Learning About the Left From Glenn Beck

Glenn Beck, the self-pitying shock-jock of Fox News, has over the past year and a half become the master of a very old medium: the blackboard. Sometimes it's a whiteboard, sometimes a set of PowerPoint slides, but most often it's the classic school blackboard with chalk dust and erasers on which, with swirling and intersecting lines, photos and logos, he diagrams the great socialist conspiracy to take over the country. Various figures, often unknown to viewers, are revealed to be "the wizard" or "the mastermind" behind all or part of the little-understood socialist plan to take over America, a complex he now refers to as "Crime, Inc."

Beck's blackboard schemes are fiction, of course, part of what the writer Alexander Zaitchik, in a superb new book about Beck, calls "the oceanic audacity of his self-serving ignorance." None of the people he fingers are socialists; few have more than a tangential relationship to the Obama administration. But Beck's blackboards call to mind Marianne Moore's definition of poetry, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them": These are imaginary conspiracies with real people in them. And the surprising thing is that some of these people are now better known to Beck's audience than they ever were to progressives. Willfully ignorant as he may be, Beck sometimes seems more deeply immersed in the history of the American center-left than many of us who live there.

Beck's masterminds include some relatively well-known people, like former University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein, now an official at the Office of Management and Budget, whom Beck describes as "the most dangerous man in America," who "controls everything"; Van Jones, who briefly held the fuzzy title of "Green Jobs Czar" in the White House; Andy Stern, who recently stepped down as president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU); and John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress (CAP), who, according to Media Matters for America, is the progressive activist most frequently targeted by Beck.

But the truly interesting Beck targets are more obscure. At the end of April, for example, Beck declared that he had discovered the "wizard," "one of the main architects of everything that is going on," the "puppet-master" even: Who could it be? The answer: A professor at the University of Wisconsin named Joel Rogers. Other masterminds of what became "Crime, Inc." unearthed by Beck include Francis Fox Piven, Deepak Bharghava, and Heather Booth.

None of these people has served in government or run organizations even close to the size of Podesta's CAP or Stern's SEIU. They rarely appear on TV, and of course their very obscurity makes them perfect fodder for conspiracy theories -- the fact that you haven't heard of them is suspicious in itself. And yet -- at the risk of being quoted ("Even the far-left American Prospect says we're onto something") -- Beck is onto something. These are important figures whose role in the progressive world should be better understood, even if learning about them from Beck would be like learning American history from a North Korean textbook.

While they are not masterminds, these figures are the connectors and idea generators of the progressive world, unafraid to experiment and unafraid to fail. Their role is more akin to that of Bayard Rustin in the civil-rights movement than to Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin came up with the idea for and organized the 1963 March on Washington, which gave King his most prominent national platform, but Rustin always stayed behind the scenes.

Joel Rogers, for example, helped found the New Party, which operated in several states in the 1990s. It was a brilliant attempt to give progressive ideas some political clout by using electoral fusion -- a system under which a party can either cross-endorse another party's candidates or run its own -- to avoid the spoiler problem that usually cripples third parties. The New Party lost a Supreme Court challenge to force all states to permit fusion voting, and subsequently died out. However, a spin-off of the party has thrived in at least one of the five states that allow it, New York, where the Working Families Party now plays a powerful role in mobilizing people, not just money, and has been decisive in several primaries and elections.

Rogers was one of the first progressives to fully embrace the idea that we needed to pay more attention to policy-making at the state level; his 2004 Nation article, "Devolve This" is a key document, and the Center on Wisconsin Strategy that he started is one of the best examples of a serious state-level progressive think tank. In addition, he played a large role in pulling together both the ideas and the coalition that made up the Apollo Alliance -- ending decades of misunderstanding between labor and environmentalists to unite them around the vision of "green jobs." Rogers has quietly combined academia and the policy world, connected economic issues to environmental issues, and electoral politics to policy -- all fundamental to a viable progressive movement.

Piven, who figures in Beck's narrative largely based on a fictionalized reading of a long-forgotten 1968 essay, similarly crosses lines in progressive-policy worlds. Her work as a writer, in books such as Regulating the Poor (co-written with her late husband, Richard Cloward), had a huge influence on the briefly influential welfare-rights movement, and her later work was dedicated to what became the "Motor Voter" law requiring public agencies to provide voter registration.

Piven and Cloward's work was controversial when I read it in the 1980s, but by the 1990s, when I was working on welfare reform, few were familiar with her, and the idea that there had ever been a welfare-rights movement was largely forgotten, except by the right, who accused us of being in its thrall. It certainly has little influence today -- although it is worth recognizing that there was a recent time when services for poor people were far more paternalistic and minimal, and yet there was hope for a far broader and fairer safety net. This history was essentially wiped away during the period when even most Democrats operated from far more conservative assumptions.

Space prohibits telling the real story of all of Beck's blackboard characters, but someday a good book should be written about the connectors and idea-generators of the progressive world, whose failures are as interesting as their modest successes. It would be a pity if the Beck version of the history of the left were all we had.

Thanks to Seth Michaels of Media Matters for America, who helped me navigate their archive of Beck-related clips when I realized that there were more than 3,000 items from the last two years alone.

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