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A Pyrrhic Victory for Demagoguery

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God is now speaking directly to Glenn Beck, who claims the date for his Washington, D.C. rally is divine providence. Nobody should be surprised because Beck by inference has compared himself to Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Jesus. Beck will be out to "restore honor" to the nation in a form of divine intervention, without ever defining what honor was earlier besmirched.

We can learn much about the event, and ourselves, by understanding the language used to justify and support the gathering. Some of the juiciest tidbits come from an article by Mimi Hall in USA Today on Friday, August 27. Patti Weaver, leader of the Tea Party in Pittsburgh, is bringing 900 people to the show because "people are upset with the direction of the country" and these folks are organizing so that they "can take our country back."

On a pilgrimage bus with 50 devotees, rider Dan Baltes of Utah says that "It's time for Americans to let themselves be heard instead of being spoken to or spoken for by people who don't represent us. The government is deaf to our best interests." Dan leads a group calling itself Americans Against Immigration Amnesty.

Houston resident Thelma Taormina, beating Dan by bringing two busloads, expresses concern that Obama and Congress are passing legislation that strips Americans of their civil rights. As evidence she cites the new health care reform that will mean Americans are going to "lose our human rights in one fell swoop." The lunacy of that comment is its own self-refutation.

None of these concerns stands up to even the most cursory examination. You cannot claim to want to take the country back without explaining exactly from whom you want to take it -- and to whom you want to give it. Take it from blacks and give it to whites maybe? Take it from liberals and give it to conservatives perhaps? But if that maneuver were to be successful, would not the blacks and liberals then want to "take the country back" from whites and conservatives who would then "have it"? The idea of "taking the country back" is babbling doublespeak with no meaning.

The claim that Americans must be heard is equally suspect given that we had a presidential election just over a year ago in which a record number of voters participated. Not liking the results of an election in a democracy does not mean voters are not being heard; it means the majority voted differently than you, and the majority was indeed heard. Liberals suffered eight years of hell under an incompetent president who pursued a radical agenda with no popular mandate. Now Tea Party candidates and conservatives are doing well in the current mid-terms election primaries; so the claim that the government is speaking for people "who don't represent us" makes no sense at all.

But we can indeed make sense of what Beck supporters are saying by decoding the message. The language we hear from rally participants is the language of hate and intolerance couched in terms of civility. Let's just clear the air and say what everybody is really thinking: some white middle class Americans do not like having a black president and fear that Latinos are overrunning the country. From that perspective the nonsense uttered by Beck supporters makes perfect sense in their worldview of narrow minded nationalism.

So soon after the joy of watching President Obama take the oath of office we now experience the crushing depression of seeing America at her worst, when bigotry, fear, hatred and jingoism rule the day. But any victory claimed by these forces of intolerance will be pyrrhic at best. Beck and his ilk advocate for a government that looks like the governed rather than one more pluralistic. They will regret what they wished for. In rejecting the foundation of pluralism, Beck and his supporters are setting themselves up for a rough time when whites are no longer the majority in major regions of political importance. The very logic they are using now will be turned directly against them. Intolerance can work both ways. With what moral authority will Beck supporters demand a voice in their government when the non-white majority demands a government that "represents them"?

What saddens me in watching the rise of the Tea Party, Palin, Beck and other voices of the far right is not the existence of extremism, but the fact that extreme views are now considered mainstream by nearly half the American population. But we must not confuse popularity with legitimacy. During the McCarthy era good people were ruined when labeled "commie sympathizer" and any opposition to the witch hunt was considered "anti-American." We suffer the shame of interring Americans of Japanese descent during World War II. As we now look back on those times with regret, so too will we look back on the current epoch with shame once free from the passions of the moment.

In times of economic stress, demagoguery easily grows in the fertile grounds of fear and hate. We should be better than that, but Beck and his obscene rally prove we are not. Nelson Mandela left prison after 27 years and forgave his jailers. Beck cannot even forgive the majority for voting in their favored presidential candidate.

In pushing so hard to "take back the country" followers of Beck and other demagogues should take heed of the wise words from our founders, including Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in a letter to Abigail Adams in 1804:

Both of our political parties, at least the honest portion of them, agree conscientiously in the same object: the public good; but they differ essentially in what they deem the means of promoting that good. One side believes it best done by one composition of the governing powers, the other by a different one. One fears most the ignorance of the people; the other the selfishness of rulers independent of them. Which is right, time and experience will prove. We think that one side of this experiment has been long enough tried and proved not to promote the good of the many, and that the other has not been fairly and sufficiently tried. Our opponents think the reverse. With whichever opinion the body of the nation concurs, that must prevail.

Obama won the election. Not in a coup, not with military might, but with his ideas, and in contrast to the failed presidency preceding his. Just as Republicans dominated policy and legislation for eight years under Bush, the people have spoken and Democrats under Obama have their four years to succeed or fail, with whatever adjustment naturally comes with a mid-term election. Talk of "taking the country back" is anti-democratic. Nobody "took" the country in the first place. Current leaders came out with more votes in an election.

Beck represents the worst in America when we when we should be striving for the best. That any American would follow this megalomaniac is sad testimony to our poisonous decline. I weep for our country with clenched angered fists of frustration. We can be so much better than this.

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist, former White House senior policy analyst and author of Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World (Jacquie Jordan, Inc.). Follow him on Facebook.