Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How does Glenn Beck know what he knows?

Democracy Corps describes itself as "an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to making the government of the United States more responsive to the American people. It was founded in 1999 by James Carville and Stanley Greenberg. Democracy Corps provides free public opinion research and strategic advice to those dedicated to a more responsive Congress and Presidency."

Back in July, Democracy Corps released a truly fascinating analysis of the Tea Party movement that included their well-researched assessment of Tea Partiers' take on Glenn Beck:
Glenn Beck
Glenn Beck is the most highly regarded individual among Tea Party supporters of the people we tested. He scores an extraordinarily high 75 percent warm rating, 57 percent very warm.

This affinity for Beck came through very clearly in the focus groups. The only news source that participants said they could trust was Fox.  Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity were cited as people who “are not afraid to tell it like it is” and support their arguments with solid facts.  Beck was undoubtedly the hero in these groups.  Participants consider him an “educator” (in contrast to the popular Rush Limbaugh who is an “entertainer”) who teaches people history and puts himself at risk because he exposes the truth.  In the words of a woman in Ft. Lauderdale, “I would trust my life in his hands.”
Mr. Beck has started his Beck University to disseminate his political and religious philosophy, along with his own version of American history that is often curiously at odds with most scholars'. So from whose writings does Glenn Beck draw his theories?

W. Cleon Skousen
This week's New Yorker has an article called "Confounding Fathers," in which Princeton historian Sean Wilentz asks and answers this question. Glenn Beck's favorite author, he says, is W. Cleon Skousen.

So, who's W. Cleon Skousen? According to that fine representative of the liberal media, Salon, the late Mr. Skousen was "a right-wing crank whom even conservatives despised." Among many other books, Mr. Skousen published 5,000 Year Leap, which Mr. Beck often waves around at public gatherings.  Salon's Alexander Saitchik has this to say about the book:
"Leap," first published in 1981, is a heavily illustrated and factually challenged attempt to explain American history through an unspoken lens of Mormon theology. As such, it is an early entry in the ongoing attempt by the religious right to rewrite history. Fundamentalists want to define the United States as a Christian nation rather than a secular republic, and recast the Founding Fathers as devout Christians guided by the Bible rather than deists inspired by French and English philosophers.
Here's what Mr. Beck, himself, has to say about the book.
The first thing you could do, please, is get the 5,000 Year Leap. Over my book or anything else, get the 5,000 Year Leap. You can probably find it in the book section of GlennBeck.com, but read that. It is the principle. It is so easy to read. It's the book Ronald Reagan wanted taught in high schools and Ted Kennedy stopped it from happening. That should tell you all you need to know. It is so easy to understand. When you read these principles, your mouth will fall open. You'll read it and you'll be -- the scales will fall off your eyes on who we are. Please, number one thing: Inform yourself about who we are and what the other systems are all about. 5,000 Year Leap is the first part of that. Because it will help you understand American free enterprise. You'll be able to defend it. You'll be able to know what makes it possible for 6% of humanity living under our free economy to produce 1/2 of the Earth's developed wealth every single year....
And here's some of what Dr. Wilenz writes about 5,000 Year Leap in his New Yorker article.
[The book is] a treatise that assembles selective quotations and groundless assertions to claim that the U.S. Constitution is rooted not in the Enlightenment but in the Bible, and that the framers believed in minimal central government. Either proposition would have astounded James Madison, often described as the guiding spirit behind the Constitution, who rejected state-established religions and, like Alexander Hamilton, proposed a central government so strong that it could veto state laws. “The 5,000 Year Leap” is not a fervid book. Instead, it is calmly, ingratiatingly misleading. Skousen quotes various eighteenth-century patriots on the evils of what Samuel Adams, in 1768, called “the Utopian schemes of leveling,” which Skousen equates with redistribution of wealth. But he does not mention the Founders’ endorsement of taxing the rich to support the general welfare. Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote approvingly in 1811 of having federal taxes (then limited to tariffs) fall solely on the wealthy, which meant that “the farmer will see his government supported, his children educated, and the face of his country made a paradise by the contributions of the rich alone, without his being called on to spend a cent from his earnings.”

Skousen also challenges the separation of church and state, asserting that “the Founders were not indulging in any idle gesture when they adopted the motto ‘In God We Trust.’ ” In reality, the motto that came out of the Constitutional Convention was “E Pluribus Unum”: out of many, one. “In God We Trust” came much later; its use on coins was first permitted in 1864, and only in 1955, at the height of the Cold War, did Congress mandate that it appear on all currency. The following year, President Eisenhower—who Welch [John Birch Society founder Robert Welch] charged was a Communist agent—approved “In God We Trust” as the national motto.
Mr. Skousen, a Mormon who died in 2006, had been largely repudiated by conservatives and Mormons until Beck resurrected his message. Now this message is reaching millions of people a day through Mr. Beck's outreach efforts.

And, speaking of Glenn Beck's information sources, anybody else remember the John Birch Society during its heyday? Back when they were telling us that President Eisenhower was a communist?  Mr. Beck is also quick to say that Robert Welch "makes sense." 

Yesterday, in between bouts of on-air fundraising (1-800-677-9672, call now!), I cruised around on the internet learning a bit about Cleon Skousen's positions and a bit more about Robert Welch's. What intrigues me is the broad play these formerly relatively obscure views of government and history and religion are getting from atop Mr. Beck's New Media and cable (and very bully) pulpits. I'd wager heavily that Mr. Beck reaches many more people than Salon's Alexander Saitchik or the New Yorker's Dr.Wilentz. And that the people listening and reading may not deem it necessary to research Mr. Beck's sources for his revisionist interpretation of our nation's history.

Does the fact that millions of people are hearing Mr. Skousen's and Mr. Welch's theories touted by Mr. Beck lend them more legitimacy in our national conversation than they were afforded their first time around?

And, if so, what does that mean both politically and socially? Has the New Media united the voices of those who used to mutter mostly in isolation?
Martha note:  Terry Gross had Dr. Sean Wilentz as a guest this week on Fresh Air.


  1. I read the New Yorker article about Glenn Beck, and realized--hey, I own this book, the 5000 Year Leap! It was gifted to my son by a rather iconoclastic local farmer. We tossed it aside because, though we really like this farmer, we find his views, ahem, a little oddball. Now my entire household is reading the New Yorker article and scanning the 5000 Year Leap. You're right Martha--social media makes the obscure accessible. Much of it would be better left forgotten, but here we are: everything is now available. It all makes for interesting dinner table conversation.

  2. I heard about the John Birch Society when I was in high school (um, Class of 1963). Everyone sort of laughed at it. After that, I don't think I heard it mentioned again for more than 40 years -- once the Cold War ended, I might have thought it was more forgotten than Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor, or The Blob -- until Beck (and isn't it the Koch Brothers?) resurrected it. Maybe in a more viral form now... Chris Edwards

  3. Hi Martha, you can probably imagine the frustration the family has after reading the New Yorker and others who work so hard to smear dad. The question for me is, would it be worth the time to try and defend and counter the really unfortunate distortions and repetitive false "facts" by these authors? Dad's books are each compilations of what he found in so many original sources that the average American will never get to them--but dad did and tried to convey what he found as best he could. The New Yorker tried to counter dad's observations with statements that he explained at length years ago in his other writings. Dad could have gone into depth with a much longer book, but that's not what dad was after. He wanted to do a "cut to the chase" book that just explained the basics. And those personal attacks to further discredit him are frustrating. One, for example---I was a little guy when dad was fired as Salt Lake's Chief of Police. The writers never mention the mayor who fired him was a "partier" who was almost caught breaking the law twice. 30 years later, the mayor told an audience at the University of Utah his greatest political mistake was firing Chief Skousen, "he was the best chief we ever had." That side doesn't ever get out, and there's that side to all the smears. It was political opponents in his religion who called him names, a small group of liberal-minded people (Yes, there are liberal Mormons such as Harry Reid for example), but not the leadership of that Church who encouraged him to keep researching and writing and publishing. And the list goes on. Please borrow a copy of dad's book and read it for yourself. Maybe you'll agree with the New Yorker, maybe not, but at least you'll know for yourself why there's an interest. Those principles dad isolates are the very foundation stones we've got to get back to or, as the Founders observed, we'll sink into the kind of society we haven't had and certainly don't want. Thanks for enduring the long message! -- Paul