Steven Hayward's talk before the Athenaeum was very solid. It's always a charm to be among those speakers that have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of their subject matter. The great thing about Hayward is that his level of knowledge extends to so many different aspects of contemporary politics. Over the past few years, I have followed his environmental writings and frankly loved his Claremont Review of Books analysis of the population control movement which sounds eerily familiar in all this talk of global warming.
(I made a recording of Mr. Hayward's speech, but alas, it is audio only. I got permission from Hayward to record the video in full, but Bonnie Snortum stopped me recording. I'll have a post explaining why later and what I plan to do about this, but I don't want to say too much on that subject matter right now.)
Where Hayward and I part is his recent column asking whether or not conservatism is brain dead. The entire column is well worth reading, but allow me to point to the section on Glenn Beck.
The case of Glenn Beck, Time magazine's "Mad Man," is more interesting. His on-air weepiness is unmanly, his flirtation with conspiracy theories a debilitating dead-end, and his judgments sometimes loopy (McCain worse than Obama?) or just plain counterproductive (such as his convoluted charge that Obama is a racist). Yet Beck's distinctiveness and his potential contribution to conservatism can be summed up with one name: R.J. Pestritto.
Pestritto is a young political scientist at Hillsdale College in Michigan whom Beck has had on his TV show several times, once for the entire hour discussing Woodrow Wilson and progressivism. He is among a handful of young conservative scholars, several of whom Beck has also featured, engaged in serious academic work critiquing the intellectual pedigree of modern liberalism. Their writing is often dense and difficult, but Beck not only reads it, he assigns it to his staff. "Beck asks me questions about Hegel, based on what he's read in my books," Pestritto told me. Pestritto is the kind of guest Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity would never think of booking.
Okay, so Beck may lack Buckley's urbanity, and his show will never be confused with "Firing Line." But he's on to something with his interest in serious analysis of liberalism's patrimony. The left is enraged with Beck's scandal-mongering over Van Jones and ACORN, but they have no idea that he poses a much bigger threat than that. If more conservative talkers took up the theme of challenging liberalism's bedrock assumptions the way Beck does from time to time, liberals would have to defend their problematic premises more often.
I agree that Beck is on to something very serious, but I think that Hayward's fears of populism are overstated. There has always been an element of conservatism that is vox populi and though I agree that it would be nice to see the Tea Parties take up some more serious ideas -- which, frankly, I think they have -- it's early in their movement yet. We are only ten months into Obama's reign, after all.
But, as Jonah Goldberg has made clear, Glenn Beck has delivered victories to conservatives: the NEA scandal, Van Jones's resignation, and the ongoing ACORN scandals. The tea parties and town hall meetings stopped -- for the moment, at least -- the coming onslaught of nationalized health care. If populism on the right is dangerous, it is only dangerous to Statists. At worst, libertarian paternalism devolves into kookery, but at its finest, it slows Leviathan and brings down newscasters. It seems to me also that in a world of yeoman bloggers these victories are going to become increasingly common.
These victories, small though they may be, have come without dany real support from the conservative intelligentsia or think tank establishment. This is not a criticism of the think tanks, who serve the vital function of keeping the higher thought alive now that academia has fallen. Still, I have to wonder: how was is that two college kids armed with only $1300 and a self-described rodeo clown like Glenn Beck, slowed down ACORN when millions spent in think tanks like Cato have not?