Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | February 23, 2010

Beck and the Legacy

What’s the point of being annoyed with Glenn Beck?  He’s an opinion commentator, not a political decisionmaker.

Beck strikes me in some ways as being a philosophical bellwether of a large segment of the people.  That’s one thing that accounts for his popularity.   It seems to me that we are seeing him on the same trajectory as many of our fellow countrymen:  rediscovering (or discovering for the first time) the great debates that have shaped us as a nation, and understanding for the first time why we are where we are today.

I literally grew up, from my earliest years, steeped in this history and these debates.  Fellow conservatives like Bill Bennett and Peter Wehner came to them earlier in life too.  But I think anyone of our generation (OK, I’m WAY younger than Bennett) would agree that it was unusual to have that interest and perspective at the time.   Glenn Beck is a slightly younger contemporary, and he’s much more like most Americans his age in not having absorbed much history — and certainly not political and philosophical history — in his teens and 20s.  He would be the first to admit that; I’m not saying anything about him that he hasn’t said about himself.

It has to be startling and galvanizing to be in your forties and realize that as a kid, you were sold a bill of goods about your country’s origins, the meaning of its history, and what it stands for.   That you were taught, for example, that there was a groundswell of sentiment during the FDR years for state dirigisme and collectivism, when in fact FDR had to railroad Congress and the people just as Obama is trying to now, and he excoriated and plotted to undermine the Supreme Court for deeming his agenda unconstitutional.  To think of the multigenerational collusion it took, in academia and the media, to subvert and whitewash the actual history – it’s mind-boggling when encountered for the first time.

I grew up knowing that history.  I grew up knowing the things Jonah Goldberg brought to public view again in Liberal Fascism, and Amity Shlaes in The Forgotten Man.  You couldn’t read James Burnham, Ludwig von Mises, Friederich Hayek, William F. Buckley, Jr., M. Stanton Evans, Whittaker Chambers, Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, and Robert Conquest – and not know them.  Long-time conservatives from the Buckley-Goldwater-Reagan tradition have always known these things, and have also been very clear over the years on the divisions and “types” in the Republican Party.  The existence of RINOs doesn’t have the immediacy of offense for these “legacy conservatives” that it has for Beck.

I think legacy conservatives need to be understanding of where many Americans are philosophically today.  They haven’t spent their sentient lives recognizing how our polity has been deviating from the concept of the Founders, and watching it happen with varying degrees of anger, frustration, prayer against calamity, and resignation.  They are seeing it clearly for the first time:  the proposition that you can’t have just a little bit of entitlement and dependency, or just a little bit of government intervention, and only against the things you, personally, dislike.  They didn’t understand before that liberty can’t, in fact, survive centrally-directed collectivist programs.  Nor did they understand that centrally-directed collectivism is exactly what too many of our 20th-century government programs are.

I would give Beck time, because we have to give the American people time.  The good news about Glenn Beck is that he is educating himself using largely the right tools.  Through educating himself, he is educating millions of Americans – people who would otherwise never see key political propositions examined critically as they are in Beck’s broadcasts.

Conservative commentators fill different roles, and sensitizing his audience to history is – surprisingly, perhaps, for a self-styled rodeo clown – a key element of Beck’s.  He gets it right more often than not, and he highlights things no one else with such an audience does, like the history demonstrating the essential, philosophical antithesis of left-progressivism and limited-government constitutionalism – and the fact, known by hardly anyone today, that presidents as revered as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were on the side of the former.

The popularizing of rare intellectual insights is never pretty.  But it’s necessary.  I’d rather it were happening than not, especially in such a time as this.  Legacy conservatives cannot, after all, claim to have been so effective over time that we’re the only ones the people should listen to.  Whether we enjoy it or not, the blunt, uncompromising attitude that there simply must be less government, and that those who are willing to settle for more cannot be our leaders any longer, is the main thing that is necessary to actually roll anything back.  If we could do it without that attitude, blowing across America like a cleansing wind, it would be done already.  But we can’t.

Glenn Beck isn’t the Man with the Plan:  the one who is ready to step forward and govern when that widespread attitude shift creates the charter we need, to navigate toward government that is once again limited, constitutional, and federal.  But neither is Bill Bennett, much as I esteem him.  I don’t know that we see that individual on the horizon yet.  I do think we’ll know him – or her—when we see him.  Until then, I consider it healthy rather than not for conservatives of all stripes to hear from the Beck contingent:  the contingent for whom the indignation is still fresh that we have squandered so much of what the Founders labored to endow us with.

Liberty isn’t preserved by the pursuit of intellectual perfection, after all – that’s a luxury that is consequent on liberty.  Like anything worth having in life, liberty is gained and preserved through passion, exertion, tenacity; through prioritization and singlemindedness; through the dropping of bad habits and the cultivation of good ones.  This doesn’t mean there’s a 12-step program that guarantees liberty, but most of us know through experience that the adjustments we all need to “get it right” in life are very simple ones:  not intellectually complex, just hard – and more rewarding than we ever dreamed.  That’s a more useful message for many Americans right now than almost any other.  I don’t disdain Glenn Beck one bit for being the messenger.

Cross-posted at Hot Air’s Greenroom.


  1. Actually, this post is closely related to your previous one. Glenn Beck’s interest in history is one that is becoming both more important and more easily indulged than ever before, especially for “conservatives”. “Progressives” make it a point to either re-write history to suit their own conceptions or ignore it altogether. Their arguments seldom include historical references or lessons learned from the disasters or triumphs of the past. To them, we live in a context-free present with no antecedents and a future that they are determined to design and implement according to their ideas of equal outcomes and moral equivalency, regardless of what those inhabiting the future might wish. How pessimistic is it to assume that our grandchildren will not have the intelligence to solve their problems and that the solutions to our own should be extended to them as well?

    Individuals with an appreciation of history can understand that many of the problems facing human communities have endured since antiquity, and will continue to do so for the forseeable future. They cannot be solved by legislative fiat. And many of the aspects of human life that we accept as givens are, in fact, constructs from an earlier era. State socialism probably owes as much to the policies of Bismarck as it does to Marx. It wasn’t the inevitable development that leftists intimate. Even the US educational system, particularly at the university level, has been an implementation of a German model. Maybe that’s part of the problem.

  2. Very nice essay -thoughtful and fair!

    • Really? He castigates everyone from FDR to Truman to JFK to Obama in pretty black and white terms….do conservatives really think these guys are only revered because of people re-writing and misinterpreting history?
      I think progressivism has been more realistic (liberals are actually notorisouly empirical; that’s why we’re called ‘elites’/’intelligentsia’ and outside the realm of ‘common (simplistic) sense’) and that’s because we generally (though not always) don’t paint history as some eternal struggle between their correct views and their opponents. History is more a series of disparate events for them, which I think indicates less fanciful, dramatic views of history.

      Have you guys not noticed that a lot of your views originate from an (over-) idealization of the US consititution? This is a document that at a time, explicitly endorsed and allowed slavery. I really think a lot of it is arbitrary, and put together to protect the interest of the southern states that knew the north wanted to limit slavery. Doesn’t that mean that state’s rights and whatnot is more about power and oppression than liberty? The only times before now that state’s rights have even been invoked were times when the South was quite wrong, and history has proven that. If you want to draw patterns throughout history, I think it’s lot easier to understand how the South has been manipulated time and again into supporting charlatans whose policies (what, coincidentally?) were helping the rich through tax cuts and deregulation. It is those same groups that used the ‘southern strategy’, where it was admitted aloud (by Nixon’s advisors) that welfare was a code for ‘black people’. that opposed FDR in the fight against Hitler (isolationist republicans), that opposed JFK (a centrist who cut taxes! well-loved for good reasons, etc), that prevented Wilson from establishing that League of Nations, and who now oppose Teddy Roosevelt’s ideals of progressive taxes and universal healthcare.

      I really think that you guys are overreacting with all this liberty stuff. They may have been knida cynical, but that’s just realistic. I’m from Canada, and the citizens here aren’t oppressed or mindless communists, incapable of supporting ourselves…we’re pretty functional, and we don’t get worked up over things that are symbolically against our traditions…remember that our forefathers (Canada AND US) were kinda racist. I’m not sure their philosophy is something we need to over-analyze and stick to unquestioningly.

  3. I’d wager Bill Bennett and Peter Wehner, being more or less big-government Conservatives themselves, haven’t even read James Burnham, Ludwig von Mises, or Friederich Hayek – let alone understood them. You’re giving them too much credit.

  4. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by jtjn: Beck and the Legacy

  5. Excellent piece on Glenn Beck. You have perfectly captured my experience. As a product of a liberal union household and a liberal public school system, I was COMPLETELY ignorant and brainwashed by the Progressive philosophy all the way through college. My awakening began with the Clinton administration and I cast my first vote for other than a democrat when I chose GW in 2000. I began listening to Beck because of the entertainment value but the education is what kept bringing me back. The next step in my enlightenment was Jonah Goldberg’s book “Liberal Fascism”. I have read and studied more in the last several years than in my prior 40 all because of Glenn’s work and Jonah’s book. Frankly, at times I am embarassed by what I didn’t know and what I thought I was fact. I took a while but I woke up and I can tell you I am not unique. There is an awakening happening in middle America. I hope it’s not too late.

  6. There’s little that is served by slighting Glenn Beck simply because he became educated while in prison.

  7. I had seen the push back as coming from dedicated/hardcore Republicans but I believe you are absolutely correct it is “legacy conservatives.”
    You explained it beautifully and gently so I hope it will be embraced or at least given due consideration.

    I didn’t mind that he neither condemned Obama nor praised good conservative Republicans because I assumed he knew I already knew about them.

  8. I don’t watch Beck too much (Bret Baier’s show is what I watch), but I’ve seen enough of Beck to know what he’s doing, which is fantastic. The education he’s giving folks (like Bill) is indispensable. Judging from his ratings, I wouldn’t be surprised if he took over Hannity’s spot later in the evening, which is remarkable given that he has the less-than-primetime spot of 5-6 PM EST.

    You mention FDR. FDR of course gets credit for being a great president, which I can’t say is undeserved. However, I prefer to give FDR two separate ratings – domestic policy and foreign policy. I think this is fair because he had such an impact in both spheres – more than most presidents ever have in either. For his foreign policy I’d have to give him something close to an A for how he handled WWII and guided us to victory. For domestic policy, I’d give him a D-. It’s becoming more and more clear that his policies extended the Great Depression rather than ended it. More over, the New Deal ushered in a revolutionary era of govt intervention that has metastasized such that Glenn Beck has a popular show trying to educate people about how insidious overbearing govt intervention and regulation is.

    Good books you mention J.E. Amity Shales did a nice job explaining FDR’s progressive streak. Liberal Fascism is an eye opener. I never realized how far left Hitler and the Nazis were until I read that book. After years of hearing “right-wing” fascists, one would easily think that fascists/Nazis were on the right wing of the political spectrum. Not so at all it turns out.

  9. Great piece!

  10. akw, MlR, Bill, Betty Ann, Daniel S — welcome! Apologies that your comments didn’t show up right away. Any comments you make will post automatically from now on.

    It’s always so interesting to hear from others on their experience learning the truth about progressivism, fascism, etc. The funny thing is, when I was in college (1977-81), even the left-leaning professors would discuss questions like the links between the universalist political -isms pretty openly. There was actually a time when discussion of the fascism-socialism correlation was NOT shut down in academia by the PC thought police.

    It seemed normal to me 30 years ago, like something everyone knew, that fascism and national socialism had a lot in common with communism and international socialism. I don’t recall being indoctrinated to believe otherwise. In fact, in high school kids would debate each other in civics class on that very issue.

    There were a lot of leftists teaching in the university back then, but debate was more open and they didn’t get away with pretending all the philosophical questions had already been settled by a mythical “consensus.” Some of the students who challenged their propositions the hardest got the best grades. The important thing was whether you could make a sound logical case and knew your material. The same was true of the professors whose views tended to be more centrist or right-of-center (typically in economics, math, and the sciences).

    What I like about Glenn Beck is that he challenges people to think. We need more of that.

  11. […] a post at the Optimistic Conservative and also featured on the HotAir main page, our friend and colleague J.E. Dyer asks, “What’s the […]

  12. JED, as you may have noted, I’ve replied to your piece in detail, as tracked back (trackbacked?) above. I didn’t attempt to analyze your typically terrific essay in detail, and so left out one thing that you say that struck me both as very Beckian and also highly questionable. Maybe it’s “the difference” between you and me politically, or maybe it’s something you can explain to me.

    You write:

    They are seeing it clearly for the first time: the proposition that you can’t have just a little bit of entitlement and dependency, or just a little bit of government intervention, and only against the things you, personally, dislike. They didn’t understand before that liberty can’t, in fact, survive centrally-directed collectivist programs.

    I don’t think you could be more wrong. It seems to me that the very fact that you can write the above sentences disproves them. We already today have more than “a little bit of entitlement and dependency,” and live under or amidst “centrally-directed collectivist programs,” but we we are surviving, right now. We are at liberty – if never perfectly.

    I don’t have the expectation of perfect liberty, of a polity totally cured, completely “progressivism”-free, not in this life and on this Earth. Are you ready to declare the urgency of removing the entirety of the progressive legacy, along with all of the individual progressives, from our national life? If not, if for practical and theoretical reasons you consider such a project impossible or undesirable, then doesn’t that imply that certain kinds of extremism in defense of liberty really are vices?

  13. […] a post at the Optimistic Conservative, also featured on the HotAir main page, our friend and colleague J.E. Dyer asks, “What’s the […]

  14. CKM — The first question I have for you is this one: When Reagan said, “Government IS the problem,” did you assume him to be proposing that government be done away with?

    I never did. Nor am I willing to agree that saying “centrally-directed collectivism is incompatible with liberty” is equal to proposing that liberty can’t survive if there is any government, anywhere, doing anything at all.

    If that’s not what you meant, great. But it’s important to establish that any argument can be interpreted as extreme if someone wants to do so.

    If you really don’t understand my proposition, I’ll lay it out here. Very simply, it’s that there is no natural brake, no failsafe, to halt the career of progressivism once its central principle is agreed to.

    That central principle is that government should control and order the actions of the people for their own good, and to produce outcomes that are to be preferred in the abstract.

    Things like child labor laws have nothing to do with this. Child labor laws are analogous to laws against assault, murder, and fraud. They fall into the traditional parameters of negative law: the list of things a polity will punish you for doing, because society thinks they’re bad.

    The controlling and ordering of the people inherent in progressivism is exemplified, by contrast, in programs like Social Security and Medicare. These two programs have had a powerful effect on behavior over time, and they were intended to. In combination with the income tax they have had much to do with discouraging household saving and encouraging risky borrowing behavior.

    Our conditions don’t HAVE to be such that the middle-income household has discretion over only 7 months’ worth of its income every year. But that’s the condition that has been created by government at the federal and state levels intervening to “take care of us” by withholding portions of our income and levying higher and higher taxes.

    Someone who has discretion over only 7 out of 12 months’ worth of income is unquestionably less free than someone who has discretion over 8, 9, or 11 months’ worth. The burden of taxes and entitlement contributions on the American people actively discourages saving for major purchases, medical expenses, and retirement.

    So do the burdens of living expenses as they are increased by regulation. Not all regulation is objectively “bad,” but all regulation imposes costs on us. Gasoline, for example, costs us way more than it would if we didn’t regulate the petroleum industry as intensively as we do.

    It’s one thing to want to keep our air clean. Paying more for gas in order to bring down the pollution index may indeed be worth it to us.

    But the agenda to “wean us off fossil fuels,” as if we all agree that that is a public good that overrides every other consideration, and that all the powers of the state should be brought to bear on it to make using fossil fuels unendurable for the populace — that’s a progressivist approach that envisions coercing the people to an envisioned, prescribed condition.

    There exists today no political, legal, constitutional failsafe that would keep us from being coerced in this way. Now, maybe you think we should be; I don’t know. If you do, I simply can’t agree that that’s a conservative perspective, as I understand conservatism. But for this argument, the important points are these:

    1. We have conceded the progressivist principle that the people should be coerced and overruled for their own good. We conceded that decades ago. Again, this is not a matter of deterring behavior we consider bad; it’s a matter of coercing behavior that one faction deems to be good. The former is the traditional purpose of law, the latter is progressivism.

    2. If the Constitution is, in fact, a “living document,” then it is not a bulwark against this progressivist principle we have already conceded being taken to extremes that no one originally envisioned.

    When the Federal Communication Commission was created, no one envisioned that one day it would oversee the Orwellian “Fairness Doctrine” that hampered freedom of speech — by private actors at their own expense — 50 years later. But it did. Reagan repealed the law, but there is no bulwark protecting us against its return. If you agree that the Constitution can be reinterpreted as we go along, and if enough representatives are elected who believe the people need to be coerced for their own good, then nothing stands between us and a return of the “Fairness Doctrine.”

    That and a thousand other aspects of progressivism are the dangers that lurk around our liberties if the Constitution is a “living document,” in the way that is usually meant. It can be amended by an orderly process, and that’s about as alive as it needs to be, in my view. I can’t think of a single GOOD that has come from landmark judicial reinterpretations of the Constitution. Amendments to it may not always have been stellar ideas, but we were able to get rid of the only actually idiotic one — which, incidentally, was the product of a progressivist agenda to save the people from themselves.

    Judicial reinterpretation, however, has been impossible to overcome, at least so far. The bottom line is that if the Constitution can be reinterpreted according to transient sentiment — if its provisions are not absolute in a narrow but meaningful sense — then progressivism can do anything it wants, whenever it gets, by fair means or foul, a big enough majority. Yes, that is a terrible danger to liberty. No, it’s not hyperbole to assert that.

    There ARE legitimate claims on the boundaries of liberty. But the laundry list of things progressives want to “correct” in mankind is not among them. It’s very, very dangerous to lose the common sense that government is an entity you have handed a loaded gun to, and authorized to point it at your head. Its charter should be, and remain, limited.

    No generation is ever really wiser than the ones that came before it. It was precisely the noisy, majoritarian activism advocated for government today that the Founders designed our Constitution to defend us against. When we think conditions have really changed so much that we can unleash the state on each other to perform science projects, it’s we who are the fools.

  15. An invaluable ‘legacy’ perspective of Glenn Beck, J.E.

    I suspect that those familiar with “James Burnham, Ludwig von Mises, Friederich Hayek, William F. Buckley, Jr., M. Stanton Evans, Whittaker Chambers, Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, and Robert Conquest”, such as yourself J.E. may have little appreciation for how few actually experienced that exposure.

    Indeed, until perhaps 10 years ago I had never heard of any of those individuals and I have always been interested in a wide range of subjects. I am certain that my lack of exposure was in fact the norm.

    Like Bill, I didn’t begin to awaken until the Clinton years and it was Rush Limbaugh of all people, who began to open my eyes and not without a lot of resistance I might add.

    In addition, even now it is people like Beck, Goldberg and Bergner that are exposing progressivism’s premises and ‘the Narrative’, who are contributing to a deepening of my understanding of how we got to where we are today.

    The historical context they are providing is invaluable because we cannot understand who we are today, without understanding, what led us to where we now stand.

    • Correction:

      I was familiar with Buckley but found my own lack of familiarity with his philosophical base and regrettably, what I interpreted as an attitude of ‘superiority’ or elitism by him, to be so off-putting that I was unable to consider his arguments dispassionately. Had he less of the ‘looking down his nose’ demeanor, I suspect I would have listened more closely.

      • I suspect you speak for a lot of people, GB. You won’t be surprised at this point to learn that I watched “Firing Line,” Buckley’s PBS talk show, for a number of years. I never found him off-putting, but I can see why others would.

        There was always a certain inner-circle insularity to the Buckley-energized conservative movement, something Reagan transcended by coming from outside of it. It’s a unique characteristic, to be someone people don’t automatically pigeonhole and dismiss as one of their pet peeves. Reagan was bigger than that to every segment of the political spectrum. Even the left had to put him in a special category — amiable dunce — because they couldn’t stuff him into their other evil “types.”

        Anyway, we’ve been in a period of greater popularization of the conservative idea since the mike first went on for Rush Limbaugh’s national broadcast in the late ’80s. I’m not sure a lot of folks today could stick with an old episode of “Firing Line” from the 1970s. The pace of speech and development of thought were like watching a glacier move, compared to today’s norm for talk shows.

        Conservatives can imagine there’s an option of checking out from present reality — or we can be glad of the opinion commentators who do reach the modern audience. I opt for the latter, without feeling myself defined or delimited by Beck, Hannity, O’Reilly, Limbaugh, Levin, or anyone else (e.g., Krauthammer, Coulter, Michael Reagan, etc).

        One thing I predict is that the current generation of new-minted conservatives will grow older. People who find Glenn Beck uniquely compelling today will be ready for a modified style and a deeper cast of thought in 10 years, and something yet different in 20. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Beck himself goes through that transformation along with them.

        It seems terribly counterproductive to me, for conservatives to despise Beck and his audience for being in a different place, philosophically and stylistically, from legacy conservatives. George Will’s temperate and very funny CPAC speech resonated with the same audience. It’s all good.

  16. […] Again, both posts are worth a read for their perspectives. You can find full text here and here. […]

  17. I was fortunate to have a middle school social studies teacher who made me evaluate FDR differently and showed how history had glamorized his record. I think this teacher approved of his actions, but felt it was important his students were exposed to some alternate reality. It gave me the interest to dig a little more.

    I knew something of Wilson, but not nearly as much as I should have. My interest in history really centered on the revolutionary, civil war and WWII periods. Early 20th century US history was never of much interest. Goldberg’s book opened my eyes to that time period and really exposed me for the first time to what was happening. I intend to further enlighten myself on that time period.

    I do believe that Beck needs to be careful in comments which push for a third party or third party candidate and it is on this point alone which he has been reasonably chided by people like Rush who know all too well what comes of that. To those being awakened by Beck, it is important they don’t need to relearn what happened less than 20 years ago.

  18. […] “The Point of Being Annoyed with Glenn Beck” (at HotAir here), and to related comments at her blog The Optimistic Conservative (For anyone new to the discussion, “The Point…” was […]

  19. JED, very good point. I thought Beck was out of place at CPAC because in a way his discourse is several levels below that of most people there–and certainly of most speakers. I don’t know how many “newbies” were there or were listening in. But on television, Beck performs a very very useful function.
    Your disctinction between progressive and Constitutional legislation is very valuable. A problem with understanding it is that our lives are so choked with progressive legislation that we have trouble seeing the line between them. The AGW movement is really an inspired progressive strategy, since it seeks to make a myriad of personal choices into crimes against “the planet,” and therefore to our fellow citizens. We need a stronger delineation of personal harm from hypothesized social harm to protect us from the insights of the ecology movement.

  20. JEM — I agree, third-party musings are wrongheaded. I’m not convinced that the pressure needs to be released on the GOP, though, to make the changes it needs to make. It requires being challenged, and seriously, by conservatives. I do think Beck performs a useful function in pointing out how much most GOP pols have bought into the progressive statist agenda.

    Margo — thanks, and you’re quite right. I think one of the most urgent rhetorical tasks facing us today is outlining for people’s consideration the extent to which things they now take for granted are, in fact, forms of statist intervention that we have a political choice about.

    If you’re interested, we’ve had quite the discussion of the Progressive movement over at Zombie Contentions:

  21. […] concedes some of her own hesitations regarding Beck (as she did, implicitly, throughout her “Beck and the Legacy” post that also appeared at HA), but also expresses incomprehension regarding one of my main […]

  22. I quite agree, no let up on pressure. If Pelosi and Reid can get this health care debacle to Obama’s desk, the GOP must run on the notion of repeal, in its entirety. While the dems can block some actions in the Senate, I assume a simple GOP majority in the Senate could eliminate some funding while working to gut bigger pieces down the road.

    CK and I are having a very interesting debate on what does progressivism mean. Right now we have very different definitions.

  23. […] J.E. concedes some of her own hesitations regarding Beck (as she did, implicitly, throughout “Beck and the Legacy“), but also expresses incomprehension regarding one of my main criticisms: How is it […]

  24. […] the long-forgotten notes of analysts past and present their findings to the public.  Glenn Beck, much discussed in the last week, is one of these critical investigators; if there’s one thing he’s about, […]

  25. […] a post at the Optimistic Conservative, also featured on the HotAir main page, our friend and colleague J.E. Dyer asks, “What’s the […]

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