Apocalyptic views hinder constructive political debate

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, August 29, 2010; C01

Let's dispense right away with the fiction, promoted by Glenn Beck himself, that his rally on Saturday wasn't a political event.

Let's also set aside the caricature, promoted by some critics on the left, that the demonstration was primarily a gathering of racists designed to dishonor the memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the same spot and on the same date as his "I Have a Dream" speech.

Instead, let's focus on this: A sizable chunk of the conservative movement is convinced that the nation is headed toward a kind of Marxist dictatorship. It doesn't just think the government was wrong to bail out Wall Street, or that the health-care program is too costly and unwieldy, or that schools should include more religious instruction.

Instead, these people think our morals have sunk so low and our political leaders have become so unresponsive that the rule of law is breaking down in America. In interviews with members of the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial, I found that many shared such an apocalyptic view of a country on the wrong track.

But when pressed for evidence of such severe deterioration, they didn't offer very compelling examples. Basically, the "tea party" thinks the moderately liberal social agenda pushed by the Obama administration is just a short step away from, say, Communist East Germany.

This kind of exaggerated thinking, encouraged by Beck, contributes to the toxic tone of contemporary political debate. It's hard to have a reasonable discussion about the proper size and role of government in a modern society with people who think 234 years of democracy is ending.

Consider the following:

-- Ryan Townsend, 35, of Parkersburg, W.Va., said he came Saturday because, "I'm not going to sit idly by while tyranny and socialism replace our Constitution."

Why did he think that was happening? Townsend said he was unhappy that the Environmental Protection Agency sometimes issued rulings that hadn't received explicit congressional approval, such as to protect forests. He also was worried that the EPA might rule that "lead is a toxic substance, so you can't defend yourself with lead ammunition."

-- Ronald Stone, 66, of El Paso said people were here "because they're tired of watching the rule of law disintegrate." As evidence, he said that health reform was unconstitutional and that the immigration laws aren't being enforced.

The courts will decide about health care -- that's how democracy works. He's right that the immigration laws aren't being enforced, but that's been the case for decades, and the country hasn't collapsed.

-- Greg Orth, 70, of Charlotte said the country seemed to be on the road to becoming "a Marxist state" and cited Beck as his source: "Our president is surrounded by advisers who are Marxist, who are socialist. If you listen to Beck, he talks a lot about that."

In fact, on Beck's Web site, the top item in the section marked "Most Popular" is a collection of the commentator's arguments for why President Obama is a socialist. My favorites are that he voted for the Troubled Assets Relief Program -- signed by President George W. Bush -- and that he extended unemployment benefits.

Beck pitched the rally as an assembly that was "absolutely" not about politics and instead all about restoring American honor. It's true that it wasn't explicitly partisan. The crowd respected Beck's call to leave signs at home and not endorse individual Republican candidates.

But it's hard to maintain that pretense when your star speaker, Sarah Palin, is considering running for the GOP presidential nomination. More importantly, every participant I interviewed, when asked simply why he or she was there, immediately started talking about political issues: High taxes. Lawmakers who don't listen. Inadequate veterans' benefits.

"We are fed up with how government has been taking advantage of us, the taxpayers," said Mary Mahaffey, 50, of Atlanta. Her friend, Nell Merkle, 51, chimed in: "My sister owns her own business. Health-care costs are going to drive her out of business."

At the same time, I think it's unfair to dismiss the demonstration as an exercise in hostility against racial minorities.

There's no doubt Beck himself has made comments that are racially incendiary, particularly his notorious charge a year ago that Obama has a "deep-seated hatred for white people." Also, despite his denials, I suspect that he picked the site and day for his rally to spur controversy and draw attention.

However, I found little or no evidence of racial hatred in the interviews I conducted. Moreover, people heaped praise on King's legacy -- or at least on part of it. They loved his call to judge people not by race but by personal qualities. In contrast, they didn't want to talk about his support for social justice, which they interpreted as a plan for more big government.

"We're here to honor Martin Luther King's legacy. He believed it wasn't about skin color, that it's about the content of your character, honesty, integrity, hard work, care for your family," said Dennis Harbert, 67, of Massillon, Ohio. But he dismissed King's economic message, saying, "What we've proved since the Great Society is that top-down programs don't help the poor."

It's a pretty good accomplishment that even archconservatives nowadays want to lay claim to part of King's record. Now they need to see that liberal government programs aren't the equivalent of Maoism.

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