The Surreal Experience of Debating Glenn Beck

Eliot Spitzer and Glenn Beck

Eliot Spitzer (left) and Glenn Beck in New York City in September

Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images for Dish Network.

Tuesday night at the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver, I had the unique experience of debating Glenn Beck. This was like wading into the belly of the beast. Of the several hundred people in the audience, a not insubstantial number were devout Beck fans, many of them devoted members of the Tea Party. What I realized, talking to them and listening to and engaging with Beck both over the course of the formal debate and before and afterward, was that these folks operate in a fact-free zone.

The passion they summon for their anti-government rhetoric is based on a strong emotional need to channel a visceral anger against the state of the world—and the government has become the perfect target for their ire. What transforms their anti-government views into a form of bizarre patriotism is the way they turn the founders of the nation into paragons of virtue. They say that if only we had remained true to the virtues of the founders, things today would be all right.

I tried to counter their views in three ways. First, by disagreeing with their underlying and pervasive pessimism about the state of the world with what I think is a well-founded view that things, when viewed in the grand arc of history, are actually pretty good. At an ideological level, we are winning the larger global battles, and even if things are tough economically now, it is primarily because a greater and greater percentage of the world is participating in a market-based capitalist system that will create economic growth and relative peace in the long run. Second, by using facts, I tried to show that their attacks on President Obama’s policies are simply wrong—their rather bizarre libertarian views about the role of government and the economy simply don’t hold up under the slightest scrutiny. And third, I tried to show how our current politics and even the individual mandate for health insurance do in fact fit neatly into the vision of the nation as embodied by the Founding Fathers and our Constitution.

The result, quite frankly, was to convince not a single member of their camp. Perhaps that is not surprising, given the rather fractured and polarized nature of our politics, but it was troubling to me. Facts simply bounced off those who are in need of the psychological support offered by the Beckian world view. 

Beck’s arguments wandered from the bizarre to the irrelevant. In his camp, random quotations from the Founding Fathers pass as deep historical knowledge, and absurd claims about the role of the government passes as an ideological construct. Just about all we could agree on: Thank goodness for the First Amendment!