Lively debate continues about just how many people showed up to attend Glenn Beck’s rally at the Lincoln Memorial, but there has been less interest in exactly why they showed up.
To many hostile observers, the event was simply the latest installment in the ongoing antics of the Tea Party. But the keynote of the occasion, “Restoring Honor,” along with its celebration of “traditional American values,” suggests a decided movement, if not away from, then at least beyond the Tea Party. Far from being directed exclusively at Tea Partiers, Beck’s rally addressed those millions of ordinary Americans who are deeply resentful at what they perceive as a massive and well-coordinated attack on traditions they hold sacred. From this perspective, Beck’s rally signals a potentially major shift in the dynamics of today’s populist discontent. A political movement that can galvanize those who are united in defending “traditional American values” can have far more clout and influence than the Tea Party movement by itself can ever hope to have.
The Tea Party began as an antitax and anti-big government movement. Many of the most prominent Tea Party spokesmen showed little interest in the vexing cultural issues that have increasingly divided Americans for several decades—indeed, most seemed quite happy to distance themselves from such hot button topics as abortion, immigration, and gay marriage. Out of the gamut of “traditional American values,” the Tea Party focused almost exclusively on our Founding Fathers’ preference for limited government. Scant attention was paid to the emotionally charged themes celebrated in the Beck rally—the sacred causes of national honor, patriotism, God. To the Tea Party, the only sacred cause was liberty, including the liberty to ignore or even to flout traditions venerated by other people in their society.
Philosophically speaking, the Tea Party movement was libertarian in its inspiration, but the spirit of libertarianism has always been opposed to the spirit of traditionalism—the very spirit evoked at the Beck rally. Those who faithfully adhere to a tradition, and who are dedicated to preserving it intact from generation to generation, must often be willing to curtail their own personal liberty out of respect for the traditions they hold sacred. They will often feel it their duty, moreover, to curtail the individual freedom of other people for the same reason, including those who do not share their own veneration. A somewhat trivial example of a sacred tradition trumping personal liberty are the blue laws in many states that forbid the sale of alcohol on Sunday. To the libertarian, nothing could be more objectionable. Why should an antiquated tradition, and one resting on purely sectarian religious ground, keep me from buying beer on Sunday? But the strict libertarian will be apt to have the same negative attitude to the claims of other so called “sacred” traditions. To the extent that they stand in the way of the exercise of one’s personal liberty, they are simply a violation of one’s natural rights.
In many ways, the intense media scrutiny that accompanied the birth of the Tea Party movement, focusing on its antitax and antigovernment message, obscured the real split in the American psyche, which is essentially a cultural divide. On the one side are those Americans for whom nothing can be more sacred than honor, patriotism, and God, and who get goose-bumps at the very mention of these words. On the other side are those who instinctively cringe at what they regard as the shameless display of such manipulative emotionalism. Similarly, to his admirers, Glenn Beck has been a voice crying in the wilderness, a prophet who warns us that we have been wandering in darkness too long. To detractors, he is a clown and a buffoon, at best, a dangerous demagogue, at worst. And the same holds true for the heroine of the rally, Sarah Palin.
Yet those who deplore Beck or Palin fail to see that the reason for their popularity stems from their uninhibited willingness to evoke and champion precisely those values and themes that the overly fastidious and sophisticated perceive as crude and corny. It is when Beck and Palin are behaving most boorishly in the eyes of their cultured despisers that they are most apt to win the enthusiastic cheers of their devoted admirers.
By centering the rally on the defense of “traditional American values,” Beck deftly managed to reach out to those many Americans who, while mildly sympathetic to the Tea Party, were by no means prepared to commit themselves to doctrinaire libertarianism. No doubt these Americans hold liberty to be sacred, but they also regard as sacred precisely the same “traditional American values” that were the subject of the Beck rally—honor, patriotism, and God. The tens of thousands who flocked to the Lincoln Memorial on August 28 are only a small sample of those Americans who are deeply worried that their most cherished values and traditions are under attack by an arrogant elite that wishes to impose its own supposedly more “enlightened” values on the nation.
The Beck rally bore abundant witness to the profound degree of alienation that American traditionalists feel when they look at the mass culture that surrounds them, and which they see as intent on mocking everything they hold to be sacred. Sure, they might want lower taxes and smaller government, too; but they also want to return to an era in which their own traditional values were reflected in the TV shows they watched, the movies they went to, the education that their kids received in the public schools paid for by their tax dollars. They do not want to see what they cherish most in the world held up to ridicule, especially when the ridicule is presented in attractively packaged forms that are designed especially to appeal to their own kids. They resent what they perceive as the indoctrination and brainwashing of the next generation. They feel that their own deeply held “traditional American values” are under attack—and they are right.
In short, the Beck rally marks a significant turning point in today’s people’s revolt—away from the narrow issues of the Tea Party—while initiating a new stage of the culture war, which is what the great American divide is really all about.
Lee Harris is the author, most recently, of The Next American Civil War:The Populist Revolt Against the Liberal Elite.