Normally, I do not give a second thought to the rantings of Glenn Beck. I have always assumed that the man is an Elmer Gantry-like ranter, essentially an actor, who could not possibly believe what he says because no intelligent person could believe what he says. But, he spoke to the National Rifle Association this weekend and gave a speech that was met with thunderous applause. "I think he’s great," Sharon Browder of Port Orchard, Wash., told PoliticsDaily at the NRA convention. "He’s inspiring, he’s focused. We love him. We’re proud of him. We need him."
Mr. Beck compared the United States to the Titanic, although he was not clear if he meant before or after hitting the iceberg because he claimed there was still time to turn the country around, still time to save America. And what must America be saved from? The Obama administration, of course. "These are not Democrats," Beck thundered. "They are revolutionary Marxists."
Words have meanings. "Revolutionary" has a meaning, and the closest possible meaning Beck must intend is "a radical change." He points to the health care reform as exhibit A. But, the reform did not, in fact, dislodge the basic insurance system by which Americans procure health insurance. It remains in the hands of privately run companies, devoted to making a profit. Hospitals remain corporations, either for-profit or non-profit. Doctors remain independent agents, free to work for themselves, for a hospital or for the government. And, most health insurance will still be bought through one’s employer, a system that makes as much sense as the Austro-Hungarian empire, but there it is. "Radical change" would surely have altered one of these aspects of America’s health care delivery system. Instead, the reform that the Congress passed and the President signed tweaked the entire system, but it did not change, not at its radix or anywhere else. Single-payer? That would have been a radical change – and one I would have applauded. But, what we got is hardly "radical."
"Marxist" has a meaning too. It means a follower of Karl Marx’s theories, the most significant of which was the belief that the proletariat, through the party, should own all the means of production. Now, it is true that the U.S. bought a whole lot of Wall Street in the closing days of the Bush administration, and a bit more at the beginning of the Obama term, and that Detroit needed more than a little help too. It is also true that the administration of that well-known radical Marxist, Gerald Ford, had to bail out New York City in 1975. The administration’s efforts to keep the financial and automotive sectors of the economy solvent may have been misguided, they may have been foolish (although I think they were neither) and they certainly were not politically popular, but they do not constitute a fundamental expropriation of all the means of production by the party.
This is foolishness. I wish to God we could leave such foolishness to Comedy Central which, in the event, has done some fabulous takedowns of Beck. But, I worry that some people take Beck seriously, not just Ms. Browder quoted above, but the NRA, the Club for Growth, the Heritage Foundation and the whole network of right-wing organizations that live to frustrate the President’s modest and moderate attempts to extend basic ideas of social justice known throughout the rest of the industrialized world to a reluctant America. Of course, Beck has an issue with social justice too, and has recommended that parishioners whose priests invoke the idea flee for the exit signs. What does Mr. Beck make of Caritas in Veritate? One wonders.
The important question, however, is whether or not this is dangerous foolishness. Politically, I think there is no danger from Mr. Beck: To the extent he is the voice of conservatism, it will be a bad day for conservatism, but the dialectic quality of democracy seems to require an opposition party (oops- "Dialectic" has a Marxist pedigree!) and conservatism will recover, chastened and saner. The left took a long time to shed its devotion to the kookie left in the 1980s, but it did so. The danger is otherwise. It takes a majority to win an election, but it only takes one lone angry man to go ballistic and harm people. Given the horrible and horrific historic record of Marxism, it is not difficult to think that someone who believes Beck’s drivel might feel compelled to act on it, not with their ballot but with their bullets. After all "Lock and Load" has become a mantra with this crowd, encouraged by Beck’s forceful call for armed militia this weekend. Beck’s threat is not to democracy, still less to the Democrats. It is his capacity to radicalize the political debate in such a way that some people think they have his blessing to pursue extra-democratic methods. And, mainstream conservatives need to take on Beck and his recklessness or they risk losing their credibility too.