"They are frequently led by political neophytes who prize independence and tell strikingly similar stories of having been awakened by the recession. Their families upended by lost jobs, foreclosed homes and depleted retirement funds, they said they wanted to know why it happened and whom to blame." ~ David Barstow, "Tea Party Lights Fuse for Rebellion on Right", New York Times
"All right, now, if all of this sounds like a government out of control, go back to the progressive movement. It is not what our founders of this country intended. One hundred years of this movement, and the government growing while our rights are shrinking. I've been saying now for awhile, and it really has clicked in my mind, um, that it is the progressive movement, it is the cancer that is inside both parties. It's why you don't feel like there is a choice. It's why John McCain and Barack Obama, you're going, 'You gotta be kidding me, right?'" ~ Glenn Beck, Fox News
Senator Joseph McCarthy (R, WI) rode to power in the late 1940s by claiming the government was riddled with Communists bent on destroying our way of life. Many Americans, who indeed were worried about the Cold War and our nuclear-armed adversaries, found his fear-mongering credible. Institutions, large and small, purged themselves of anyone suspected of having been a member of the Communist Party or even having sympathized with it. It didn't matter if the suspicions were based on anything real, and even if they were, if the dalliance had happened twenty years earlier.
The FBI fanned the flames by collecting dossiers on tens of thousands of Americans and then privately leaking damaging information to employers. Blacklists were common. Due process and free speech were violated repeatedly and careers were destroyed. It was one of the darkest periods of our history. McCarthy went one step too far when he claimed that the Army was coddling scores of communists. The televised Army-McCarthy hearings finally brought him down. He was censured by the Senate and died in a drunken stupor. But McCarthyism -- virulent red-baiting -- lived on for many more years.
Can we expect a replay?
Glenn Beck, a recovering alcoholic, is much more affable. His personal story of picking up the pieces of his shattered life is hard to ignore and seems utterly genuine. All of which makes him perhaps even more dangerous than McCarthy.
He's knows it's very hard to effectively red-bait Americans, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union and since "Red" China became the world's most dynamic capitalist economy. Railing about Cuba and Venezuela won't cut it.
So he's building a better mousetrap. He's going after progressives, all of whom he claims are a "cancer" in our society. Sure, conservatives have been attacking liberals for over a generation, and liberals have been getting more and more embarrassed about the label. But I don't recall anyone else of Beck's prominence claiming that progressivism is a cancerous growth on the body politic. Even Joe McCarthy didn't stoop that low.
Beck's argument is simple, direct and full of raw meat for his ultra conservative audiences: the only difference between communists and progressives is the difference between revolution and evolution. Otherwise they are the same. At the recent CPAC conference he used as "proof" a 1938 Rhode Island Communist Party pamphlet which argued that during the United Front period, Communists should make alliances with progressives. That's proof? During that period the CP was willing made alliances with anyone, including the Boy Scouts.
Beck dresses up his Manichean worldview with a twisted history lesson through which he shows that the progressive movement of the early 20th century, which he claims was led by Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, was all about communism. Here's what Beck says about the great communist Rough Rider:
"We have a guy in the Republican Party who says his -- his favorite president is Theodore Roosevelt. Well, I thought so too until I read Theodore Roosevelt. By the way, Theodore Roosevelt, the guy who started the Bull Moose Party, which was the progressive party.
Theodore Roosevelt, quote -
(reading) 'We judge no man a fortune in civil life if it's honorably obtained and well spent.'
Oh? Well thank you.
(reading) 'It's not even enough - it's not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it only to be gained so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community.'
Is this what the Republican Party stands for? Well, you should ask members of the Republican Party, because this is not our founders' idea of America. And this is the cancer that's eating at America."
Like Joe McCarthy, Beck doesn't let slippery facts stand in the way. For example, he rails against the income tax amendment because the government's right to collect such a tax was not in the original constitution. Well, that's not exactly a tight argument given that freedom for slaves also was not in "original" constitution. He seems to forget that the amendment process is part of the constitution as well. He further implies that passing the income tax amendment was President Wilson's doing, even though it started under President Taft, and 36 states ratified it before Wilson came to office. (Come on Beck, I dare you call accuse Taft of being a progressive communist.)
In effect, Beck believes that just about anyone writing on Huffington Post or Alternet or Firedoglake is an evolutionary communist in progressive clothing. He says that all of us progressives want to see a totalitarian socialist, state controlled society that will rob Americans of their freedoms.
I wish this were just a bad joke, but Beck isn't. In fact, he's providing an uncontested analysis to economically distressed Americans. He's saying that progressives and their big government ideas are the fundamental causes of the crisis. They bailed out the banks, created a pork-filled stimulus program, and stole your jobs away. That deeply flawed analysis is gaining ground rapidly. It won't take long for people to forget that Wall Street gambled our economy into the ground. Bankers have already forgotten.
Beck is way too smart to believe his new form of red-baiting will stick right now. Instead he's getting ready for the next crash which he claims will come soon enough and will be catastrophic. He's working out his argument for the next wave of angry unemployed Americans. He's warming up by painting bulls' eyes on the back of every progressive.
Of course, there is no way in hell he could possibly build a new kind of McCarthyism that turned progressives into communists. There are just too many of us and we're not even close to being communists. Arianna Huffington, a communist?
But what are we? What is our definition of progressivism? What is our agenda for the economic crisis, and for the millions who are unemployed?
We don't have one. As a result, we're letting Beck and company define progressivism. Worse still, by not building a new movement, we're letting Obama and the Democrats define it by their actions which repeatedly kowtow to Wall Street interests. How do we explain how bankers were able to walk off with a record $150 billion in bonuses while getting more that $12 trillion in government support? How do we explain that to the nearly 30 million who are without jobs or forced into part-time work?
We could start by reclaiming the very mantle of progressivism that Beck is distorting. The Progressive Party's platform of 1912 is not a cancer: It's a the road to economic health. Among many other things, it calls for giving women the right to vote, protecting working people from employer abuse, and tackling concentrated corporate power, which was turning America into a plutocracy. Progressives formed a new party and platform in order to focus directly on a condition that is still with us:
"Political parties exist to secure responsible government and to execute the will of the people.
From these great tasks both of the old parties have turned aside. Instead of instruments to promote the general welfare, they have become the tools of corrupt interests which use them impartially to serve their selfish purposes.
Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people.
To destroy this invisible government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day.
The deliberate betrayal of its trust by the Republican party, the fatal incapacity of the Democratic party to deal with the new issues of the new time, have compelled the people to forge a new instrument of government through which to give effect to their will in laws and institutions."
It would be a great joy to debate Beck about the following planks of that 1912 platform that called for the government to protect workers against death and destruction on the job:
Effective legislation looking to the prevention of industrial accidents, occupational diseases, overwork, involuntary unemployment, and other injurous effects incident to modern industry;
The fixing of minimum safety and health standards for the various occupations, and the exercise of the public authority of State and Nation, including the Federal Control over interstate commerce, and the taxing power, to maintain such standards;
The prohibition of child labor;
Minimum wage standards for working women, to provide a "living wage" in all industrial occupations;
The general prohibition of night work for women and the establishment of an eight hour day for women and young persons;
One day's rest in seven for all wage workers;
The eight hour day in continuous twenty-four hour industries;
The abolition of the convict contract labor system;
Standards of compensation for death by industrial accident and injury and trade disease which will transfer the burden of lost earnings from the families of working people to the industry, and thus to the community;
The protection of home life against the hazards of sickness, irregular employment and old age through the adoption of a system of social insurance adapted to American use;
The development of the creative labor power of America by lifting the last load of illiteracy from American youth and establishing continuation schools for industrial education under public control and encouraging agricultural education and demonstration in rural schools;
We favor the organization of the workers, men and women, as a means of protecting their interests and of promoting their progress.
This is from 1912! Why haven't modern progressives been able to produce something like this that calls for mass job creation and for tight controls on Wall Street?
The truth is that Beck and the Tea Party, along with the entire conservative echo chamber, really have no answers for the unemployed -- none at all. They have no answer for the continued Wall Street rip off of our people. In fact, Beck is a de facto shill for the rich and powerful who stand to lose the most from tough government regulations, progressive taxation and jobs programs for the unemployed.
But we've allowed Beck to have the field by himself. Progressives are still stunned by the failure of the Obama administration and the Democrats to do the job. But they never will until a new progressive movement forms with the guts take on Wall Street.
Unfortunately, Beck is right about one thing. There will be another crash. Then the battle will be drawn clearly between his kind of McCarthyism versus a new progressivism that once again engages in on-going dialogue with everyday people about how to create jobs and protect our well-being.
Les Leopold is the author of The Looting of America: How Wall Street's Game of Fantasy Finance destroyed our Jobs, Pensions and Prosperity, and What We Can Do About It Chelsea Green Publishing, June 2009.