2009: Rants of the Right

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  December 22, 2009

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Glenn Beck,Glenn Beck's Common Sense: The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government, Inspired by Thomas Paine
192 pages, Threshold Editions, June 16, 2009
Highest Position Reached on NYT Best Seller List: No. 1 (paperback, 12 weeks)
Readability: 7
Digestibility: 6
Crazy Factor: -3
Overall Score: 10

This is Beck's serious book — no jokes, no goofing around from the one-time stand-up comedian. It's brief, just 107 breezy pages, plus the add-on of Thomas Paine's famous political tract, Common Sense, reprinted in full.

Beck's book, like Levin's, is a call to arms to movement conservatives. Both write in an explicit "us versus them" narrative style, and paint our nation as teetering on the brink of outright government control and loss of personal liberty. They are both more libertarian than traditional, business-oriented conservatives (although both pray at the altar of pure free-market capitalism, and blame all our woes on government interference with that infallible system).

They are also both far more reactionary than conservative. Conservatives generally oppose large-scale upheaval and disruption of the existing culture, especially on the basis of academic theories about how to reorganize society to make it "better."

No such concerns for Beck, who wants to make society better by completely upending the status quo and tearing down most of the governmental infrastructure built up over the past century — if not since 1776. Conservatives once pictured the 1950s as the good old days; Beck's image at least pre-dates the Industrial Revolution.

Levin calls only for reversing the Great Society and the New Deal. Beck explicitly demands the undoing also of the Progressive Era reforms of the early 20th century: public education, environmental protection, and progressive taxation, just for starters.

Beck's political philosophy reaches the same basic ends as Levin's, but by different means. To Beck, it's all about following your internal judgment — your common sense — which is attuned to the Laws of Nature, and wants us to be free and our nation to be great. Hence, your common sense will lead you to what maximizes "personal freedom and national liberty."

As you might imagine, common sense turns out to be a remarkably flexible and self-justifying guidepost. Common sense tells Beck that the government should not run education, because the government wants to indoctrinate children into supporting powerful government. Common sense likewise tells him that illegal immigration is ruining our country, that gun rights are sacrosanct, and that religion is the basis of our national values, morals, and laws. And if common sense says so, it's so. As long as your common sense says the same as Beck's.

Nevertheless, Beck has a few things going for him. First, he's a natural pied piper, and Common Sense is terrific as a rallying cry; the energy and purpose of solidarity leap off the pages. Second, he is a student of history, and while his use of it is highly selective and often badly misinterpreted, he at least brings some sense of context and historical awareness that is usually absent from movement-conservative commentary.

And finally, the philosophy of "personal freedom and national liberty" is not such a bad starting point for finding an ideology of the right — certainly far more useful than Levin's conservatism-versus-statism. To the extent that Beck develops this idea — and understands that there are tensions between the two goals — his book adds, slightly, to the political discourse.

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