Last Saturday, Glenn Beck held his "Restoring Honor" rally in Washington, DC. Reason.tv's segment on the event, which went up a few hours after its conclusion, is above. (Shot by Jim Epstein with help from Josh Swain; edited by Meredith Bragg and Epstein; hosted by me; approximately 6.30 minutes).
Go here for the writeup we gave the rally and to get downloadable versions of the video.
Reflecting on the event after a week has passed, some things stick with me, including the following:
1. While I think Beck is often massively confused in terms of basic facts, he is channeling a very strong tradition in American with regards to religion and the public square. One of the main themes of the rally is that is was our "turning away" from God that led to our present problems (which are never fully articulated but are palpable due to recession). The solution, offered by Beck and other speakers and certainly most of the people we talked with in the crowd, was "embracing" God and putting him back in the center of our lives, both private and public. Regardless of whether the Founders were Christian in the way that many contemporary Christians would recognize (they weren't), the notion of the U.S. as a god-fearing country that publicly demonstrated its religiosity is an old and powerful one. What is particularly odd about the anxiety that we've turned God (vaguely Christian in invocation, but really a non-denominational higher power) out of the public square is the not-small fact that we haven't: In a way they certainly didn't in the '60s and '70s, for instance, politicians are far more publicly pious than they used to be. But that may be less important than the feeling.
2. The recession is undergirding a huge amount of free-floating anxiety about everything. This is obvious but rarely goes baldly stated. For much of the new century, and certainly for all of the past three years, there has been nothing but uncertainty in the economy and a good degree of uncertainty in the political arena. The people we talked to felt something like cogs in a machine whose shape and size they didn't even understand. They were not rabid xenophobes or racists or even haters in general, but they were pissed off that their individual actions did not seem to mean much. They were not conspiracists (few if any brought up Obama as a Muslim or a foreign national, for instance), but they felt cheated and frustrated that their individual lives seemed to be controlled by larger forces and institutions over which they had little or no control. And to the extent that they talked about government, the focus was generally upon government spending that they assumed threatened to destroy the future, for them and their kids or grandkids.
3. That sort of mind-set has a history of giving rise to two sorts of broader movements. It can create a populist movement, which seeks to tame power elites, demonize foreigners, turn government over to a new crew, etc. Or it inspires self-improvement modes that have political import but are not fundamentally political (the various Great Awakenings in America, or the self-help gospels of Norman Vincent Peale). The rally was an interesting mix of both strands. In his day job, Beck rarely misses an opportunity to rail against politicians, especially those he deems socialistic or progressive, and there's no mistaking Sarah Palin on any podium as a politician. Yet more strong at this event was the self-help dimension, the idea that self-transformation was the key to a larger group transformation. A lot of that seems to stem almost directly from Beck's facility with and embrace of 12 Step rhetoric. In some sense, the rally was a giant AA meeting (I don't mean this snarkily), flush with the notion that whatever else is going on in the world, you can control some portion of your own life.
4. The attendees saw a continuity between George Bush and Barack Obama, spendthrift and ineffectual Republicans and Democrats. To me, this was the most interesting aspect of the crowd. There were definitely more Republicans than Democrats (who may have been missing almost totally), but virtually everyone we talked with identified as an independent. Who was fed up with the past decade, really, not just the past 18 or so months of Obama.
5. The crowd reminded me of Wal-Mart (not being snarky!). I live part-time in small-town Ohio where the local Wal-Mart Super Center is a major third space. Over the past few years and contrary to its image as wholesome, the chain has gone serously goth. Check out the T-shirts you can buy there and virtually every other one has skulls and crosses on it. And if something doesn't have stylized chains and blood on it, then it's in Day-Glo colors. The crowd reflected that, with more piercings than I've seen at some rock shows, ZZ Top beards galore, a biker look on many men and women. A noticeable number of the crowd were even wearing inexpensive Faded Glory (Wal-Mart's housebrand) American flag T-shirts. Any number of commentators may have been appalled by the crowd, but check it and see: This is America.
6. The organizers and the attendees are not part of the Leave Us Alone coalition. In some ways, they are proto-libertarian: they want the government to spend less money and they seemed wary of interventions into basic economic exchange (nobody seemed to dig ObamaCare or the auto bailouts or the bank bailouts). But they also want the government to be super-effective in securing the borders, they worry about an undocumented fall in morals, and they are emphatic that genuine religiosity should be a feature of the public square. Which is to say, like most American voters, they may well want from government precisely the things that it really can't deliver.
Where does this crowd and its energy and mentality go from here? We'll find out over the next few months.