Posts Tagged ‘Glenn Beck’

Exceptional rhetoric + mediocre performance = falling approval ratings

January 20, 2010
BOSTON - JANUARY 17:  U.S President Barack Oba...

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There seems to be some confusion among Barack Obama supporters about why he is less popular now than he was upon winning Election 2008. As someone who wanted him to win that election (I didn’t vote, but only because I never got my CA absentee ballot) but disapproves of his tenure so far, I can at least articulate my own reasoning.

I thought that the Iraq War, the torture of detainees in the War on Terror, the GOP’s unnecessarily bellicose foreign policy rhetoric, and the notion that Governor Sarah Palin is a qualified occupant of the White House all needed to be repudiated in the strongest possible terms. Thus it made sense to support candidate Obama despite disagreeing with much of his domestic agenda.

Since I’ve long thought that President Obama is a temperamentally cautious pragmatist who conforms to existing power structures rather than challenging them, I never bought the rhetoric about “change you can believe in,” but it is nevertheless disappointing to watch a candidate who campaigned against the pernicious influence of special interests submit so utterly to them. Perhaps the financial crisis demanded bailouts and a stimulus package, but it surely also called for prudent structural reforms. I’m utterly unconvinced that those are a priority for the current administration, though I am eager to be proved wrong.

On health care, I don’t object to helping more folks to get insurance — indeed I think that improving the health care system for the worst off among us is worth doing even if it’s all that we do, and I’d happily sign on to this more ambitious plan if we lived in a world sane enough to offer it up as an option. Instead I’m asked to support a plan rife with giveaways for insurance companies, exemptions for unions, lots of dough for a single Midwestern state, and a double-down on the deeply dysfunctional employer based system. I’d prefer piecemeal reform to a massive restructuring that combines the uncertainty of sweeping legislation with preserving most of the status quo’s worst features.

I’m a great fan of Kevin Drum’s blog. His position on health care is defensible enough: a) major legislation that covers lots of presently uninsured people is a good idea; b) getting it through Congress requires holding our noses at the kinds of bribes and giveaways to special interests that are prerequisites for moving big legislation. c) The benefits are here worth the cost. Indeed I cannot entirely fault Congress for approaching major legislation in that fashion. There are powerful structural incentives for them to do so.

On the campaign trail, however, Obama didn’t campaign as an establishment pragmatist. He didn’t say, “Health care reform is important, so I’ll hold my nose, cut deals with a lot of special interests, and get more Americans covered in a very imperfect way.” Nor did he try to communicate that message in more politically palatable language. Instead he made being a change agent the foundation of his appeal. He talked, as they all do, about a broken system in Washington DC, noting that issues like health care reform were too important to be addressed in the same old way. Again, I didn’t particularly believe any of this, but having my cynicism justified isn’t winning President Obama any points.

Perhaps a down economy is the biggest reason that President Obama’s numbers are down, but I cannot help but wonder if his slip isn’t also due to a lie at the heart of his campaign. This man is calculating politico, as comfortable as anyone we’ve got at navigating Washington DC as it exists today. It’s a style of leadership that is perfectly defensible. But he sold himself as an idealistic agent of change whose special contribution would be fixing a broken status quo.

When you’re talking approval ratings, overall impressions like this one are far more important than most specific issues, and Obama supporters who took the man’s rhetoric seriously have reason to feel misled on everything from Gitmo to gay rights to bank bailouts to health care deals cut with industry players to courting special interests generally. That they’d still prefer him to McCain/Palin, Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck eventually begins to register as damning with the faint praise that it is. Obama defenders are perfectly within their rights to point out that sane alternatives to the president’s agenda haven’t many GOP champions. But let’s raise the bar a bit. Is there anything President Obama has accomplished that we couldn’t have expected from a President George H.W. Bush or a Bill Clinton?

Exceptional rhetoric + mediocre performance = falling approval ratings.

So it goes.

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Paranoia Strikes Deep

October 18, 2009

Anyone who wonders whether demagogues on the left and right do real damage to the audiences they mislead need look no farther than how the partisan media is “reporting” on the vaccine for the swine flu. I am sensitive to this topic because I have cable news watching grandparents who I’d like to see survive the winter. The chances that they’ll do so are marginally improved if they get the flu vaccine, or so the best scientific information available suggests, there being no guarantees in these matters.

Chris Beam rounds up coverage in the partisan media that is bound to reduce the number of folks who get the flu vaccine.

On the anti-government right, swine flu vaccinations are seen as an example of government overreach. Last week, Rush Limbaugh made headlines by announcing that he would not be getting a shot. “Screw you, Ms. Sebelius,” he said on his radio show, referring to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. “I’m not going to take it precisely because you’re now telling me I must.” Glenn Beck has declined to say whether he’s getting vaccinated. But he’s made his position pretty clear, suggesting that the vaccine may turn out to be “deadly,” raising the specter of mandatory vaccines (they’re voluntary), and saying he wants the “U.S. out of my bloodstream.”

On the left, there are prominent doctors, lawyers, and Hollywood celebrities skeptical of vaccines in general—and the swine flu vaccine especially. In a September article written for the Huffington Post, Dr. Frank Lipman recommended against getting vaccinated, arguing that the virus seems benign and the vaccine is unproven. Earlier this year, Jim Carrey—yes, that Jim Carrey—penned a HuffPost column reiterating the oft-made (and widely discredited) point that vaccines may cause autism. Robert F. Kennedy made a similar argument in a famous (and also largely discredited) 2005 article that appeared in Rolling Stone and Salon. The anti-vaccination movement is hardly exclusive to the left wing, but declines in vaccination rates have occurred in large part because of affluent parents in states like California.

Now, thanks to the government’s plan to ship 250 million doses of H1N1 flu vaccine to all 50 states this month, the two sides have finally found common cause. They may hold different political opinions, but they share a worldview: distrust—of doctors and modern medicine or of government. There’s even some overlap. Beck, for example, said that “you don’t know if this is gonna cause neurological damage like it did in the 1970s”—a fear commonly cited by vaccine skeptics. (Claims that the 1976 flu vaccine caused Guillain-Barré syndrome have not been proven.) Meanwhile, those who fear the needle aren’t all that confident in their government, either: Dr. Lipman warns that HHS has given the drug companies manufacturing the vaccines immunity from lawsuits.

So there you have it. Demagogues on the right and left whose irresponsible rhetoric is very likely to cost lives this flu season by scaring folks who’d otherwise get the flu vaccine into going without.

Against Glenn Beck

September 28, 2009

Surveying the blogosphere, you’d think that the most important question about Glenn Beck is whether he helps or hurts the conservative movement. How upsetting. This three part Salon profile is easily the richest portrait we have of Mr. Beck’s career. It shows him to be a pompous opportunist perfectly willing to transgress against truth, morality and good taste in his quest for ratings. One scene details a rivalry he had during his days as a Top 40 disc jockey. The host at the competing station, an old friend and colleague named Bruce Kelly, suffered a personal tragedy. Mr. Beck responded by calling his wife on the air, and asking if she’d in fact had a miscarriage. When she replied yes, Mr. Beck joked that his rival couldn’t do anything right — not even have a baby.

Perhaps Mr. Beck is no longer as depraved — his biography includes a recovery from drug addiction and conversion to the Mormon religion. In any case, he remains demonstrably willing to engage in the most farcical sensationalism imaginable for the sake of ratings. This is a man who pretended to pour gasoline over a guest’s body as he brandished a book of matches beside him, who regularly employs the affectation of tears, who deliberately cultivates the mannerisms of an unstable loon, and who most recently pretended to throw a live frog into a pot of boiling water. All this on a show that prominent conservatives are defending!

Any halfway sensible person should be able to see that giving a man like that a national platform is the height of cynical, irresponsible broadcasting — the cable “news” equivalent of those Fox reality tv shows that pander to the worst impulses of the American public, and that conservatives know enough to denounce, despite their high ratings, for the corrosive effect they have on national culture. Mr. Beck is so awful “because he theatrically combines and conflates performances of ultimate sincerity with performances of ultimate sarcasm,” James Poulos writes. It is indisputable, anyway, that Mr. Beck employs misleading hyperbole, farcical sensationalism, and paranoid rhetoric on a nightly basis (afterward proving himself unable to offer even a semi-coherent defense of his own provocations).

Yet Jonah Goldberg defends him because “he’s fundamentally a libertarian populist. He’s not clamoring for the government to do more, he’s clamoring for the government to do less.” Ah, well. If he happens to hold or advance some of the same political tenets as you do, who cares if he lies or debases the culture or makes a mockery of public discourse?

David Horowitz is even more explicit.

Glenn Beck is daily providing a school for millions of Americans in the nature and agendas and networks of the left – something that your fine books do not do, and Mark Levin’s fine books do not do, and Pete Wehner’s volumes of blogs and speeches and position papers – all admirable in my estimation, also do not do. How are conservatives going to meet the challenge of the left if they don’t understand what it is, how it operates and what it intends? And who else is giving courses in this subject at the moment?

Now I have to confess my own vested interest in this. Because the fact is that I have been attempting to do this from a much smaller platform than Beck’s for many years. Five years ago I put an encyclopedia of the left on the web called Discover the Networks. It details the chief groups, individuals and funders of the left and maps their agendas and networks. Since I put it up five years ago, 20 million people have visited the site, many of whom have written articles and even books from its information. So far as I can tell, this site has never been mentioned by you or Wehner or Mark Levin or National Review or the Weekly Standard or the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. But it has been read by and profoundly influenced the producers and anchors at Fox News. Among these no one has used it so systematically and relentlessly and to such great effect as Glenn Beck…

Intellectuals like us have a role to play, but if you want to influence masses and affect real politics, you need someone who has the talent to command a mass audience and the dedication to put the information on the radar. Beck has done that with the most important intelligence of all: knowledge of the enemy.

So that’s why I’m defending Glenn Beck the broadcaster. I’ve devoted twenty frustrating years to revealing who the left is and what they do, while conservatives have continued to pretend that leftists are simply confused liberals. No they’re not. They’re malicious, and calculating and devious, and smart. And Glenn Beck is helping Republicans and those conservatives who will listen to understand that.

On reading Mr. Beck’s defenders, I can’t help but think that their judgment and integrity are being corroded by politics. The ideological battle between conservatives and liberals has become for them the most important struggle in American life — in order to win it, they are willing to defend and count as allies anyone in their insular world who advances the appropriate side in what they regard as a two-sided battle for the country’s soul. The most honest among them are explicit in arguing that their ends justify whatever rhetorical means it takes to achieve them. Even worse, they are using this total political warfare as a litmus test — temperament and political philosophy are insufficient to be a conservative in their minds, because they’ve redefined the term such that it demands loyalty to a political coalition and even the particular tactics it employs.

That the tactics are ill-conceived are grounds on which they’ll engage debate (even if they don’t see they’re on the wrong side of it), but if the tactics are merely abhorrent they’ll apparently abide them. These conservatives are neither evil nor tyrannical, but they are adopting less extreme, less harmful versions of the same approach to politics that characterized French and Communists revolutionaries. It is therefore no surprise that Comrade Beck is now being turned on by Comrade Limbaugh and Comrade Levin (the one among the trio who actually believes most of what he says), men who were content to hold their heavy fire through all manner of madness, but can’t abide the heretical Glenn Beck statement that the United States would be in worse shape under a President McCain than it is under President Obama. Even assuming that Mr. Beck is wrong, it is absurd to count that as the most objectionable aspect of his farcical stardom!

Can conservatives please agree that American society is best served if its citizens object to bad behavior even when it is committed by someone on their own side in a political battle? Can those liberals who are still defending ACORN please agree to the same proposition? Can we all agree that, a few outliers aside, people on the other side are well-intentioned, and not evil? The American republic is robust, and has survived acrimony far beyond anything we’re experiencing today, but surviving and flourishing aren’t the same things. Apologias for obviously bad behavior exact a cost. Let’s stop them.