In his recent cover story for The Weekly Standard, Matthew Continetti praises CNBC’s Rick Santelli effusively for erupting against Barack Obama’s redistributionist policies on 19 February 2009 in such a fashion as to inspire the Tea Party Movement. Then, he blasts Fox News commentator Glenn Beck for seizing upon the current crisis as an opportunity for urging on the part of his fellow Americans a serious reconsideration of the country’s first principles.
“What distinguishes Beck from Santelli is,” Continetti writes, “the breadth and depth of his critique.”
In his broadcasts, books, and stage performances, Beck provides his audiences with a dark vision of American life. In this bleak tableaux, rich, highly educated, radical elites are using the instruments of power to control the common man and indoctrinate his children. The elites, Beck says, seized on the 2008 financial crisis to shape America according to their socialist, fascist, globalist vision. The only remaining obstacle to the elitist agenda is the pro-freedom movement that wants to return to America’s founding principles. The elitists fight the patriots by calling them racists and extremists.
Beck is not simply an entertainer. He and his audience love American history. They are hungry for new ways to interpret current events. And Beck is creating, in Amity Shlaes’s words, “a competing canon” of texts and authorities. This competing canon is not content to assault contemporary liberalism, but rather deconstructs the very foundations of the New Deal and the Progressive Era. Among the books Beck regularly cites on his programs are Shlaes’s Forgotten Man, Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, Larry Schweickart and Michael Allen’s Patriot’s History of the United States, and Burt Folsom Jr.’s New Deal or Raw Deal? And books like Matthew Spalding’s We Still Hold These Truths, Seth Lipsky’s Citizen’s Constitution, and William J. Bennett and John Cribb’s American Patriot’s Almanac all belong on the list as well.
This intellectual journey has led Beck to some disturbing conclusions. Whereas Rick Santelli says the housing plan and the stimulus aren’t sensible, Beck says the Obama administration is the culmination of 100 years of unconstitutional governance. On the “We Surround Them” episode, Beck said, “The system has been perverted and it has to be restored.” In between bouts of weeping, he asked, “What happened to the country that loved the underdog and stood up for the little guy?” That country, he implied, is vanishing before our eyes. In Beck’s world, politics is less about issues than it is about “us” versus “them.” We may have them surrounded. But “we can’t trust anyone.”
The reason no one can be trusted, Beck says, is that the political system is compromised by the ideology of progressivism. At his keynote speech to the 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference, Beck wrote the word “progressivism” on a chalkboard and said, “This is the disease. This is the disease in America.” He said again, “Progressivism is the cancer in America and it is eating our Constitution.”
When he refers to progressivism, Beck is not only highlighting the liberals’ latest name for liberalism. He is referring to the ideas of John Dewey, Herbert Croly, and Walter Lippmann. According to Beck (and many others), these early 20th-century thinkers believed that there is no such thing as natural right. The Constitution, in their view, was not equipped to deal with the complexities of modern society. They argued that government should do more to protect free competition by busting trusts, and also promote equality and individual development through redistribution. The progressive tendency found political expression in Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” speech of 1910 and in Woodrow Wilson’s presidency from 1913-1921. It became the foundation for FDR’s New Deal.
Continetti believes that Beck is “engaging in a line of inquiry that – interesting though it may sometimes be – is tangential to the political realities of our day.” Where Beck claims that the “communism and progressivism” are at odds with regard to “means not ends,” contending that “‘there is no difference except [that] one requires a gun and the other does it slowly,’” Continetti retorts that “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,” adding, “Not even the stupidest American liberal shares the morality of the totalitarian monsters whom Beck analogizes to American politics so flippantly.”
Who is more nearly right? Matthew Continetti or Glenn Beck? Do our problems arise from over-reaching on the part of Barack Obama? Or do they have deeper roots?
I know of no clearer testimony pertinent to this matter than that of Walter Lippmann. As followers of Glenn Beck’s television show presumably know, Lippmann was the prince of the progressives. At Harvard College, he dabbled in socialism. Some four years after his graduation, he joined Herbert Croly and Walter Weyl in founding The New Republic. In 1914, he published the influential progressive tract Drift and Mastery: An Attempt to Diagnose the Current Unrest. For a brief time, during the First World War, Lippmann served as an advisor to Woodrow Wilson. Among other things, he drafted Wilson’s Fourteen-Points Speech
After that war, however, having witnessed the effectiveness of propaganda, Lippmann began to harbor doubts about the progressive conviction that popular sovereignty and governance by experts can easily be reconciled. In Public Opinion, published in 1922, he called into question the capacity of ordinary citizens to discern what was going on; and, in The Phantom Public, published five years later, he expressed doubts as to whether it made any sense at all to speak of the public interest in the manner in which the progressives did: as something radically distinct from and in tension with individual rights and the diverse private interests of the citizens.
In 1932, thinking that there was no alternative, Lippmann voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But by 1937, when the shape of the Second New Deal had become clear, he had come to entertain grave misgivings. And at that point, in a book entitled An Inquiry into the Principles of the Good Society, he issued a damning judgment – which I quoted at length in my book Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift, and which , I believe, we should all take to heart:
Although the partisans who are now fighting for the mastery of the modern world wear shirts of different colors, their weapons are drawn from the same armory, their doctrines are variations of the same theme, and they go forth to battle singing the same tune with slightly different words. Their weapons are the coercive direction of the life and labor of mankind. Their doctrine is that disorder and misery can be overcome only by more and more compulsory organization. Their promise is that through the power of the state men can be made happy.
Throughout the world, in the name of progress, men who call themselves communists, socialists, fascists, nationalists, progressives, and even liberals, are unanimous in holding that government with its instruments of coercion must by commanding the people how they shall live, direct the course of civilization and fix the shape of things to come. They believe in what Mr. Stuart Chase accurately describes as “the overhead planning and control of economic activity.” This is the dogma which all the prevailing dogmas presuppose. This is the mold in which are cast the thought and action of the epoch. No other approach to the regulation of human affairs is seriously considered, or is even conceived as possible. The recently enfranchised masses and the leaders of thought who supply their ideas are almost completely under the spell of this dogma. Only a handful here and there, groups without influence, isolated and disregarded thinkers, continue to challenge it. For the premises of authoritarian collectivism have become the working beliefs, the self-evident assumptions, the unquestioned axioms, not only of all the revolutionary regimes, but of nearly every effort which lays claim to being enlightened, humane, and progressive.
So universal is the dominion of this dogma over the minds of contemporary men that no one is taken seriously as a statesman or a theorist who does not come forward with proposals to magnify the power of public officials and to extend and multiply their intervention in human affairs. Unless he is authoritarian and collectivist, he is a mossback, a reactionary, at best an amiable eccentric swimming hopelessly against the tide. It is a strong tide. Though despotism is no novelty in human affairs, it is probably true that at no time in twenty-five hundred years has any western government claimed for itself a jurisdiction over men’s lives comparable with that which is officially attempted in totalitarian states.
But it is even more significant that in other lands where men shrink from the ruthless policy of these regimes, it is commonly assumed that the movement of events must be in the same direction. Nearly everywhere the mark of a progressive is that he relies at last upon the increased power of officials to improve the condition of men. Though the progressives prefer to move gradually and with consideration, by persuading majorities to consent, the only instrument of progress in which they have faith is the coercive agency of government. They can, it would seem, imagine no alternative, nor can they remember how much of what they cherish as progressive has come by emancipation from political dominion, by the limitation of power, by the release of personal energy from authority and collective coercion. For virtually all that now passes for progressivism in countries like England and the United States calls for increasing ascendancy of the state: always the cry is for more officials with more power over more and more of the activities of men.
Yet the assumptions of this whole movement are not so self-evident as they seem. They are, in fact, contrary to the assumptions bred in men by the whole long struggle to extricate conscience, intellect, labor, and personality from the bondage of prerogative, privilege, monopoly, authority. For more than two thousand years, since western men first began to think about the social order, the main preoccupation of political thinking has been to find a law which would be superior to arbitrary power. Men have sought it in custom, in the dictates of reason, in religious revelation, endeavoring always to set up some check upon the exercise of force. This is the meaning of the long debate about Natural Law. This is the meaning of a thousand years of struggle to bring the sovereign under a constitution, to establish for the individual and for voluntary associations of men rights which they can enforce against kings, barons, magnates, majorities, and mobs. This it eh meaning of the struggle to separate the church from the state, to emancipate conscience, learning, the arts, education, and commerce from the inquisitor, the censor, the monopolist, the policeman, and the hangman.
Conceivably the lessons of this history no longer have a meaning for us. Conceivably there has come into the world during this generation some new element which makes it necessary for us to undo the work of emancipation, to retrace the steps men have taken to limit the power of rulers, which compels us to believe that the way of enlightenment in affairs is now to be found by intensifying authority and enlarging its scope. But the burden of proof is upon those who reject the oecumenical tradition of the western world. It is for them to show that their cult of the Providential State is in truth the new revelation they think it is, and that it is not, as a few still believe, the gigantic heresy of an apostate generation.
This is a passage that should be read and re-read time and again. The present discontents may be a function of over-reaching on the part of Barack Obama, as Matthew Continetti implies. But the difficulties we now face are also deeply rooted in the prevalence within this country of a political doctrine that has been around for some time; and, as one repentant progressive testified three-quarters of a century ago, the difference between the communists and the progressives turns on means and pace – and not on ends.
I do not have a functioning television set. I have watched Glenn Beck’s show elsewhere only twice. On both occasions, he handled himself well. He may sometimes go overboard. I do not know. But this I can say: the inquiry that he is pursuing is by no means “tangential to the political realities of our day.” It goes to the heart of the matter. If we continue to temporize with progressivism, as we have in the past, there can be no question that we are cooked.