Were Glen Beck just another lonely lunatic spouting inanities and insanities, he could and should be ignored. But he's not; he has a large, very devoted and very voting following. That sad fact begs the question:
How can so many follow a man so utterly and obviously lost himself?
Some blame the 24/7 news cycle and New Media, but Beck’s appeal is nothing new; demagogues always rise in times of great economic stress or great social upheaval – Father Coughlin in reaction to The Great Depression, Joe McCarthy in reaction to The Great Red Scare, George Wallace in reaction to The Great Society – and Glen Beck in reaction to The Great Change.
What is The Great Change? The demographic fact that WASPs, who have run this country since its founding, will soon be a minority. Beck and his followers rightly fear that with the loss of their numerical advantage will go the other advantages they have long and unfairly enjoyed through an accident of birth. That fear can be seen and heard in the signs and calls “to take back our country”.
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Pity poor Barack Obama, who is the manifestation of that fear; he offends Beck’s followers merely by being a black man in the White House, offends them despite the fact he is more white than black, a Protestant, and a centrist compromiser in the mold of Gerald Ford.
That isn’t to say Beck’s followers don’t have legitimate complaints – there is much to complain about in 21st Century America. But most of those troubles are the result of the candidates Beck’s followers helped elect; politicians who claimed to abhor government – while running for government office; politicians who criticized big government – while making it even more immense, more indebted and more intrusive.
These people like to think of themselves as Conservatives, but they are not. They are Reactionaries, a word little used these days; but clearly, it more accurately reflects their agenda:
To some extent, reactionary impulses are understandable – change is welcomed by few, tolerated by some, and resisted by most. But for Reactionaries, all change is evil – and such people are much too likely to blindly follow a fool in the vain hope of going back to the future.
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The reactionary impulse was never more obvious than in the election of 1968 in which openly racist George Wallace received nearly 10,000,000 votes, 13.5% of the total vote, mostly from white voters angered because blacks had at long last been truly enfranchised. Since less than 500,000 votes separated Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, the Wallace candidacy most likely changed history.
Wallace was the candidate of the American Independent Party, the forerunner in many ways of today’s Republican Party. Many of those who voted for him became so-called Reagan Democrats and voted for another politician who promised to take America back to the future.
Reagan didn’t, of course. His military spending took America deeply into debt; his embrace of deregulation and merger mania took capitalism into corporatism; and his union-busting took real wages into the cellar. In short, Reagan began the decline and fall of the very Middle-Class that helped elect him.
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What’s the lesson? The same one taught in the biblical passage about Lot's wife, the same one taught by 20th Century philosophers Satchel Paige and Bob Dylan: Don't look back.
By trying to return to a past that shouldn’t have been, Wallace supporters cursed the future. By trying to return to a past that never was, Reagan supporters mortgaged the future.
Sad to say, Beck and his followers haven’t learned that lesson, and we may well see a third-party candidate in 2012. And since Beck and his followers and the bulk of today’s Baggers, Birthers and Birchers represent the same constituency that voted for George Wallace, and since they may well constitute 13.5 % or more of the electorate, that does not bode well for the future.
It may well be that we will all follow Beck to the future.
©2010 Tom Cordle