At the time of this writing, I am teaching a course on public administration and policy. I had my students read a chapter in a book by Edward Glaeser about the decline of cities. In that chapter, one discovers a malignant key to American politics.
While Glaeser sympathetically explains the details of Coleman Young’s biography (racism, second class status, repression), he is critical of Young’s leadership of Detroit as its mayor. Young was a practitioner of racial politics. Once he became mayor, the white population of Detroit declined dramatically over the years. And that was fine with him.
Here is the critical point. Though Young’s racial politics were bad for Detroit, they were good for Coleman Young. His hold on the mayor’s office became stronger as Detroit lost more and more of its white population. The racial politics harmed the city and cemented Young’s status.
What does any of this have to do with Glenn Beck? I noticed a headline proclaiming that Glenn Beck is done with the Republican Party. Statements of that type are protests against what he views as political weakness from John Boehner and/or Mitch McConnell. I have certainly heard him say as much on the radio.
Glenn Beck is like Coleman Young in the following sense: When Glenn Beck stakes out a hard position and bolsters it by declaring his political opponents (even within the party closest to his own views) to be anathema (worthless weaklings!), he simultaneously reduces the opportunity he has to exert a real influence and bolsters his reputation with the subset of Americans he sees as his natural audience.
In order to be a hit as a conservative media personality, you need a few million people. But in order to actually govern, you have to have several million more. Tens of millions more. Glenn Beck has every incentive to take a really hard line, heap scorn on politicians who are not pure enough, and to insist on outcomes which are unlikely to happen. In so doing, he will increase the affection of his audience, but will close himself off further and further from real influence.
When Rush Limbaugh states that he is “just an entertainer,” I think he is referring to this fundamental problem. But one cannot be too overt in sketching out the dynamic or the audience will realize that they are actually becoming more isolated from real politics.
Some will read this and will think, I am arguing for a leftward turn. Not at all. I am objecting to the method of engagement more than I am the substance. I am also dealing in certain realities. I am arguing for domestic diplomacy. Diplomatic and friendly are good ways to be when dealing with one’s fellow citizens who should be convinced more than they should be conquered.
Politics is fundamentally about addition, at least to the point of developing governing majorities. Part of how we develop those majorities is through casting a positive vision. Another part comes through brokering compromise. (With regard to a great many issues, you can compromise in politics without enduring the stain to your integrity that compromise in theology would entail.) Still another part comes from being winsome in dealing with partners who don’t fully agree with you and in the way one deals with opponents. This last part acknowledges the reality that many people in the middle of the political spectrum respond to personality and demeanor more than they do to substance. That was Ronald Reagan’s secret weapon. Though his politics was identifiably to the right, his class and good nature spoke volumes to many Americans.
The goal here is not really to criticize Glenn Beck or Mark Levin or any other political entertainer. Rather, I would encourage their listeners to remember that what they are hearing on programs of that sort is as much a drug as anything else. You get ramped up on rhetoric. You get a charge out of identifying enemies and hearing them argumentatively slain. Adrenaline is pumping. Brain waves are bouncing. But what you don’t get is the attitude that leads to either real progress or victory.