The Conservative Debate Over Glenn Beck

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 ( and for Horowitz and 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Beck continually cite Singer’s views as if they were the same as Sunstein’s. They are not, and to date, Beck has not withdrawn these claims.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.