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The Dangers of Politicized Conservative History

Wilentz takes on Beck’s self-proclaimed role as America’s history teacher. Beck, he notes, says that his new Beck University contains “lessons from the best and brightest historians and scholars that we can find.” Wilentz scoffs at this outlandish claim, since Beck’s lineup of three faculty members contains only one real scholar, James R. Stoner Jr., a political scientist from Louisiana State University.  Of the two others, one is a management consultant and the other a Mormon activist, the head of a “pro-family” group called WallBuilders.

Wilentz, like Zaitchik and Hemingway, notes the similarities of  the ideas now popularized  by Beck and the “ideas that circulated on the extremist right a half century ago, especially in the John Birch Society.” Those familiar with conservative history know that the Birchers were kicked out of the mainstream movement of its day in the 50s by none other than William F. Buckley, Jr. As Hemingway writes, “Skousen was active with the John Birch Society throughout the 1960s, even going so far as to write another book titled The Communist Attack on the John Birch Society, accusing those that criticized Birchers of promoting Communism.”

Wilentz takes readers on a tour of Birch Society history, from the crackpot theories of its leader Robert Welch, most known for condemning Dwight D. Eisenhower as a Communist, and on to Skousen, whom Wilentz calls “the most outlandish of the era’s right-wing anti-Communists,” a judgment with which I heartily concur. For Wilentz, “The political universe is, of course, very different today from what it was during the Cold War. Yet the Birchers’ politics and their view of American history — which focused more on totalitarian threats at home than on those posed by the Soviet Union and Communist China — has proved remarkably persistent.”

Another book which Beck regularly promotes is the The 5000 Year Old Leap, which was republished recently with an introduction by Beck. Wilentz points out accurately (I recently read the book) that it is made up of “selective quotations and groundless assertions that claim the U.S. Constitution is rooted not in the Enlightenment but in the Bible, and that the framers believed in minimal central government. Either proposition would have astounded James Madison, often described as the guiding spirit behind the Constitution, who rejected state-established religions, and like Alexander Hamilton, proposed a central government so strong that it could veto state laws.”  (To this, Peter Berkowitz argues that actually “the tea party movement's focus on keeping government within bounds and answerable to the people reflects the devotion to limited government embodied in the Constitution.” )

Wilentz then asks an important question: how is it that “extremist ideas held at bay for decades inside the Republican Party have exploded anew—and why, this time, Party leaders have done virtually nothing to challenge those ideas, and a great deal to abet them”? Here, Wilentz seems to lose sight of the fact that while Beck might restate and seem to agree with the Bircher analysis -- and at times has openly credited them -- he is not a leader of the Republican Party, but a radio and TV talk show host, granted an influential one.

The Tea Party movement is another matter, since many of their groups are taking Beck’s advice and making Skousen’s books mandatory reading material. Just as the left goes to Zinn for inspiration and spurious historical backing for their politics, some in the Tea Party seem to be going to Skousen to find a usable past, one that seemingly provides them with a direct line to the  Founding Fathers.  And that is a particularly dangerous route to take.

In the second part of his article, Wilentz uses his portrayal of Beck-style history to argue that the concerns of Tea Party activists and regular citizens who are now supporting Republicans and Tea Party candidates in the coming election are wrong. This is where his argument falls apart. He essentially says if their history is bad, that means so are their current political concerns and positions. This is simply not true.  But it is true that today’s conservative activist base deserves better than ideologically created phony history that is both incorrect and misleading.

What Wilentz also does not get is addressed by Peter Berkowitz in his op-ed in the weekend Wall Street Journal, “Why Liberals Don’t Get the Tea Party Movement.” Berkowitz writes:

Vast numbers of other highly educated people read and hear these dubious pronouncements, smile knowingly, and nod their heads in agreement. University educations and advanced degrees notwithstanding, they lack a basic understanding of the contours of American constitutional government.

The Tea Party is, he notes, “one of the most spectacular grass-roots movements in American history,” notwithstanding some of the obvious faults of a few of their candidates and their tendency to adopt bad history when looking at the past. But their current movement derives from justified anger about the present. Berkowitz understands that “the tea party sports its share of clowns, kooks and creeps. And some of its favored candidates and loudest voices have made embarrassing statements and embraced reckless policies. This, however, does not distinguish the tea party movement from the competition.” At the end of the day, the Tea Partiers are calling for conservative solutions that have been successfully applied in the past.  As Berkowitz writes, “activists and the sizeable swath of voters who sympathize with them want to reduce the massively ballooning national debt, cut runaway federal spending, keep taxes in check, reinvigorate the economy, and block the expansion of the state into citizens' lives.”