Donald Duck, Glenn Beck, and the challenge for progressive populism

By • on October 6, 2010 at 5:49 am

You probably don’t watch or listen to Glenn Beck much, for fear your head might explode, and maybe you’d prefer never to have to think about him at all. Maybe you think Beck is just a publicity-seeking megalomaniac who will do anything to get attention, and that every time his name is mentioned, another angel kills a kitten somewhere, so we’d all be much better off if we just ignored him (except perhaps to participate in the recent, remarkably effective petition to his advertisers to abandon his show).

I understand. I really wish I didn’t feel compelled to pay attention to him, that I didn’t already know much more about his life and his schtick than any normal, healthy human being should ever have to know.

But I just can’t help it. The fact that a stark-raving demagogue like Beck could help lead so many American people to the political lunatic fringe is both frightening and fascinating to me. Maybe it’s partly because he came from the Puget Sound region (he was in high school in Mt. Vernon while I was a college student just miles to the north in Bellingham); maybe it’s partly the same human impulse that draws our attention to major disasters, horror films, or car accidents on the highway.

Maybe it’s just that this “rodeo clown” is such an easy target for satire. Beck is often ridiculed, sometimes brilliantly, as Jon Stewart and The Onion have done. This week comes a new offering, from Rebellious Pixels, one of the best Beck send-ups I’ve seen. Don’t just take my word for it — as Beck himself declared, “It is some of the best well made propaganda I have ever seen… We are looking into this gentleman and this incredible propaganda against me.”

Not only is this media mashup brilliantly constructed, one of the things I like about it is the way it shows how someone (in this case, a down-&-out Donald Duck) could be initially taken in by Beck’s faux populist appeals.

And that’s really the thing that’s most interesting to me. How is it that a political snake-oil salesman like Beck is so effective at persuading so many people to embrace a political agenda so inimical to their own personal interests? And, more importantly, why have progressives been so much less effective in channelling legitimate popular anxieties toward progressive solutions that would genuinely benefit the majority?

One of the better explorations of these questions comes from Laura Flanders’ GRITtv, in an interview with Alexander Zaitchik, the man who literally wrote the book on Beck, and Rick Perlstein, who nails it at the end of the interview when he says, ”The Democrats have unilaterally disarmed on left-wing populism. So if you’re angry, there’s no place for you other than in the Republican Party [or] Tea Party movement.”

Okay, so it’s understandable why mainstream Democrats would be ineffective at articulating a progressive populist message (the DLC strategy of courting big-money donors, the tightening grip of corporate power on election campaigns, etc.), but what I really wonder is this: Why are there so few progressive voices outside the Democratic Party clearly and vigorously articulating a progressive populist message?

With the inequality of income and wealth in the US at an all-time high, with the power of corporate lobbyists in DC stronger than ever, with the floodgates of corporate donations to election campaigns thrown open by the Citizens United decision, you’d think progressives would be able to articulate a much more persuasive case than a huckster like Glenn Beck.

Where are the progressive voices doing that? Why is the message so weak and ineffective? What can be done to change that?

Your thoughts?

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