Glenn Beck and left-right confusion

What accounts for the growing confusion over where Beck and the protest movement fall on the political spectrum?

Published September 22, 2009 12:23PM (EDT)

(updated below)

Last night during his CBS interview with Katie Couric, Glenn Beck said he may have voted for Hillary Clinton and that "John McCain would have been worse for the country than Barack Obama."  This comment predictably spawned confusion among some liberals and anger among some conservatives.  But even prior to that, there had been a palpable increase in the right-wing attacks on Beck -- some motivated by professional competition for the incredibly lucrative industry of right-wing opinion-making, some due to understandable discomfort with his crazed and irresponsible rhetoric, but much of it the result of Beck's growing deviation from GOP (and neoconservative) dogma.  Increasingly, there is great difficulty in understanding not only Beck's political orientation but, even more so, the movement that has sprung up around him.  Within that confusion lies several important observations about our political culture, particularly the inability to process anything that does not fall comfortably into the conventional "left-right" dichotomy through which everything is understood.

Some of this confusion is attributable to the fact that Beck himself doesn't really appear to have any actual, identifiable political beliefs; he just mutates into whatever is likely to draw the most attention for himself and whatever satisfies his emotional cravings of the moment.  Although he now parades around under a rhetorical banner of small-government liberty, anti-imperialism, and opposition to the merger of corporations and government (as exemplified by the Bush-sponsored Wall Street bailout), it wasn't all that long ago that he was advocating exactly the opposite:  paying homage to the Patriot Act, defending the Wall Street bailout and arguing it should have been larger, and spouting standard neoconservative cartoon propaganda about The Global Islamo-Nazi Jihadists and all that it justifies.  Even the quasi-demented desire for a return to 9/12 -- as though the country should be stuck permanently in a state of terrorism-induced trauma and righteous, nationalistic fury over an allegedly existential Enemy -- is the precise antithesis of the war-opposing, neocon-hating views held by many libertarian and paleoconservative factions with which Beck has now associated himself.  Still other aspects of his ranting are obviously grounded in highly familiar, right-wing paranoia.

So it's not surprising that confusion has arisen over someone who transformed overnight from a fairly typical Weekly Standard/Wall St. Journal Editorial Page/Bush-following polemicist into some sort of trans-partisan populist libertarian.  All of that, in turn, is colored by the powerful influences on him from the profoundly strange conspiratorial Mormonism pioneered by Cleon Skousen, as documented by the superb Salon series authored by Alexander Zaitchik.  Ultimately, Beck himself is just a histrionic intellectual mess:  willing to latch onto any hysterical accusations and conspiracy theories that provide some momentary benefit, no matter how contradictory they might be from one moment to the next.  His fears, resentments and religious principles seem fixed, but not his political beliefs.  Like the establishment leadership of both political parties, he has no core political principles or fixed, identifiable ideology.  His description of himself as a "rodeo clown" might be the most perceptive thing he's ever said.  Attempts to classify him on the conventional political spectrum are destined to fail, and attempts to demonize him as some sort of standard Republican bogeyman will inevitably be so over-simplified as to be false.  Such efforts assume far more coherence than he possesses.

Far more interesting than Beck himself is the increasingly futile effort to classify the protest movement to which he has connected himself.  Here, too, confusion reigns.  In part, this is due to the fact that these "tea party" and "9/12" protests are composed of factions with wildly divergent views about most everything.  From paleoconservatives to Ron-Paul-libertarians to LaRouchians to Confederacy-loving, race-driven Southerners to Christianist social conservatives to single-issue fanatics (abortion, guns, gays) to standard Limbaugh-following, Bush-loving Republicans, these protests are an incoherent mishmash without any cohesive view other than: "Barack Obama is bad."  There are unquestionably some highly noxious elements in these groups, but they are far from homogeneous.  Many of these people despised the Bush-led GOP and many of them loved it. 

Add to all of that the fact that this anti-Obama sentiment is being exploited by run-of-the-mill GOP operatives who have no objective other than to undermine Democrats and return the Republicans to power -- manifestly not the goal of many of the protesters -- and it's impossible to define what this movement is or what is driving it.  In many ways, its leadership (both organizationally and in the media) is fundamentally at odds with the participants.  How can people who cheered on the Bush/Cheney administration and who want to re-install GOP leaders in power (i.e., Fox News, Limbaugh, the right-wing blogosphere, GOP House members) possibly make common cause in any coherent way with those who are in favor of limited federal government power, reduced debt, privacy, and Constitutional protections -- all the things on which the GOP relentlessly waged war for years?  In one important sense, the "tea party" movement is similar to the Obama campaign for "change":  it stays sufficiently vague and unspecific to enable everyone to read into what they want, so that people with fundamentally irreconcilable views believe they're part of the same movement.

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But all that said, there are some identifiable -- and plainly valid -- underlying causes to these protests that are neither Republican nor Democratic, or even left or right.  That's when conventional political language ceases to be useful. 

Is opposition to the Wall Street bailout (supported by both parties' establishments) left or right?  How about the view that Washington is inherently corrupt and beholden to the richest corporate interests and banks which, through lobbyist influence and vast financial contributions, own and control our political system?  Is hostility towards Beltway elites liberal or conservative?  Is opposition to the Surveillance State and endless expansions of federal police powers a view of liberals (who vehemently opposed such measures during the Bush era but now sometimes support or at least tolerate them) or conservatives (some of whom -- the Ron Paul faction -- objected just as vigorously, and naturally oppose such things regardless of who is in power as transgressions of the proper limits of government)?  Liberals during the Bush era continuously complained about the doubling of the national debt, a central concern of many of these "tea party" protesters.  Is the belief that Washington politicians are destroying the economic security of the middle class, while the rich grow richer, a liberal or conservative view?  Opposition to endless wars and bankruptcy-inducing imperial policy generally finds as much expression among certain quarters on the Right as it does on the Left.

Some central political debates do break down along standard left-right lines (health care and tax policy).  But there are many political issues that defy the conventional Left-Right political drama in which cable news traffics and which serves as the prism -- often the distorting and distracting prism -- for virtually all of our political discourse.  Much of the citizen rage manifesting itself in the form of these protests doesn't actually fit comfortably on the left-right spectrum.  As Frank Rich accurately observed in the New York Times this weekend:

"Wall Street owns our government," Beck declared in one rant this July. "Our government and these gigantic corporations have merged."  He drew a chart to dramatize the revolving door between Washington and Goldman Sachs in both the Hank Paulson and Timothy Geithner Treasury departments. A couple of weeks later, Beck mockingly replaced the stars on the American flag with the logos of corporate giants like G.E., General Motors, Wal-Mart and Citigroup (as well as the right’s usual nemesis, the Service Employees International Union). Little of it would be out of place in a Matt Taibbi article in Rolling Stone. Or, we can assume, in Michael Moore’s coming film, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” which reportedly takes on Goldman and the Obama economic team along with conservative targets.

Are the views expressed in that paragraph liberal or conservative ones?  They're neither.  Instead, they're the by-product of a completely different dichotomy that is growing in importance:  between system insiders and their admirers (those who believe our national political establishment and its elites are basically sound and good) and system outsiders (those whose anger is confined not to one of the two political parties but who instead believe that the political culture itself is fundamentally corrupted and destructive).  There are people typically identified as members of either the conventional Right or Left who are, in fact, more accurately described as being in this latter group: those disenchanted with the political culture itself.  Anger over the Wall Street bailout and corporate excesses was one example where that trans-partisan disenchantment was evident.  The railing by Beck quoted in Rich's paragraph reflects the same thing.  And that trans-partisan rage is clearly playing an important role in driving these protest movements.

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But crucially, it is the Republican Party and its various appendages -- the same people who presided over massive expansions of debt and federal government power -- that are exploiting this citizen activism, and they're harnessing it for their own petty, partisan ends.  There's a reason why Glenn Beck is on Fox News, which is nothing more than a media outlet for the Republican Party, Wall Street and neoconservatism, yet which is also the driving media force behind these protests:  it's because, with Democrats in power, the same Republicans who wildly expanded government power when they controlled it now, out of power, suddenly love anti-government sentiment. Currently, opposition to "the government" is easily translated into "opposition to Democrats," and these protests are thus exploited and distorted as partisan Republican tools even though many of the individual protesters are as anti-GOP as they are anti-Democrat.  Add to that the Democratic Party's general distaste for citizen activism (especially street protests) as well as its servitude to Wall Street and corporate interests, and Democrats are straitjacketed into ceding this protest movement to GOP operatives, who are cynically exploiting it to promote goals that have nothing to do with -- are even at odds with -- the goals of many of the protesters themselves.

It's true that some of the protesters believe in nothing more than Republican resurgence, and that this movement has become a tool of Fox and the GOP.  But much of the citizen anger that is driving these protests and which Glenn Beck is channeling is more complex than that.  It has far more to do with deep economic anxieties and anger towards the political establishment and its elites than it does allegiance to one of the two parties or standard left-right debates.  It's an overstatement to claim that "there's not a dime's worth of difference between the parties" (see here for yet another example of that), but on many critical issues, the relevant breakdown has little or nothing to do with Republican v. Democrat or even Left v. Right.  As the confusion around Glenn Beck and these protests reflect, those distinctions serve far more to obfuscate and distract than they do to explain and clarify.


UPDATE:  On a related note:  I was on NPR's On Point this morning with The Wall St. Journal's John Fund discussing the ACORN "scandal."  My segment begins at 36:50 and can be heard here.  Along those lines, if we had a real media, what this article reports about the bill to de-fund ACORN would be huge news.  It sums up everything, and will therefore be ignored.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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