'A Long and Sorry History'

Conor Friedersdorf

Via Ricochet, I see that Matthew Continetti has a piece up at The Weekly Standard that analyzes the Tea Party movement. It's a piece I recommend reading in full. Its thesis is largely summed up by this excerpt:

The Tea Party's movements and currents, its successes and setbacks, have revealed the dual nature of conservative populism. There is one tendency that tries, in Wilfred M. McClay's evocative phrase, "to restore and preserve a less regimented, less status-stratified, less school-sorted, more open-ended America." But there is also another tendency, one that believes the government is so corrupt, the constitutional system so perverted, that only radical solutions will save America from certain doom.

The first tendency is forward-looking, optimistic, and comfortable in contemporary America. The second tendency looks to the distant past, feels not just pessimistic but apocalyptic, and always sees the powerful conspiring against the powerless. And while it is possible to distinguish between the two tendencies, they nonetheless overlap in many places. They are different parts of the same creature. One part, however, is more attractive to outsiders than the other. In our future-oriented, optimistic American polity, the first tendency has limitless appeal. The second does not.

As a rough sketch, that description of conservative populism strikes me as accurate and useful. It serves as a precursor for what most excited me about the piece: the section where Mr. Continetti astutely describes why Glenn Beck's brand of rhetoric is poisonous nonsense that does damage to the right.

So, the difference between communism and progressivism, Beck argued at CPAC, is "revolution" or "evolution." In other words, the difference between communism and progressivism is one of means not ends. "There is no difference," he said, "except one requires a gun and the other does it slowly."

"Socialism and fascism," the author writes in Glenn Beck's Common Sense, "have been on the rise for two administrations now." Beck's book Arguing with Idiots contains a list of the "Top Ten Bastards of All Time," on which Pol Pot (No. 10), Adolf Hitler (No. 6), and Pontius Pilate (No. 4) all rank lower than FDR (No. 3) and Woodrow Wilson (No. 1). In Glenn Beck's Common Sense Beck writes, "With a few notable exceptions, our political leaders have become nothing more than parasites who feed off our sweat and blood."

This is nonsense. Whatever you think of Theodore Roosevelt, he was not Lenin. Woodrow Wilson was not Stalin. The philosophical foundations of progressivism may be wrong. The policies that progressivism generates may be counterproductive. Its view of the Constitution may betray the Founders'. Nevertheless, progressivism is a distinctly American tradition that partly came into being as a way to prevent ideologies like communism and fascism from taking root in the United States. And not even the stupidest American liberal shares the morality of the totalitarian monsters whom Beck analogizes to American politics so flippantly.

Read and watch enough Glenn Beck, and you realize that he is not only introducing new authors and ideas into public life, he is reintroducing old ideas. Some very old ideas. The notion that America's leaders are indistinguishable from America's enemies has a long and sorry history.
I'd only add (without implying that Mr. Continetti agrees) this point: It isn't just Glenn Beck who is misleadingly casting American politics as a struggle between a liberty loving right and a left that seeks tyranny. It's also -- to name one bestselling example -- Mark Levin, whose Liberty and Tyranny operates from the premise that on one side of American politics are "statists" who are motivated not by a desire to improve the country, but by a project to increase the power of the state as an end in itself.

Or to cite another bestselling example, Andrew McCarthy, who argues that there is a "Grand Jihad" being waged by an alliance of radical Islamists and "the hard left," a group in which he includes Barack Obama. In this interview, Mr. McCarthy goes so far as to claim that President Obama is only fighting Al Qaeda as a political concession and because terrorism is no longer a useful part of the Islamist project of overthrowing America.

Mr. McCarthy writes:

...the Brotherhood and the Saudis will sing no sad songs if the U.S. kills bin Laden or crushes al-Qaeda. In Muslim countries, they'll use it as propaganda against us; in the West, they'll pretend that they always condemned terrorism (they do that now -- even as they urge the destruction of Israel and attacks against American troops). So Obama knows the Islamists he wants to engage have decided al-Qaeda is expendable. He won't lose any ground with them by smashing al-Qaeda.

Every movement has its fringe conspiracy theories about how, as Mr. Continetti put it, "America's leaders are indistinguishable from America's enemies," but Mr. McCarthy's book made the New York Times bestseller list, and garnered over the top praise from Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and many other mainstream conservative entertainers and public intellectuals.

Mr. Continetti focuses on the political cost associated with this kind of rhetoric. I submit that it also exacts a cost in the world of ideas. Insofar as the conservative rank-and-file confronts an imagined cabal of leftists intent on destroying America from within, it'll remain utterly unequipped to argue with, persuade, or even intelligently oppose the actual liberals and progressives who compose the other half of the political spectrum. It's heartening to see more conservatives calling out Glenn Beck. In pushing back against this poisonous pathology, however, there is much more work to be done.   



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