Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Glenn Beck and Contrived Populism

It is no secret that Glenn Beck is the latest rising star at FoxNews. His ratings have been on a steady climb since he joined the network and began formatting his show to appeal to the populist conservative anger that recently manifested itself in the form of tea parties across the country.

Beck's strategy has coincided with the overall strategy of FoxNews to challenge both the actions and policies set forth by the Obama Administration since the 2008 elections. According to Beck, Chief Executive of the network Roger Ailes, told him that this is "the Alamo" and "if I just had someone to sit on the other side of the camera until the last shot is fired, we'd be fine."

Since then, Beck has gone on the air and issued "Comrade Updates" in reference to his belief that President Obama is leading this country on a road to Communism and offered up different scenarios about the future that would lead to the end of world as we know it (which Stephen Colbert parodied a few weeks ago). Beck even produced a special that revolved around the phrase "we surround them" in which he randomly broke into tears while professing his love for his country (note the title of the video is not mine):

Kind of interesting that Beck recently mentioned that he identifies with the character of Howard Beale from the 1976 film "Network":

Is it odd that a scripted, fictional film feels more genuine than Beck's supposed "outrage"? It is almost like watching a weird version of Howard Beale from a parallel universe. In a recent "New York Times" piece that discusses Beck's rise in ratings, David Frum is quoted as saying that Beck's success “is a product of the collapse of conservatism as an organized political force, and the rise of conservatism as an alienated cultural sensibility. It’s a show for people who feel they belong to an embattled minority that is disenfranchised and cut off.”

This is an interesting assessment. Conservatives feel abandoned by the Republicans and are now latching onto the anger of being disenfranchised by means of shows like Beck's. What would be an interesting question to assess is whether this conservative populism is rooted mainly in anger or in the facts of our current situation. I understand that there can be overlap, that one can have legitimate anger that is rooted in concrete opposition to policies, but some of this seems to be, much like Beck's tears in the video above, contrived. Stirring up the population with scenarios that have just the right mixture of conspiracy and apocalyptic musings in order to get people angry, doesn't really seem like the best idea to actually create progress.

It even appears that Beck is confused. At one point in the "New York Times" piece I referenced above, Beck says that he believes every word he says. Then later, he says:

“I say on the air all time, ‘if you take what I say as gospel, you’re an idiot.’ ”

Perhaps this is the contradiction you get when a television network thinks that you can create genuine anger and then harness it for ratings...it ends up feeling...again...contrived. After all, as Glenn Beck says:

It's time to stop playing games in this country. It is time to actually believe in something. I do. I know you do as well. Believe in something. Even if it's wrong.

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