I have a confession to make: I enjoy listening to Glenn Beck. He's funny, quirky, and always interesting. He presents a coherent moral worldview that is widely shared in America, and that I respect. It is based on personal responsibility, patriotism, tradition, and the Protestant Work Ethic. (See my essay on The Karma of the Tea Party.)
As a political centrist who is passionate about the need for civility in politics, I have one enormous grudge against Beck: he demonizes relentlessly. If he critiqued Obama's agenda ruthlessly, showing every day that it was out of touch with the vision of the founding fathers, his would be a valuable conservative voice raising a reasonable critique. But does he have to say that Obama's real goal is to destroy America? Does he have to bring in radical leftists such as Cloward and Piven and claim, bizarrely, that Obama's real goal is to "bring down the system" so that there can be a radical leftist revolution? Isn't it perfectly obvious that Obama is an intellectual technocrat who sincerely believes that government can be improved and made more effective by drawing on the latest and best social science research? Isn't Cass Sunstein (Obama's regulatory "czar") the ultimate champion of "nudges" and other gentle ways to make things work better? So why does Beck continually demonize Sunstein as "the most dangerous man in America"?
I thought that's where things stood – a conflict of visions between conservatives who favor small government, as did the Founding Fathers, versus liberals who favor more activist government, the heirs of FDR. But then I started reading The Federalist papers, which Beck and the Tea Partiers urge us all to do. The essays, written in 1787 and 1788 by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, are as brilliant and timely as Beck says. I was stunned to find that in Federalist #1, Hamilton describes our current situation and the Tea Party critique precisely. But it is quite clear that if Hamilton were alive today, he'd be arguing AGAINST Beck and the Tea Partiers.
Remember that the Federalists were arguing FOR concentrating powers in the hands of the Federal government, after living through the national disgrace that was the decentralized Articles of Confederation. The Federalists wrote in response to critics of the new constitution who feared that it would infringe too strongly on individual liberty. Here's the key passage, which I have annotated [in brackets]:
To judge from the conduct of the opposite parties [the anti-Federalists], we shall be led to conclude thatthey will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives [i.e., the anti-Federalists are akin to today's Tea Partiers]. An enlightened zeal for the energy and efficiency of government [i.e., Obama and Sunstein] will be stigmatized as the offspring of a temper fond of despotic power and hostile to the principles of liberty [i.e., Obama will be compared to a collectivist dictator]…. It will be forgotten, on the one hand… that the noble enthusiasm of liberty is apt to be infected with a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust [i.e., paranoia]. On the other hand, it will be equally forgotten that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty [as liberals have argued since the Civil Rights movement]; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well-informed judgment, their interest can never be separated; and that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people [i.e., Beck and the Tea Partiers] than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government [i.e., Obama and Sunstein]. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people [i.e., Beck and Palin]; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.
A basic principle of moral psychology is that "thinking is for doing." People find evidence to confirm whatever moral judgment they have already made. I'm sure Beck can find passages elsewhere in the Federalist Papers that support his view. But the opening essay is awfully clear, and awfully hard to spin against Obama.
Glenn Beck loves his country and believes he is engaged in a battle of good versus evil. He has good intentions. But the road to hell, serfdom, and (according to Hamilton) tyranny is paved with good intentions acted out by demonizers.