Glenn Beck and the Paranoid Center


You may have seen Christopher Hitchens' essay in Vanity Fair attacking Glenn Beck, the Tea Parties, and "the manner in which the more sophisticated conservatives attempted to conjure the nasty bits away." Ross Douthat, one of the sophisticates under attack, has written a capable response, and I'm not just saying that because he's kind enough to quote me in the process:

Hitchens is absolutely right that paranoia can lead to disastrous follies, and crackpottery to violence. But do you know what else has often led to folly, disaster, violence and human misery? The "moderation" and "centrism" of the Western governing class. It wasn't Glenn Beck who mired the United States in two neverending overseas occupations, where "gun brandishing" is the least of the everyday horrors that flow from our policy failures. It wasn't the Tea Party that decided to create two new health care entitlements (Medicare Part D and Obamacare) just as America was about to go over a fiscal waterfall. It wasn't kooks and reactionaries who got the European Union into its current mess. It wasn't the radicals of the left and right who risked the global economy on a series of disastrous real estate bets, or locked our government into a permanently symbiotic relationship with the banking and financial sectors, or created a vast labyrinth of unaccountable bureaucracies in the hopeless quest for perfect security from terror attacks. And to bring things up the present day, it wasn't the more "extreme" members of the Senate—be they Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn on the right, or Bernie Sanders on the left—who just voted for more short-term spending and tax cuts without any plan to pay for it.

The point, again, is not to justify paranoia or conspiracy theorizing. But an outsize paranoia about paranoia—what Jesse Walker has dubbed the "the paranoid style in center-left politics"—seems like a rather odd response to a political moment in which nearly all of our overlapping crises are the result of disastrous misgovernment at the center, not "gun brandishing" and violence at the extremes. The Tea Party's politics are not my politics, but the movement has virtues as well as vices, and at the very least it represented a possible alternative force at a time when our politics desperately needs alternatives, whether right-wing or left-wing or something else entirely, to the policies that have led us to our present pass. Nothing good may come of it, but an awful lot more ill has come from politics-as-usual of late than from grassroots populism.

It's true that while Glenn Beck isn't to blame for those eternal occupations, he did support them at the start. It's also true that Beck has moved steadily away from that earlier interventionism; his foreign policy stances today have more in common with those of Ron Paul than those of George W. Bush. Pop quiz: When did Beck's public reputation take on its current demonic dimensions, when he was a hard-core hawk or a relative dove?