As hundreds of thousands gathered in Washington, D.C. for Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally, one couldn’t help but notice a powerful nostalgia for an America that is slipping away. In her remarks to the crowd, Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and conservative folk hero, said, “we must not fundamentally transform America, as some would want,” a not-so-veiled reference to President Obama and his allies. Instead, “we must restore America and restore her honor,” a message that resonated with a crowd that by all accounts was overwhelmingly white and Christian, with large numbers hailing from rural areas and small towns. Palin, like Beck, was talking about a spiritual restoration, a return to time-tested virtues that had been celebrated by the more homogeneous America of the past, in which non-traditional families were stigmatized and relatively rare, church attendance was far more common, and the dominance of Anglo-Protestant culture was unquestioned.
One gets the impression that Beck, like Malcolm X and many others before him, intends to lead a spiritual revival, if not a Great Awakening.
But as most of those who attended Beck’s rally understand in their bones, that world is gone. And President Obama, for all his efforts to expand the reach of the federal government, has had very little to do with this deep transformation. Rather, the country has long since been transformed by powerful demographic and economic forces that very much threaten what we might call Glenn Beck’s America.
Instead of accepting or embracing this transformation, a large and growing number of white Americans are, knowingly or otherwise, taking a page from minority protest movements of the past by asserting themselves and demanding recognition from political and cultural elites. Many on the left find this sense of anger and alienation risible, seeing in this movement of “are-nots,” as opposed to “have-nots,” a class of ignoramuses duped by Fox News into acting against their supposed economic interests.
Yet it seems more plausible that Fox News is following its audience rather than leading it — that this anger and alienation has existed for years, and has only now found a decidedly unconventional tribune in the form of Glenn Beck. Though this is a class with economic grievances, it seems more concerned with psychic injuries — with a profound sense of disempowerment in the face of centralized political power.
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• Benjy Sarlin Responds: Is Glenn Beck Really on Par with the Legendary Leader? So in this very strange and very fluid political moment, Glenn Beck has emerged as the white Malcolm X. Whereas Malcom X embraced militant black separatism, Beck marries a stridently emotional style with political views that wouldn’t have been out of place at a 1950s Elks Lodge event. But like Malcolm X, Beck terrifies mainstream liberals, who see something sinister in his inexplicable ways. And just as Malcolm X mellowed in his old age, embracing a more traditional interpretation of Islam shortly before his death, Beck seems to be self-consciously moving past the politicized anger that defined his program for much of the past two years towards a heavy emphasis on spiritual uplift for his people.
And though Beck is scrupulously inclusive — I was particularly struck by his reference to “our churches, our synagogues, our mosques” during his lengthy address to the crowd — his people are overwhelmingly white and old. Among Americans over the age of 65, 80 percent are non-Hispanic whites, an artifact of an earlier era in which the number of Latinos was negligible and African Americans were the only minority population of any significance. This over-65 population, well represented at the rally, has tended to be the most hostile to President Obama’s agenda. Not coincidentally, the average age of Fox News viewers is 65, a shade older than CNN’s 63 and MSNBC’s 59.
This year, in contrast, will likely be the first in which non-Hispanic whites will be a minority among newborns. In part, this reflects an average birthrate of 1.87 for non-Hispanic white women as opposed to 2.99 for Hispanic women, with African American and Asian American birthrates falling in between. Without foreign-born mothers, the U.S. would have below-replacement fertility, like much of Western Europe. This would mean less demographic vitality, but it would also mean that the pace of cultural change would slow markedly. With each passing year, the cultural mix of the United States is growing more Latin and Asian and black. Non-Hispanic whites are just 56 percent of the under-18 population, a reality reflected in an increasingly pan-ethnic youth culture that seems baffling to older white Americans. Imagine how elderly viewers of Glenn Beck must feel when they accidentally catch themselves watching an episode of Jersey Shore.
This generational culture clash is already driving our politics. The battle over health reform pitted elderly citizens who feared Medicare cuts against less affluent younger voters clamoring for stronger social protections. A similar dynamic has defined bitter fights over school funding across the Southwest.
But something else is happening as well. Many commentators have noted that Glenn Beck scrupulously avoided political commentary during the rally. We’re seeing early signs that this movement that Beck is building is about more than the midterm elections, and more than defeating President Obama in 2012. One gets the impression that Beck, like Malcolm X and many others before him, intends to lead a spiritual revival, if not a Great Awakening. Somehow I suspect we’ll be hearing about Beck for many, many years to come.
Reihan Salam is a policy advisor at e21 and a fellow at the New America Foundation.