Matthew Continetti at The Weekly Standard:
As a student in the exciting new field of Tea Party Studies, I’ve noticed that no one agrees on what the Tea Party actually is. Is the anti-Obama, anti-big government movement simply AstroTurf fabricated by Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks? Is it a bunch of Birthers, Birchers, conspiracists, and white power misfits? Is it a strictly economic phenomenon—the inevitable result of high and persistent unemployment? Or are the Tea Partiers nothing more than indulgent Boomers who combine 1960s social libertarianism with 1980s laissez-faire economics? Does the Tea Party draw on longstanding American constitutional, political, and economic traditions, eddies of thought that one can trace back to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson? Or is it of a more recent vintage: Are the Tea Partiers simply the same folks who once were called Reagan Democrats and Perotistas?
All of the above. There is no single “Tea Party.” The name is an umbrella that encompasses many different groups. Under this umbrella, you’ll find everyone from the woolly fringe to Ron Paul supporters, from Americans for Prosperity to religious conservatives, independents, and citizens who never have been active in politics before. The umbrella is gigantic. But there are discernible ribs that extend outward from its central post, and points of shared concern that support the overall structure.
The Tea Party, like the Roman god Janus, has two faces. One looks to the future. The other looks to the past. One wants to repair deformities in the American political structure and move on. The other is ready to scrap the whole thing and restore a lost Eden.
They are the faces, in other words, of the cable TV stars who are arguably the Tea Party’s two founders: Rick Santelli and Glenn Beck.
Return to Thursday, February 19, 2009. The economic picture was bleak. Employment was in free fall. The political system was in a state of emergency. Several months earlier, Congress had passed the TARP bailout. Less than a week before, Congress had passed the $800 billion stimulus bill by a narrow vote. The previous day, the new president had unveiled his “Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan.”
At 8:15 a.m., CNBC on-air editor Rick Santelli appeared on that network’s Squawk Box program from the floor of the Chicago mercantile exchange. Most of the traders hadn’t yet shown up to work. The floor was quiet. Santelli’s booming voice echoed throughout the room. He began to rant about the Obama housing plan, and as his rant gained force some of the traders joined in. By the time the segment was over, the Tea Party had been born.
The topic may have been economic policy, but Santelli really was making a moral argument. For him, the housing plan rewarded bad behavior. It changed the rules so people could remain in homes that they shouldn’t have been able to purchase in the first place. The responsible taxpayer’s earned wealth was being diverted to bail out the irresponsible. Government modification of interest rates was a band-aid that didn’t address the underlying problem. “You can go down to minus 2 percent [interest],” Santelli said. “They can’t afford the house.” This, in Santelli’s view, was the textbook definition of moral hazard.
America was on a path, Santelli said, that its Founders would not recognize. “If you read our Founding Fathers,” he said, “people like Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson, what we’re doing in this country now is making them roll over in their graves.” That was why he was planning a “Chicago Tea Party” for all “the capitalists out there” who were fed up with the situation. It turns out that there are a lot of capitalists out there. Santelli’s rant has been viewed on YouTube more than 1.2 million times.
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.
Beck believes progressive ideas infect both parties and threaten to destroy America as it was originally conceived. “Progressivism,” he wrote in Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, “has less to do with the parties and more to do with individuals who seek to redefine, reshape, and rebuild America into a country where individual liberties and personal property mean nothing if they conflict with the plans and goals of the State.”
By attacking progressivism, Beck is taking on a big idea. He is forcing people to question their assumptions. He is introducing new thinkers to the reading public. But he is also engaging in a line of inquiry that—interesting though it may sometimes be—is tangential to the political realities of our day. And his intellectual inquiries have a purpose: to foster the perception that a benighted American public is being preyed upon by an internationalist conspiracy.
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. In the 1950s it led Robert Welch, the head of the John Birch Society, to proclaim that President Dwight Eisenhower was a Communist sympathizer. For this, William F. Buckley Jr. famously denounced Welch and severed the Birchers’ ties to mainstream conservatism. The group was ostracized for decades.
But not everyone denounced Welch. One author, the Mormon autodidact W. Cleon Skousen, continued to support the Birchers as he penned books on politics and the American founding. And Skousen continued to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that American political, social, and economic elites were working with the Communists to foist a world government on the United States.
Glenn Beck is a Skousenite. During the “We Surround Them” program, he urged his audience to read Skousen’s 5000 Year Leap (1981), for which he has written a foreword, and The Real George Washington (1991). “The 5000 Year Leap is essential to understanding why our Founders built this Republic the way they did,” the author writes in Glenn Beck’s Common Sense. More controversially, Beck has recommended Skousen’s Naked Communist (1958) and Naked Capitalist (1970), which lay out the writer’s paranoid scenarios in detail. The latter book, for example, draws on Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope (1966), which argues that the history of the 20th century is the product of secret societies in conflict. “Carroll Quigley laid open the plan in Tragedy and Hope,” says a character in Beck’s new novel, The Overton Window. “The only hope to avoid the tragedy of war was to bind together the economies of the world to foster global stability and peace.”
For Beck, conspiracy theories are not aberrations. They are central to his worldview. They are the natural consequence of assuming that the world hangs by a thread, and that everyone is out to get you. On his television program, Beck promised to “find out what’s true and what’s not with the FEMA concentration camps”—referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a federal bureaucracy that chiefly funnels relief funds to victims of natural disasters, and is more commonly (and accurately) thought of as punchless. Beck later acknowledged that his staff could not find any evidence for such camps.
Beck has urged his viewers to read The Coming Insurrection, an impenetrable political tract by a French Marxist group called The Invisible Committee that has no clear relationship to U.S. politics (or to reality). In Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, the author writes that “efforts are now also being made to empower the State to retain, test, and research the blood and DNA of newborn babies.” The plot of The Overton Window is one big conspiracy theory in which the United States government, Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and the Trilateral Commission are all plotting an antidemocratic coup. It is a fever-dream that Oliver Stone would envy. “Who needs a list when they can monitor you whenever they want?” says one of the book’s characters at a fictional Tea Party rally. “You’ve all heard of that ‘Digital Angel’ device that can be implanted under your skin, right? They say it’s to store medical information and for the safety of children and Alzheimer’s patients.” Scary stuff. But also fantastical. In an author’s note, Beck says his novel is not fiction but “faction”—“completely fictional books with plots rooted in fact.” Which “facts” are those?
In response to an article written by Matthew Continetti in the Weekly Standard, Glenn Beck’s producer is attacking the magazine and pushing for a boycott:
Look, we usually love The Weekly Standard. They are typically an extremely useful and important source of analysis (I think?). But, this is horrible. It’s a hit piece barely worthy of Media Matters, and I’d rate it as impossible that the author doesn’t know it.
The piece is filled with so many discredited attacks and poorly researched nonsense (the list is just one small example) that you might think it is just laziness. But it’s worse than that. It’s intentionally misleading. It’s a collection of lies they are proud of. They put it on the cover. I mean, it’s enough to doubt anything they print.
I don’t understand the motivation, but luckily their circulation is so impossibly small that Glenn reaches more people in 11 seconds on the air than they do in 6 months. Oh, but how will we compete with those creative cartoons on the cover!!! So innovative for 1962!
Truly embarrassing work.
You can cancel your subscription by calling 1-800-274-7293. When you’re done…might I suggest another option.
Daniel Foster at The Corner:
Before I get to why, let me first say that there is much I love about what Beck is doing. Anyone who puts Hayek at the top of Amazon is not without his merits. Continetti captures this:
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.
For the record, I think Continetti actually underestimates the debt Beck owes to Jonah and Liberal Fascism for the very structure of his critique of progressivism. I trust you’ll believe that it isn’t mere collegiality that compels me to say that that book seems more important with each passing day.
At this point in the proceedings, by the way, I’m actually halfway between Beck and Continetti. Like Continetti (and like Jonah, for that matter) I think that the unique political culture of America means that European-style totalitarianism would have a much tougher time gaining ground here. Indeed the very existence of the Tea Party is proof of this. But I also think certain — ahem — neoconservative elements of the right are too quick to reflexively beatify the likes of Wilson and Roosevelt, and too selectively blind to the breathtaking statism they advocated.
This cuts right to the core of Continetti’s thesis in that piece — that the as-yet amorphous Tea Party movement must lead with free-markets and small-government, not conspiracy theories and doom-saying. As I’ve said above, both Beck and I happen to think that conservatives like Continetti are too kind to the post-New Deal order, but whether one sees that order as the well-intentioned but fatally flawed American project, or as the fruits of an Illuminati conspiracy, is surely important to the future of the Tea Party — and the discourse.
Scott Johnson at Powerline:
I’m with Foster on the proposition that “conservatives like Continetti are too kind to the post-New Deal order.” Whatever accommodation politicians must make with the post-New Deal federal government, it represents a deep rupture with the doctrine of limited government embodied in the Constitution.
Taking issue with Beck, Matt defends the Americanness of progressivism, asserting 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.” Here Matt is clearly referring to referring to Roosevelt and the New Deal, and one understands the point. Yet Roosevelt’s battle with the Supreme Court was no accident, and it is not wonderful that Roosevelt ultimately prevailed. As James Ceaser writes, the progressives “sought to replace, which meant virtually to efface or supplant, the original Founders.” (I am borrowing the Ceaser quote from William Voegeli’s Never Enough.)
Moreover, if one traces the origins of progressivism, as Ronald J. Pestritto does in Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism, one discovers the deep hostility of the progressives to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The progressives’ hostility to the Declaration and the Constitution is rooted largely in nineteenth-century German thought.
Wilson and other progressives thought that the insights of German philosophers such as Hegel rendered the thought of the Founders obsolete. (Paul and I quoted some of Wilson’s more pointed comments on Hegel and the Founders in “From Hegel to Wilson to Breyer.”)
Anyway, my point, and I do have one, is to suggest that you read Continetti, and then Foster…and the important books cited in their pieces.
Conor Friedersdorf at The American Scene
Matt Lewis and Conor Friedersdorf at Bloggingheads
Here’s the thing: as near as I can tell, tea partiers are not, in fact, especially put out by bailouts to the wealthy. Santelli’s founding rant, as Continetti points out, was aimed at homeowners being bailed out of mortgages they couldn’t afford. And as Continetti himself admits just a few sentences later, tea partiers don’t have much to say about Wall Street banks. That’s pretty odd for a movement supposedly opposed to big bailouts. The reality is quite different: if the tea partiers are really upset that Congress hasn’t yet reined in the financial sector, they sure have a funny way of showing it. All the evidence I’ve seen suggests just the opposite: most tea partiers think not that Obama’s financial reform proposals are too modest, but that they verge on socialism. They think he wants to take over the banks the same way he took over the car companies.
Ditto for securing the borders — though here the schizophrenia is a little more explicable. Tea partiers do indeed seem to be temperamentally outraged by illegal immigration, but Dick Armey and FreedomWorks, who are big tea party funders, aren’t. So that’s tamped things down a bit on the immigration front. (Though obviously that could change if immigration becomes a front-and-center legislative issue later this year.)
In other words, the inchoate rage of the tea party movement is, if anything, even worse than Continetti says. Tea partiers are, obviously outraged about Obama, outraged at his “socialism,” and outraged at the increasing deficit and the social programs it funds. But there’s simply not much evidence that they’re really outraged at Wall Street or at the business community in general. Nor are they outraged by two foreign wars and skyrocketing military spending. Nor are they outraged by the obvious possibilities for government overreach that are inherent in things like massive warrantless wiretap programs and a less than robust attitude toward constitutional rights for anyone suspected of terrorism.
Jonah Goldberg at The Corner:
I finally got around to reading Matt Continetti’s piece on the tea parties. I’ve got to say I find it pretty flawed. First of all, it’s not really a piece on the tea parties. It’s a hit piece on Glenn Beck. And that’s fine. Conservatism is big enough and Beck is controversial enough, for people to take different sides on a vast range of topics. But I think Matt’s analysis simply comes up short.
(Warning: Long post ahead)
My chief complaint is that he desperately wants to force a Manichean critique of the tea parties (Santelli = good, Beck = bad) by lambasting Beck for being too conspiratorial and Manichean. The title of the essay says a lot: “The Two Faces of the Tea Parties.” Note, Continetti isn’t being hypocritical. One could argue that the chief flaw of, say, Stalin was his us-vs.-them worldview while at the same rightly arguing that we should have an us-vs.-them attitude toward Stalin and Stalinists.
For starters, the notion that Reagan and Goldwater represented two distinct and irreconcilable factions would come as a shock to nearly every conservative and liberal commentator from, say, 1960 to 1990. Heck, it would have come as a shock to both Reagan and Goldwater. The Goldwater forces inside the conservative movement in large part became the Reagan forces. (Matt also does a grave disservice to Goldwater by comparing him to Beck, given what Continetti thinks of Beck). So I have no idea how Matt thinks this historical analogy supports his argument that the Santelli and Beck faces are irreconcilable with mainstream conservative politics.
But then again, I largely think he’s wrong to divide the movement this way. And it is telling that he has to offer a literary interpretation to support this claim. If there were true wings to the movment, he would deploy polling data, and speech excerpts from Beckians denouncing Santellians. Where are the primary fights manifesting these supposedly durable and longstanding schisms? We aren’t seeing any because, I suspect, the more radical tea partiers do not define themselves in terms of their opposition to the Santelli wing of the movement at all. That’s why the Beckians supported Scott Brown, and why the Santellians supported Nikki Haley — because this schizophrenia that Matt ascribes to the tea parties isn’t all that pronounced according to the tea partiers themselves. In other words, Matt is simply taking a journalistic short cut to get to the Beck-Bashing.
This is a big problem for Matt’s analysis given that he says Beck can’t be integrated into the conservative movement. Again, he offers little to no empirical data on this point. Rather, he lambasts Beck’s conspiratorial streak — and I think Matt is right that Beck has one, even if he might overstate his case.
Matthew Continetti at TWS, responding to Goldberg:
In a response to my article, “The Two Faces of the Tea Party,” Jonah Goldberg writes that “at times [Continetti] seems to be trying — and trying very hard — to use [Glenn] Beck to discredit the entire conservative argument against the progressive revolution in politics.”
I am doing no such thing. The long passage Goldberg excerpts in his post, in which I describe Beck’s construction of a “competing canon,” is not meant as an attack. Indeed, I respect Beck’s ability to introduce conservative authors into public discourse. I happen to like many of the books on that list. All of them are interesting. So let me settle any disagreement between Goldberg and his colleague Daniel Foster, who Goldberg says “seems to think Continetti is celebrating Beck’s bibliophile prosletyzing.” Foster is right: “Celebrating” — or at least, cheerfully acknowledging — is exactly what I was doing in that passage.
I make two critiques of Beck in my article. The first is that, as valuable an intellectual exercise as it might be to explore, as Goldberg puts it, the “progressive revolution in politics,” it is hard to see how such an exercise translates into today’s politics. The welfare state is here to stay. A Republican party that ran on the platform of repealing the Progressive Era would no longer be a force in American life. Hence the Tea Party may prove to be self-limiting, as its anti-statist ambitions grow more and more utopian. Now, obviously this is a debatable assertion, and I’ve been happy to see my article provoke a lot of discussion. But to disagree with Beck or anyone else on the relative merits of progressivism is not to write a “hit piece” on him.
Which brings me to my second critique. While Beck is introducing many excellent authors to his radio and television audiences, he is also introducing crank conspiracy theorists such as Carroll Quigley and Cleon Skousen. Goldberg concedes that Beck has a “conspiratorial streak,” but then says that I “might overstate my case.” I’m sorry, I don’t. Take, for example, Beck’s June 22 television show. His guest was Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, who has written a new book on the Weimar banker Sigmund Warburg. “His family is conspiracy central, right?” Beck asked Ferguson, and then referred, once again, to Quigley’s 1966 Tragedy and Hope.
Tragedy and Hope, as I write in my piece, is the bible of conspiracy theorists. Why? Because in it Quigley, a Georgetown professor for many years and a man of the left, “admitted” that most of world history since the early twentieth century has been the design of secret societies. From page 950:
“There does exist, and has existed for a generation, an international Anglophile network which operates, to some extent, in the way the radical Right believes the Communists act. In fact, this network, which we may identify as the Round Table Groups, has no aversion to cooperating with the Communists, or any other groups, and frequently does so. I know of the operations of this network because I have studied it for twenty years and was permitted for two years, in the early 1960s, to study its papers and secret records.”
Of course, Quigley is the only individual, dead or alive, who has studied “the papers and secret records” of the Round Table Group — perhaps because no such records and no such network exist.
Yes, there isn’t actually a self-identified Santellian faction of the Tea Party, or a self-identified Beck wing. And yes, no binary will ever capture all the nuances of a diverse and motley movement. But the point of Continetti’s “literary” analysis was to identify tendencies, not factions — and tendencies can co-exist not only in the same movement, but often in the same people, without being formally acknowledged as competing ideologies. (There’s probably a little Beck and a little Santelli in every conservative heart …)
Moreover, once you start applying the frame to real-world figures, it’s pretty easy to see what Continetti’s talking about. Nikki Haley and Scott Brown are both Santellians, for instance (even though Haley is more right-wing than Brown), because they’re forward-looking and positive rather than conspiratorial and apocalyptic. Rick “Gather Your Armies” Barber, on the other hand, is a Beckian. So is Michelle Bachmann, at least when she’s fretting about Barack Obama’s sinister plans to create a “global economy.” When Tea Party darling Marco Rubio talks about the need to reform Social Security, he’s being Santellian. When Tea Party darling Sharron Angle talks about how Social Security and Medicare “can’t be fixed,” that’s Beckian. Paul Ryan’s Roadmap is Santellian. Rand Paul’s critique of the Civil Rights Act is Beckian. And so on and so forth.
I’m more sympathetic to Goldberg’s broader complaint about Continetti’s essay — namely, that it’s possible to separate some of the arguments that Beck endorses (particularly the critique of early-20th century progressivism and its consequences that’s obviously close to Goldberg’s own heart) from the conspiracy theories and apocalyptic rhetoric that the TV host favors. Certainly there can be virtues in radical ideas and vices in the comforts of the “mainstream,” and with the conservative movement in the wilderness, a deep rethinking of all kinds of issues (even if Goldberg and I might disagree about which ones) may have more to recommend it than Continetti’s piece sometimes seems to allow. (Though I don’t think that he intended to be quite as sweepingly dismissive of such rethinking as Goldberg suggests: See his response on that front for some clarification.)
But Continetti’s ultimately right that any such rethinking needs to circle back to the realities of contemporary politics, and the challenges of actual-existing policy issues, rather than indulging in manichaean fantasies about a final battle between virtuous liberty-lovers and wicked statists. What’s more, he’s right to suggest that certain ways of rethinking American politics are simply toxic and self-discrediting and ought to be labeled as such, no matter how many copies of “The Road to Serfdom” they inspire people to buy.