Yes, Glenn Beck has announced that he will “transition off” his daily TV show on Fox News and, yes, I’ll miss him. You read that right. I will miss Glenn Beck.
No, I will not miss his blatant attempts to gin up fear in the hearts of Americans by slandering and scapegoating poor people, people of color, unions and women. No, I will not miss him convening “representative” audiences of “ordinary people” who are almost always white and mostly male and implicitly signaling they are the “real Americans.” And certainly, no, I will not miss the bagpipes.
But here, in all honesty, are five things I will miss about Glenn Beck—and lessons that we all should learn.
1. MAKING POPULAR EDUCATION POPULAR
Glenn Beck understands both the importance of ideas and the importance of translating ideas for popular audiences. Here’s a guy who dedicated hours of live television to talking about our nation’s philosophical principles and the theories driving the Founding Fathers. He features historians (albeit completely discredited ones). And he constructs popularized gimmicks to try and bring ideas to life—from acting out skits with Barbie dolls to writing an entire book premised on the accessible metaphor of a broken car. Let me be clear: Glenn Beck is wrong about most everything he has ever said. But particularly coming from a movement that has been insistently anti-intellectual for the past several decades, Beck’s feigned intellectualism and seemingly genuine attempts at popular education have always been oddly refreshing.
2. TAKING AFFIRMATIVE STEPS TO ACKNOWLEDGE RACE
Unlike the liberal establishment, which regularly contorts itself to pretend that race doesn’t matter in America and thus alienates people of color on a daily basis, Glenn Beck actually seemed to care when he was accused of being racist—and then did something to try and prove his critics wrong. Even The Root honored Beck by deeming him “One of the Blackest White People We Know” for his attempts to teach viewers about the role of African Americans in founding the United States (again, albeit through discredited historians). To my mind, seeing people of color as a community to co-opt rather than a community to be ignored is at least a modest improvement for the right—-as it would be for the Democratic Party. Of course, not as good as the white establishment in general, left and right, acknowledging that it takes more to end racism than saying some of your best political friends are people of color, but it’s something.
3. PRESENTING FEELINGS FIRST, FACTS SECOND
Glenn Beck understands that the way to people’s heads is through their hearts. He works to trigger your emotions before he even bothers with your brain. Almost every episode of Beck’s show begins not with facts and numbers but with stories—either some story about an individual or a group or, just as often, a fable about the fate of our nation and where we are headed. You can read a dozen-plus books about messaging and framing to try and imbibe this skill or simply watch Glenn Beck, puppet master of pulling the heart strings.
Moreover, his particular mode of emotional fire-stoking is also instructive—making viewers at once feel part of an in-group (real Americans, hard working, moral, care about your family) while at the same time feeling like a shafted outsider (the government is robbing you, the poor people are cheating you, the system is stacked against you). Feeling denied but entitled is the traditional cocktail for being receptive to brainwashing (see, fascism) and baldly seeking power (see, colonialism and imperialism). None other than Adolf Hitler said, “Great liars are also great magicians.” Glenn Beck’s manipulation of emotion is nothing short of vicious, inhumane treason but there’s no question his capacity to understand and work through the medium of emotion is also magical.
4. PERSONALIZING POLITICS
Beck didn’t just attack the vast left-wing conspiracy. He assigned it names—Van Jones, Drummond Pike, Frances Fox Piven. In outlining the principles of community organizing, Saul Alinsky wrote, “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it. Don’t try to attack abstract corporations or bureaucracies. Identify a responsible individual.” Beck is a genius at this. He invents prominent public enemies out of previously unknown social change advocates for whom the most tenuous associations with Obama become grounds for attacking the entire left. For instance, a rumor now swirls that the Weather Underground’s Bill Ayers actually wrote Obama’s “Dreams Of My Father”—the sort of rumor Beck doesn’t birth, but certainly helps deliver.
The irony, of course, is that there are a ton more “bad guys” on the right than the left—start in Wall Street boardrooms and just keep going from there. But in recent years, progressives have failed to effectively demonize even one target as well as Beck has managed to demonize almost a dozen. Forget the “no permanent friends, no permanent enemies” crap. Beck understands that there are “permanent enemies” of his anti-American agenda and he is not afraid to name them and attack them directly. For us social justice-types, being kind and nice is often one of our best qualities, but also one of our worst, hobbling us when it comes to playing dirty in politics.
5. BUILDING MOVEMENT THROUGH MASS MEDIA
And that’s Beck’s final gift to the left—-the revelation that television, like everything, is a potential space for movement building. Most talking heads and newscasters today provide analysis, but the end goal, generally, is for the viewer to be informed. Not Beck. For him, the goal is building a conservative movement. Beck is the modern-day Richard Viguerie, the right wing brainchild who invented direct mail in the 1970s and 80s, the funds from which fueled a conservative assent. Viguerie’s insight was in seeing a previously one-way form of communication—letters—as an invitation to two-way engagement, through people making donations and, ultimately, engaging in campaigns and more. Similarly, Beck broke through the construct of the one-way I’m talking at you television host (even the incredible Oprah is only talking with her live audience) to create a two-way, I’m talking with you framework.
As proof, and to carry his vision forward, Beck then held a significant rally on the National Mall (on the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, but never mind that…), organized an on-line “university” of ideological teaching and encouraged his viewers to take action beyond passively absorbing his information. Beck doesn’t just want people to think a certain way, he wants them to act a certain way—and he doesn’t hide it. Imagine if all the supposedly-progressive TV hosts, actors and producers in Hollywood took on this mission, to not just educate audiences about inequality and racism and sexual violence but push and provoke them to do something? Imagine if, instead of being so busy insisting on non-partisan neutrality, justice-loving voices in the media would use their pedestals with even half the audacity of Beck?
Don’t get me wrong. My blood pressure is already improving thanks to Beck’s impending phase out. My doctor says watching too much Glenn Beck is bad for the veins on my forehead. Yet admittedly, only half of my shouting and blood-boiling is due to raw anger at the injustice of Beck’s assertions; the other half is due to frustration that Beck has mastered a political art form that seems so perpetually illusive to the left. Yes, we should be thrilled that Beck is stepping down in large part due to falling show revenues, because advertisers under pressure from racial justice groups and media watchdogs have been dropping their support. But perhaps we should also be a bit sad that progressives are losing Beck as a teacher before we’ve learned our lesson for good.
Sally Kohn is the founder and chief education officer of the Movement Vision Lab and a regular commentator and writer for Fox News.