The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Beck to the Past

The Weekend Rally Demonstrated Both What Is Good and Bad in Contemporary Populist Conservatism

FOX News commentator Glenn Beck held a rally on the National Mall in Washington DC this past weekend. Exact numbers varied but the size of the crowd it attracted was huge and impressive by any standard. Beck insisted the event was apolitical but parallels between it and Tea Party rallies were obvious. In this sense, the rally demonstrated both what is good and what is bad about the populism gaining traction within contemporary conservative philosophy.

The size of the crowd demonstrated irrefutably for anyone who did not believe so already that the Tea Party, in all its various forms, as well as other conservative grassroots activists, are not a small band of far-right fringe fanatics. Instead, they are the most vocal contingent of widespread dissatisfaction with the country’s recent economic performance and the inability of the federal government to address it adequately.

Whatever questions still need answers about the motives of those organizing and funding these rallies, the vast majority of the people turning out to support them are both genuine and sincere. Whether one agrees with what all the things said at the rally, it was a beautiful example of democracy in action, carried out through our right to peaceably assemble and speak our minds.

The first good thing about this populist gathering was the lack of any possible openings for opponents to raise criticisms of racism, thereby forcing conservatives to defend themselves or counterattack in response. This was important since the crowd, as with Tea Party rallies, was predominantly white. The counterdemonstration organized by the Reverend Al Sharpton and others proved unnecessary and felt overwrought.

Many expressed skepticism over Beck’s choice of the anniversary and location of Martin Luther King Jr.’s immortal “I Have A Dream” speech for his own venue. However, Beck and the organizers treated King’s memory with the utmost respect and honor. Clarence Jones, King's personal attorney and speechwriter, said he believed King would be “pleased and honored” by the event.

MLK Jr. was a great black American and a hero to most of his race. However, he has become not simply a black American hero but an American hero to all Americans over the years. It is completely acceptable – as well as in line with the doctrine Doctor King preached – that any group of Americans should be able to gather and honor him without requiring significant African American participation/leadership to make the celebration legitimate.

The second good thing about Beck’s rally was its general tone, which felt energized and expressed dissatisfaction plainly but far less angrily and unattractively than have some past Tea Party rallies. The advance request by Beck to all those attending not to bring signs/posters helped to prevent the inflammatory, hateful, and sometimes even violent examples of dissent on which past media coverage have focused.

Such restraint and self-policing are exactly what the NAACP and other groups called upon the movement to do earlier this summer. Beck and other organizers deserve praise for a commonsense approach along these lines.

The third good thing about the rally – and probably the main reason for the first two – was its focus more on joint views in which a majority of attendees believed rather than a disjointed and occasionally incoherent litany of reasons for their anger. I hope the success of the rally and its generally upbeat portrayal in the media will convince more confrontational conservatives that positive campaigning can be just as effective as negative attacks.

In spite of these good things, the rally still carried reminders of the bad things I see in conservative populism. The first of these is its in-your-face piety. While its agitators, such as Beck, love denouncing “liberal intelligentsia elites,” conservatives routinely practice sanctimoniousness on issues they believe themselves the exclusive owners.

For Beck last weekend, one such topic was faith and traditional religious values. Warning the crowd, “For too long, this country has wandered in darkness,” Beck implored, “I ask, not only if you would pray on your knees, but pray on your knees with your door open for your children to see.”

Calling on Americans to follow our own values is a far better message than incendiary complaints over the building of an Islamic community center with a prayer room too near Ground Zero as an act of effrontery by an inherently violent, evil religion. Nor do I object to parents engaging in religious/moral instruction with their children.

Yet I cannot help but contrast Beck’s “open door” prayer policy with the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus admonished his followers specifically, “When you pray, enter into your room and when you have shut the door, pray to your Father in secret.” In contrast, Beck seems rather like “the hypocrites, [who] love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men.” For some conservatives, this seems to be as true for their patriotism as it is for their piety.

Again, I have no objection to pride in this country or its occasional heartfelt expression. However, I get the feeling sometimes that too many conservatives wear the flag on their sleeves as a kind of shibboleth. When speakers like Beck or Palin repeatedly feel the need to insist nothing beyond love of country motivates them, I find it hard to avoid skeptically question whether something else might indeed be motivating them.

The other bad thing I see in contemporary conservatism is the aura of degeneration it projects. Despite a promise by Beck, “Today we are going to concentrate on the good things in America . . . and the things that we can do tomorrow,” the very themes of the day – restoring honor, turn back to God, a return to traditional values – were retrogressive, reflecting a backward-looking, rather than forwards-looking, mindset.

This is not surprising, considering the Republican Party’s core audience these days – an audience whose demographics contain many similarities with Tea Party participants. Ross Douthat of the New York Times characterized the rally as “a long festival of affirmation for middle-class white Christians.” His colleague, Paul Krugman, adds affluence to the mix, noting, “Nobody is angrier these days than the very, very rich.”

I re-emphasize this is not the supercilious anger of racism. Instead, it is frustration from recognition that cultural/religious conservatives are losing their place as the majority constituency within the U.S. population as well as their past dominance of its leadership positions. In fairness, they have legitimate fears over the current economy and state of the country in general as well as valid criticisms of government’s inability to deal with those problems.

Mixed in with it, however, is disconnection with government and other powerful institutions resulting from their inability to recognize themselves in these institutions to the same degree they so long enjoyed. Little wonder their distrust. Little wonder their embrace of ever narrowing definitions of what it means to be a “real American” and defending that narrowness with zealous unwillingness to compromise or concede. Little wonder their preference for a fuzzily safe past over uncertain future progress.

The anger and frustration currently giving it momentum strike me as symptomatic not of hopeful upward battle but rather desperation over increasingly inevitable diminution. It is like the howl of an abandoned pet dog at the now-empty house where it and its owners once lived. For all the anger and anguish in its bay, this beast is more likely to inspire our pity than our fear.

Tea Partiers and the far right in general are still a considerable force – the rally turnout proved this true. They will continue to be able to exert considerable influence on elections and government policy for some time to come. In the long term, however, they have already reached their critical tipping point and all trends align against them.

Their anger and desire for a return to a “better” (i.e. more comfortable, more familiar) America is understandable but ultimately misguided. The rally shows their greatest strengths lie in their numbers and unity; their greatest weakness lies in their choice of leadership and the direction they are following. Beck reassures them the only way forwards to the future is back to the past. It is a dead end; an approach ultimately doomed to failure.

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