the latest outrageous statement by the Sportscenter alumnus. Conservatives attack Olbermann because they don’t like him. If there’s some grand strategy behind it, it’s not working. Nor would anyone say that Sean Hannity has James Carville or Bob Beckel on his show in order to make Democrats look like buffoons. Well, they wouldn’t say it about Carville, anyway.

The news media is about passion, energy, and novelty. “George Will writes bland intellectual column” isn’t news. “Glenn Beck throws down the gauntlet to the Obama administration on national television while wearing lederhosen.” Now, that’s news.

It’s silly to charge Glenn Beck with being bad for conservatism and bad for the Republican Party. Do Beck bashers imagine that people are going to say, “The economy may be awful and I may agree more with the Republicans, but I can’t stand that Glenn Beck, so I’m voting for the Democrats”? Will that show up in the exit polls?

The job of a talk show host is not to help or hurt a political party, and it suggests a soulless view of politics where we exist only as creatures of “the party.” His job is to be informative and entertaining. Beck has done that for many years. Those who have become aware of Beck’s existence in the Obama years may not be aware that Beck has done several non-political concert tours across the country. In 2007 and the early part of 2008, when you tuned into Beck on the radio, you were as likely to hear about the previous evening’s episode of American Idol as you were the political issue of the day.

However, in the last couple of years, Beck’s show has begun to change, taking on a darker, more concerned, perhaps even apocalyptic tone, and with good reason. The country’s political elite has begun to take steps that move our country into immediate peril.

Beck has done something unusual for a talk show host by bringing forth ideas and agendas. Beck as a political commentator is not a problem; Beck as a political leader is a problem. Think of how well it would work if somebody had quarterback Brett Favre pitch a Major League Baseball game. Beck knows as much about leading a political party as Favre does facing down the Yankees.

Beck’s solutions sound like clichés -- populism with a touch of Oprah. At the march on Washington, Beck focused on corruption because corruption is bad and we all agree on that. Beck further extended an offer to fifty-six members of Congress to come clean, bash their own parties, and become one of the exclusive set of re-Founding Fathers (operators are standing by). And of course, Beck suggests non-partisanship as a solution to everything. “It’s not about right vs. left; it’s about right vs. wrong.”

The problem with Beck’s non-partisan/corruption approach is twofold. First, rank corruption is a problem, but solving corruption is not going to avert catastrophe. There is $9 trillion in debt coming our country’s way over the next ten years, $44 trillion in unfunded liabilities for Social Security and Medicare. The idea that getting rid of corrupt politicians will solve this is like expecting that firing the first mate of the Titanic for embezzlement would save the ship.