It looks like Glenn Beck is quiting his show on Fox. There’s good reason to be happy; Beck’s been a toxic element in our body politic, and there’s also the deep satisfaction that the work of liberal bloggers, Media Matters for America and others in pressuring advertisers to abandon his show eventually paid off. But from a strategic, zero-sum position, Beck going off the air isn’t good for Democrats, at least not in the short-term.
Among the many factors behind the rise of the “tea party,” three stand out: the organizational prowess paid for with money from the Koch brothers; the combination of bullshit “objectivity”, false equivalence and a love of covering freak shows that drives most content from the mainstream media, thus leading to ridiculously excessive coverage of the “tea party” ; and the role of Fox News in both setting the agenda followed by the tea partiers. In electoral terms, the “tea party” is, of course, just another name for the Republican primary base. But that base has been shaped by eagerly lapping up whatever nonsense is dolled out to them by Fox News, and they now think of themselves more as “tea partiers” than Republicans. And the biggest dispenser of tea partier nonsense, including a fair amount that’s been harmful to the electoral chances of the Republican party, has been Glenn Beck.
In the long run, America is better served by not having a conspiracy-mongering huckster getting the rubes in such a lather that scholar Frances Fox Piven gets death threats. There are damaged people out there, and when someone with millions of followers makes them out to be a dangerous enemy who needs to be stopped, it’s only a matter of time before someone starts shooting. But the threats go beyond what may happen to a few individuals. Frances Fox Piven herself has discussed this:
When the process of governing is incomprehensible, manipulation and propaganda thrives. The strange stories that Glenn Beck creates with his chalkboard gain traction with Americans, who are made anxious by the large changes that have overtaken the United States, including the election of a black president and the increasing racial diversity of the population, deindustrialisation and the decline of American power abroad, as well as cultural changes in sexual and family norms.
By telling simple fairy tales that trace these big and complex changes to the machinations of particular people, Beck makes the changes comprehensible in a way, and also makes the people who are presumably responsible the targets of his listeners’ frustration and outrage. Partly because it is utterly irrational, and partly because it is an effort to bully and intimidate his political opponents, this is dangerous for democratic politics.
In the short term, however, Glenn Beck leaving the airwaves, or at least having a diminished presence, may dial down the crazy in the Republican primaries. And dialing down the crazy means it’s more likely that a non-insane Republican could get the presidential nomination and fewer whackjobs will will down-ballot primaries. It’s pretty clear that Obama’s chances of reelection are decent right now (with all the normal caveats about the effects of another financial/economic meltdown, the uncertainties of a looming government shutdown, what could happen overseas, etc). He’s in a good position because of demographics and long-term trends that favor Democrats, as well as the fact that his personable favorability is pretty good. But he’s also in a good position because the Republican candidates are so awful.
Had it not been for the more and more extreme litmus-testing coming from tea party types, the Republicans may very well have won the Senate in 2010. But the craziness driven in part by online communications but also with major contributions from the conservative entertainment complex, of which Fox News is at the heart, meant that merely loathsome candidates lost Republican primaries to candidates who were crazed. And nobody has done more to whip up the crazies to vote for crazies running in GOP primaries than Glenn Beck. He’s given voice to the most extreme positions within the GOP’s coalition and incited them to demand nothing less than pure fealty to positions that were once the lunatic fringe but which now win people Republican Senate primaries in Delaware, Alaska and Nevada. If the tea partiers continue to blow up the electoral calculations of the Republican party’s leadership and then hold the primary winners to positions that make them unable to survive general elections, Democrats will win races with candidates and in places that should otherwise ensure easy Republican wins. Glenn Beck has contributed to the Republicans’ self-sabotage. His departure makes it less likely that self-sabotage will continue to be so destructive.