Monday, January 24, 2011

The Case of Glenn Beck and Frances Fox Piven

When liberals get all wound up about the conservative-generated “climate of hate,” Glenn Beck is one of the prime suspects. Lately you may have been hearing about him using his formidable media platforms to pick on a 78-year-old Frances Fox Piven (a lady, by the way, who can take care of herself). TPM reports that Piven’s getting death threats as a result of Beck telling his viewers about things she wrote with Richard Cloward in the 1960s.

Take a look for yourself at Beck putting his indictment of Piven in the context of his broader indictment of liberalism/progressivism:

If, like me, you get most of your information about Glenn Beck second hand, it’s a little startling to hear the words passing from his lips. I’ll admit that, even if you give him every benefit of the doubt, Beck still does a pretty good imitation of my idea of a populist demagogue. And you can’t really blame liberals for taking offense when Beck portrays them and their favorite politicians as subverters of, rather than contestants within, the prevailing constitutional order. That’s an act of ideological aggression that you wouldn’t have seen from a major media personality a few years ago.  No wonder liberals are anxious to stand in solidarity with Piven.

So let’s stipulate for the purposes of argument that Beck’s a demagogue. When you try to put your finger on what’s demagogic about him, however, you have to contend with the fact that what he’s saying is arguably true in a least three respects.

First, American progressivism/liberalism did start out in the early 20th century as an extra-constitutional movement. It couldn’t have been anything else inasmuch as what we now think of as economic liberalism was unconstitutional under prevailing interpretations of the Constitution’s due process and commerce clauses. That didn’t change until the jurisprudential revolution of the late 1930s made most of what we now think of as liberal economic policy presumptively constitutional.

Second, Beck's got a point when he says that a lot of liberal/progressives who got their hands on the levers of state power still thought of themselves as having only one foot planted squarely inside the constitutional order. FDR, for instance, wasn’t above exploiting extra-constitutional political action, like the blatantly illegal sit-down strikes at Big-Three auto plants, to nudge the constitutional order in the right direction from the outside.  What's more, we liberals aren’t at all embarrassed to celebrate him and the sit-down strikers for it. We tend to forget that it wasn’t until the 1950s, after American liberalism finally colonized the “vital center” of the ideological spectrum, that liberals found a secure place for themselves inside the prevailing constitutional order, and then only with the understanding that they could shape its contours from the inside by means of liberal jurisprudence. When you hear a guy like Andy Stern say that the modern union movement knows how to resort to the “persuasion of power” when the “power of persuasion” fails, it sounds like he hasn’t forgotten about the union movement’s, and liberalism’s, extra-constitutional history.

Finally, I’d be amazed if Piven takes the slightest offense at Beck’s portraying her as a left-wing radical at war with the prevailing constitutional order—indeed, she’d probably be insulted if he didn’t. Piven and Cloward were 1960s New Leftists self-consciously rebelling against mainstream liberals who’d made their peace with the constitutional order. The proudly extra-constitutional political strategy to which Beck alludes was the idea that the poor could undermine the prevailing order by overloading the redistributive channels of the newly instituted Great Society. Piven and Cloward agreed with today’s conservatives that the modern welfare state is fiscally unsustainable. They meant to exploit its unsustainability to usher in a radically different political economy and everyone who heard them at the time knew it. When you hear Piven expressing her sympathy for the protesters taking to the streets in Greece, it doesn’t sound like she has changed her mind.

So what, exactly, is demagogic about Beck’s rant? Granted, he’s not the world’s most reliable historian, but he’s not really lying about Piven or exactly making things up about the history of progressivism/liberalism. If Beck’s a demagogue, it can only be for insinuating guilt by historical association between today’s mainstream liberals and yesterday’s progressive insurgents. (In that respect, Beck’s rant is the historiographical counterpart of charges during the 2008 campaign that Obama had spent too much time hanging out with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and William Ayers).

If any of this is right, what’s the antidote to Beck’s demagoguery that will restore civility to political discourse? As far as I can see, it can only be a liberal defense of the prevailing constitutional order that explains why, thanks to both the wisdom of the founders and a history of progressive insurgency, we now inhabit a constitutional order in which liberals and conservatives can stand on equal footing and settle their differences through ordinary politics. That being the case, it's civically irresponsible in this day and age for anybody to turn the constitutional order into an instrument for silencing ideological opponents. 

To my knowledge, however, there aren't a lot of liberals saying like that.  Beck and the "constitutional conservatives" have the floor to themselves.


Anonymous said...

Good luck to the liberals in countering Beck. It seems he does have the floor to himself, especially with Keith Olbermann out. Maybe Olbermann will join CNN and get that station back in track.

Anonymous said...

Piven was my teacher when I was in graduate school at CUNY back in the 70's. No one who took her classes in those days doubted that the constitutional order was systemically unjust and therefore unworthy of principled alliegance. Now we aging progressives like to portray ourselve as pious defenders of the constitutional order because we're embarrassed by our associations with the New Left and it was a convenient way of scoring points against Reagan and Bush. The thing we really hate about Beck is that he reminds us of the excesses of our youth.