Glenn Beck is better than most syndicated talk show hosts. While right-wing radio mainstays Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity offer little more than Republican talking points, Beck regularly eschews such hackery, instead warning of the "progressivism" that exists in both parties or the perils of blind partisanship.
It's hard to fathom Limbaugh or Hannity saying what Beck did at CPAC this year: "I have not heard the people in the Republican Party yet admit they have a problem ... I don't know what they stand for anymore." But after his Restoring Honor rally, I'm not quite sure what Beck thinks the Tea Party should stand for anymore either.
At the Restoring Honor rally, estimates of around 100,000 Tea Party types gathered in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28 to accomplish — well, no one really knows what. Conservative darling Sarah Palin said a whole lot of nothing, as did Beck and a slew of other hosts who seemed genuinely excited that so many people could come together even if none of them really seemed to know why.
Much like Obama's promises of "hope" and "change," the platitudes offered at Beck's event were equally as empty, making it more like a right-wing Woodstock. The New York Times Ross Douthat aptly described why those who attended found it so groovy: "Americans love leaders who seem to validate their way of life ... The Obama campaign raised it to an art form, convincing voters that by merely supporting his candidacy, they were proving themselves cosmopolitan and young-at-heart, multicultural and hip. In a sense, Beck's Restoring Honor was like an Obama rally through the looking glass. It was a long festival of affirmation for middle-class white Christians — square, earnest, patriotic, and religious."
Identity politics have always been a part of the Tea Party. The Left perceives this as racist while many on the Right think it's refreshing. The idea of so many middle-class whites, many of them Christians and traditional Republicans, coming together en masse to question their party and re-examine first principles, is a liberating concept. It's also long overdue. After decades of empty promises from politicians and the cyclical rants of talk radio hosts, it seemed like the Right's grassroots supporters were finally ticked off enough to demand results, roll some heads, and "take their country back" while focusing sharply on impending economic doom for our country.
As is always the case with populism, any real movement is naturally going to be made up of real people, some of whom might hold wacky signs or become obsessed with trivial conspiracies. That Beck himself has behaved oddly or embraced certain conspiracy theories has always been less important than his willingness to encourage and aid the Tea Party in general, corralling the masses in the Right direction and demanding that they keep an eye on the big government wings of both parties. So long as anti-government sentiment was the overriding Tea Party narrative, it remained healthy, and so long as Beck's trivial preoccupations remained such, it was tolerable, becoming little more than irrelevant fodder for the Left.
So what in God's name was the purpose of the Promise Keepers-light event Beck held on Aug. 28? It would be one thing if it were simply another trivial distraction, but the overt religiosity on display at the Restoring Honor rally could spell certain doom for a grassroots movement with the potential to unite more Americans against government spending than the Tea Party's harshest critics are willing to admit. Independents and disaffected Democrats, atheists and agnostics, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and virtually every political, religious, or cultural category imaginable could feasibly unite under a fiscal restraint-minded Tea Party banner. But some new Moral Majority? The moment religion becomes an explicit part of the Tea Party platform — and Beck's rally was certainly heading in that direction — it severely limits the movement's primary goal of eliminating government and debt.
A movement born of identity politics, at least in part, must mature philosophically if it wishes to become serious in its limited-government desires. Beck's rally actually caused me to question the Tea Party's seriousness. By further embracing identity politics — which is exactly what Beck's rally did — the Tea Party took a step in the wrong direction precisely because identity politics are a throwback to the same old partisanship that has historically comforted conservatives while government continues to grow.
This writer has never had a problem with an influential pundit like Beck being all over the place politically so long as he generally ended up in the right place. But unfortunately, with his Restoring Honor rally, Glenn Beck was closer to taking the Tea Party back to the George W. Bush years than toward a constitutional revival.
Catch Southern Avenger commentaries every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on the "Morning Buzz with Richard Todd" on 1250 AM WTMA.