Obamacare

Glenn Beck's Great Awakening

Populism, revivals, and goth Americana

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On Saturday, August 28, Glenn Beck brought tens of thousands of people to Washington, D.C., for his "Restoring Honor" rally. The aim of the event, the lachrymose radio and TV host explained, was to "come celebrate America by honoring our heroes, our heritage, and our future." I covered the event for reason.tv, and I found the rally interesting, strange, and powerful.

Beck is channeling a very strong American tradition with regard to religion and the public square. One of the main themes of the rally was that it was America's "turning away" from God that led to our present problems. The solution offered by Beck, other speakers, and most of the people I encountered, was "embracing" God and putting him back in the center of our lives, both private and public.

The problems themselves were never fully articulated, but they are palpably related to the recession, which undergirds a huge amount of free-floating anxiety. For much of the new century, and indisputably for the past three years, uncertainty has infected both the economic and the political arena. The people I met at the Beck rally said that they felt 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 conspiracy freaks, but they felt frustrated and cheated that their individual lives seemed to be controlled by larger forces and institutions over which they had little or no control. To the extent that they talked about government, the focus was generally on government spending that they felt threatened to destroy the future.

(Article continues after the video, "What We Saw at the Glenn Beck Rally in DC.")

Historically, such a mind-set has led to two sorts of broader crusades. It can create a populist movement, which might seek to tame the power elite, demonize foreigners, turn the government over to a new crew, or otherwise intervene in the political realm. Or it can inspire a self-improvement movement that has political import but is not fundamentally political: America's various Great Awakenings, for example, 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 he deems socialistic. But at this event the accent was on the self-help dimension: the idea that self-transformation was the key to a larger group transformation. A lot of that seems to stem from Beck's facility with and embrace of 12-step rhetoric. In a sense—and I don't mean this snarkily—the rally was a giant Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, flush with the notion that whatever else is going on in the world, you can control some portion of your own life.

The attendees saw a continuity between George W. Bush and Barack Obama, between spendthrift and ineffectual Republicans and Democrats. To me, this was the most interesting aspect of the crowd. As one person told me, "It all started under Bush, but now it's really going to hell." There were definitely more Republicans than Democrats, if indeed there were any Democrats there at all, but virtually everyone we talked with identified more enthusiastically as an independent. They were fed up with the past decade in toto, not just a year and a half of Obama.

The other thing that struck me about the crowd was how much it reminded me not of a stereotypical church congregation in its Sunday best, but of Walmart. I live part-time in small-town Ohio where the local Walmart Supercenter is an important third place, the sociologist Ray Oldenburg's term for spaces outside the home and workplace that facilitate interaction and community. And over the past few years, contrary to its wholesome image, the chain has gone seriously goth. If you check out the T-shirts you can buy there, you'll find that 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 Restoring Honor 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 percentage of the crowd was wearing inexpensive Faded Glory (Walmart's house brand) American flag T-shirts. This is America.

The organizers and attendees of this rally were not really part of the Leave Us Alone coalition, Grover Norquist's famous phrase to describe people who resent government intrusion into various parts of their lives. Yet in some ways, they were 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 and bank bailouts.) But they also want the government to be super-effective in securing the borders, they worry about an undocumented decline in morals, and they are emphatic that genuine religiosity should be a feature of the public square. Which is to say that, like most American voters, they may well want from government precisely the things that it really can't deliver. 

Nick Gillespie (gillespie@reason.com) is editor in chief of reason.com and reason.tv.

NEXT: Reason Writers on TV: Matt Welch Talks California and Greece on Fox Business Channel

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  1. Gillespie is by far the most intelligent writer at Reason.

    Unlike other writers at this site who would rather have a solitary movement containing solely libertarians, he recognizes the increasingly likely scenario that modern conservatives may embrace certain elements of the libertarian philosophy while remaining authentic to their own commitments (whether they be moral, religious, etc).

    Nice article Nick.

    1. It’s the Jacket.

      credit where credit is due

    2. Word. None of the beckheads are theocrats, but they aren’t exactly secularists either. They don’t like health care, but that doesn’t stop them from wanting to shove something else down your throat.

      Teabagging pun unintended.

    3. Gillespie is by far the most intelligent hottest writer at Reason.

      1. Why didn’t my delete code work? The “most intelligent” is supposed to have a line through it. Damn you, html!

        1. try the “strike” tag

          1. or just <s>

            1. Thanks! I was trying ; it didn’t do anything.

      2. It’s the jacket.

    4. “Gillespie is by far the most intelligent writer at Reason.”
      Is that suppose to be a compliment?

      1. Let me ask you Realist, what do you see as the future of this country with the way the government is spending? What about the future of certain freedoms with legislation like the Patriot Act?

        Are you a “realist” because you don’t see libertarian principles as effective, or because you think things are fine the way they are?

    5. I’ve said this before on other Tea Party related articles, but many people who have followed Beck have shifted more and more towards libertarian, including myself.

      I think that Beck does a great job of framing certain arguments while yes, being quite entertaining. There have been times when Beck has made me laugh uncontrollably to the point that I would have to rewind my DVR to see what I missed while laughing.

      Becks brand of religious awakening is also quite in line with the libertarian point of view in that it is an individualistic approach. At no point in the rally, or on his TV show does Beck ever suggest that the government should promote religion, but instead, he suggests religion as a way to guide your personal decisions in life so that you are acting in a manner that is in line with your long term rational self interest in the Randian sense.

      I don’t always agree with beck and I don’t really know where he stands on certain social issues, but based on everything I have heard and seen of the man, I would have to imagine that he is not in favor of the government having a major role in any social issues, though Pot legalization I believe he does not support. Oh well, he is not a perfect libertarian. I also don’t always agree with Penn Gillette, but I would say that I agree with Penn more often than I do Beck. The difference between Penn and Beck is that Beck is able to reach a wide audience of people who didn’t know they were libertarian.

      When Ron Paul was running for POTUS, I completely dismissed him, because he said some pie in the sky shit, now I think that Pie in the Sky shit he said is pure gold, and I have Beck to thank for that.

      Other libertarians like Napolitano and Stossel are also gaining popularity and they can thank Beck for that.

      Oh and I almost forgot, I never used to watch Red Eye either, but Greg is (I believe) a libertarian, if not, he sure has a shit load of them on his show each week.

      And yes… I watch Fox much more than the other news channels. I will watch MSNBC to check in and see what sort of arguments they are making on topics that interest me, but more often than not, I am roundly disappointed. At work, I sit in front of a 53 inch TV that plays CNBC on mute, which is about the only good way to watch CNBC, I have to say, sometimes they can be okay, but I can tell that sometimes they are not willing to ask certain questions or dig too deeply into certain topics, such as quantitative easing. I think they touched on it for about five minutes in any critical manner, the rest of the day was devoted to “How much will QE2 help?” My point here is that Beck Reaches conservatives like no other can and he does so while quite discretely conveying a libertarian leaning POV, while other networks are competing for the slim margin of Liberals and liberal leaning libertarians (which sounds like an oxymoron, but they apparently exist).

      The Tea Party is the new Libertarian Party 1.0. by the 2012 elections, it will be libertarian party 1.5ish, which means that they will probably be full blown libertarian on economic issues and many social issues. Once you can convince Americans that social issues have no place in the government, they will take to full blown libertarianism easily. And they can thank Glenn Beck for that.

  2. I think Beck has a deep, strong point. As society has become more secular, people are turning inward in the sense that they are looking for religious fulfilment through material good. This has spawned the massive debt crisis both on a personal level and at the public level as people demand more and more to fill what is, in the end, a spiritual need.

    Beck may be a flawed messenger, but I think his message is spot on.

    1. Also spot on: Gillespie’s observation regarding those who seek that religious fulfillment in a public policy sort of way. “…like most American voters, they may well want from government precisely the things that it really can’t deliver.”

      1. Precisely.

  3. …such a mind-set has led to two sorts of broader crusades. It can create a populist movement, which might seek to tame the power elite, demonize foreigners, turn the government over to a new crew, or otherwise intervene in the political realm. Or it can inspire a self-improvement movement that has political import but is not fundamentally political:

    I saw the election of Obama as the first and the tea party as the latter. I’ve actually wondered how many examples of this dynamic could be found in history where the first social wave is towards government and the response or next wave the other direction or away from government (or towards the individual which to me is inherently away from government).

    1. Exactly. It’s the answer I give when progs I know say these people weren’t protesting under Bush so they must be racist. Who do you think voted Obama into office and gave the Dems majority in both houses?

      1. Believe it or not, a lot of “progressives”, like Glenn Greenwald to use one example, appear to sincerely believe that America is an ultra-left nation and that the democrats got creamed last week because they didn’t go nearly far enough to the left.

        The total lack of awareness that some of these people have of those around them and the country that they live in is almost frightening.

        1. While America is not majority liberal by any means, opposition to certain recent policies does not always mean most people were against them for the same reasons, say, you might be. There was lots of evidence that Obamacare would have been more popular if it had been more progressive.

          1. Take your meds, Tony.

          2. If you think for one minute that every scenario wasn’t run and the outcome was the best they could get with respect to voting and public reaction you are batshit insane.

            1. We got the best we could get with a Senate that required a supermajority to pass anything.

          3. There are not that many Uber Liberals out there that are upset it didnt go far enough. Some more moderate liberals may be upset with the flaws, but the majority of both the Uber liberals and the moderates can agree that it is a step in the Left direction.

            On the other hand (the right hand), the MAJORITY of Americans identify center RIGHT and either totally disapprove or disapprove of substantive aspects of the bill. So the MAJORITY of Americans disapprove.

            Just because there are a few insane progressives out there that got a pet cat instead of a pony for Christmas doesn’t mean the number of people who think the bill is total shit for the RIGHT reasons is somehow misleading. Many many people do not like the bill and not because it doesn’t go far enough.

  4. Caption:

    1) “The Called Shot – 2010 Edition”

    2) “Fresdom – there it is, over there…”

    3) “Who let O’Reilly in?”

    1. …”freedom”, even…

      1. I used to live in Fresdom. Outside of the Pizza Hut buffet and the Friday night bowling league, there’s not much to do there.

    2. It’s a bird.

      It’s a plane.

      It’s a missile.

      No, it’s Krugabe McKrugnuts! (taking off headed to the G20, in Bernanke’s spandex outfit and cape.)

  5. They want the government to spend less money…

    On team blue stuff, yeah.

    1. On team blue stuff, yeah.

      The trouble is that ‘team blue stuff’ is usually various programs that become like the living dead after their usefulness (if any) is over. They continue to suck the life out of the economy year after year with no end. Give me good old fashioned corruption. At least we know it will end at some point (even if it’s replaced by new corruption). It won’t break the bank.

      1. Yea not like that the defense spending, spy programs, or war on “everything” that the “team red” is always asking for. That stuff just melts away after a couple of years… no growth in those over the years… none at all.

        1. I am not going to defend either of the wars here, but cant you at least see that government has more of a role to play in Military than they do say in Healthcare?

          I mean, if you are going to start cutting budgets, lets go ahead and start with the ones we know are not an appropriate role for government and then we can work our way over to the pentagon and perhaps turn it into a rectangle like all the other buildings in the country.

    2. Only Communists cut defense spending. Take China or the USSR for example. Barely had armies.

      1. Yes but both are examples of state run industries. Here in America, we have competing defense companies pitching for government contracts. Its the governments job to provide an army, but in a healthy system they rely on capitalism to supply it.

        Locckheed has to compete or they get usurped by Boeing, and in recent history the US bought Airbus instead of either. That doesn’t happen with communist/socialist systems, there’s one government controlled supplier and huge budgets spent on espionage of western military contractors. (turns out lack of competition is bad for developing innovation – what a shocker!)

  6. I think it’s unfortunate to see so many people still conflate morality with religion in the first place.

    1. It is more unfortunate that some people conflate childish self-indulgence with a rational moral code.

    2. Double word. Like atheists/agnostics don’t have a sense of right/wrong…

    3. I like they way Penn Jillette explains atheistic morality:

      Believing there’s no God means I can’t really be forgiven except by kindness and faulty memories. That’s good; it makes me want to be more thoughtful. I have to try to treat people right the first time around.

  7. Fucking Bing ads? Well you won’t be getting a dime from me.

    1. ADs generate revenue. or do you think the people at Reason just get money from the government money fairy???

      Reason.com Brought to you by Obamacash. Need cash? here, have some Obamacash. Hot off the presses!

  8. Please come to my rally. The theme is:

    Restore Honor Killings

  9. I watched a little of Beck’s event but it was far too religious for me. Following the event I started thinking of the Tytler Cycle.

    * From bondage to spiritual faith;
    * From spiritual faith to great courage;
    * From courage to liberty;
    * From liberty to abundance;
    * From abundance to complacency;
    * From complacency to apathy;
    * From apathy to dependence;
    * From dependence back into bondage.

    Maybe, in his mind, he realizes we are starting into the bondage phase and he wants to push us through as quickly as possible.

    1. Ahhh. Yes!

    2. Bill Maher may suck up to the left but his film Religulous was right on.

      1. He ripped off a lot of his material from The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. The film was a total piece of shit other than the interesting stuff he plagiarized from Dawkins.

  10. “But they also want the government to be super-effective in securing the borders, they worry about an undocumented decline in morals, and they are emphatic that genuine religiosity should be a feature of the public square. Which is to say that, like most American voters, they may well want from government precisely the things that it really can’t deliver.”

    No Nick. They want things that you don’t want the government to deliver. The government very effectively delivered all of those things for most of the history of the United States.

    1. When was it that the government effectively secured the borders?

      1. 1920 through 1964 it did just fine.

        1. There was also no quota on Mexicans applying for entry to the US before 1964 either.

          Hmmm.

        2. I don’t think closed borders is the same as secured borders. Immigration is fine (as a national policy, not in it’s current form), but it needs to be reformed so that people who want to come in can come in safely and properly.

      2. And plenty of other countries secure their borders.

        1. I’m pretty sure most of them are countries that not many people want to get into.

          And even North Korea has a hard time keeping its people in.

      3. A better question is, when did government provide morals?

        1. morals? we don’t need no stinkin’ morals!

  11. Glenn Beck’s a shock-jock looking for ratings. Whether or not you agree with him you have to take him with a grain of salt. Same goes for Limbaugh, Michael Moore or any of the others.

  12. For steadfast protection of all First Amendment freedoms, including the free exercise of religion, seek out your nearest, secular libertarian. They are more staunch defenders of civil liberties than most neoconservative theists.

    What is never addressed is whether adhering to the literal decrees of one’s chosen god would ever conflict with libertarian values of individual autonomy and personal liberty. It is apparent that sooner or later, Beck’s religious idolatry will run smack-dab into the foundations of libertarian ideals.

    At the point of impact, a choice will need to be made between a god that may or may not exist and a country which (at the present, at least) does.

    It should be obvious to both believers and Brights that Beck’s zealotry is on such a collision course with Lady Liberty. When the distance begins to narrow and they finally meet, it is uncertain if Beck’s sanctimonious dogma will merely curiously sniff, attempt to mount or lift a leg onto the stola of liberty and with it, drench the principles contained within the constitution.

  13. When Beck and others want to “get back to the spiritual, religious, morality” back, they’re just trying to star somewhere, and this is a proper place to start. Everything is tied in together. Many parents today are irresponsible, they don’t teach their kids RESPECT, responsibility, hard work pays off, etc. These kids go to school, are idiots, behave atrociously…so the government throws more and more money at the schools trying to “fix” it. This contributes to our massive national debt. But in every aspect of society, respect, responsibility, morality is lacking or gone completely. People may not be able to articulate it that well, but they miss days when folks went to church, dressed up for church, hell, dressed up to go to work! Actually stopped for funerals, ambulances, cops. Taught their children these values. Yet they see people who bought houses they couldn’t afford, rung up debt and wonder if they ever learned 1st grade math, and then scream at the government-ie, the taxpayers-ie: themselves!! to bail them out.

    They watch as government wastes a horrific, obscene amount of money, spending billions, trillions….they don’t see where ANY of this money goes. Or when they find out, they ask again, “Yeah, but Billions?! Trillions?!!! I make $20,000 a year!!” A religious people, being responsible, would NEVER, if they followed their faith-ie: all the stuff aside from “Don’t have sex.” do any of that to their fellow man.

    It’s morally wrong to take money from people who work hard, and give it to those who WON’T work, even in the best economy. It’s morally wrong to steal taxpayer money. It’s wrong to bail out rich companies that screwed up, while letting mom and pop style small businesses go bankrupt, because they don’t have the right clout or connections. It’s morally wrong to spend taxpayer money on something, and waste the shit out of it. A job that would cost them $100 to do, the government does it for $10,000. It’s morally wrong to waste taxpayer money on useless, redundant programs, or to give it to outright thieves and criminals-medicaid theft measured in BILLIONS, or every worker who retired in one place collecting disability, because everyone else got away with it…. Union workers getting paid, to do nothing. Bad teachers getting full salary, to sit in a room everyday, twiddling their thumbs, or at home. Or building aircrafts even the military doesn’t want. Etc. etc. etc.

    And then if they have a problem with any of this, government officials and smug ass, condescending pundits scream at them for being racists, bigots, selfish, too stupid to know how “these things work !!!”

    But at the same time, they don’t want the government taking their porn away, dictating to them what they can and can’t eat, smoke, watch, play video games of, etc. They hate the disrespect in society, and they hate the pleasure police at the same time!

    People want their liberty, freedom, and tax dollars back, and they figure this is one place to start.

  14. The only difference between Jim Bakker and Glenn Beck is Tammy and the doghouse. Glenn is still has time. It’s always entertaining to watch folk use public treasure to have a mega [whatever] social gathering to whine about socialism. Pulling appealing snippets of as being like minded … lets get going on that theme park dudes and dudette.

  15. The only difference between Jim Beck and Glenn Bakker is Tammy and the doghouse.

    Reason needs a theme park.

  16. Reason? It is a worship word. You shall not speak it!

    1. You must have a better bit of software, I still have to type, besides I tithed at the door didn’t you see the puddle?

  17. THANK YOU TO ALL VETERANS , THE COMMANDER ——NOV.11 ,2010

    1. The commander is totally the new anonymity bot.

  18. I’ve never been terribly religious, but I do believe strongly in personal responsibility and self-accountability. I think most of the time Glenn Beck is a raving lunatic, but he does have a point that things seem to be spiraling out of control. Still, most of the time he’s a raving nutcase who clamors for attention, just like Limbaugh, Moore, etc.

    And yes, this is going to get messy soon. Religious ideals at their core really aren’t completely compatible with the libertarian ideal. I personally don’t care for anyone telling me what I can or cannot consume, what I can or cannot do with my body, or whom I can or cannot love and marry. I’ll deal with it myself, thank you.

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  20. I don’t always agree with beck and I don’t really know where he stands on certain social issues, but based on everything I have heard and seen of the man, I would have to imagine that he is not in favor of the government having a major role in any social issues, though Pot legalization I believe he does not support. Oh well, he is not a perfect libertarian. I also don’t always agree with Penn Gillette, but I would say that I agree with Penn more often than I do Beck. The difference between Penn and Beck is that Beck is able to reach a wide audience of people who didn’t know they were libertarian.
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    When Ron Paul was running for POTUS, I completely dismissed him, because he said some pie in the sky shit, now I think that Pie in the Sky shit he said is pure gold, and I have Beck to thank for that.
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    Other libertarians like Napolitano and Stossel are also gaining popularity and they can thank Beck for that.

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