Writing at Salon today, Michael Lind of the New America Foundation implores liberals to lay off Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin for a while. His rationale is that by chortling at the antics of the right's most prominent buffoons, we're making the slightly less-loony right-wingers seem moderate, while coming off as "snobs" ourselves and, ultimately, wasting our "effort and attention."
I disagree. And I think I have history on my side here.
There's a reason so much ink, digital and actual, is spilled chronicling the foibles of Beck and Palin. Part of it has to do with their popularity -- for better or worse, they are the faces of today's right -- but it's also a question of what they represent. Beck and Palin straddle the divide between the mainstream and the fringe. They boast deep connections to the activist right and have media platforms from which their messages reach broader audiences. As such, they serve as a sort of conduit for extreme ideas and rhetoric to seep into the broader discourse.
Take a look at what Beck's been up to, and you'll see what I mean. Back in 2009, when Andrew Breitbart and James O'Keefe were looking to promote their ACORN sting videos and put Breitbart's fledging BigGovernment.com on the map, they turned to Beck. In the past two years, Beck has reintroduced to the world the long-since repudiated and forgotten works of extremists like Cleon Skousen and Elizabeth Dilling. He's accused Obama of being a racist and devoted entire programs to explaining how Joe McCarthy was right.
It's easy to look at all this and wave it off as too crazy to break through the national consciousness or impact the political landscape. You could have said the same thing about accusations that John Kerry lied about his military service, or that the health care bill set up bureaucratic panels tasked with euthanizing the elderly, or that the Obama Justice Department employs racial preferences in protecting fringe extremist groups.
Yes, combatting this sort of stuff is, as Lind writes, a "reactive strategy that gives the initiative to the right," but that strategy is necessary given the right's determined and unceasing efforts to generate false and damaging narratives that will bleed into the mainstream. Ignoring it isn't so much seizing the initiative as it is laying down arms.
As for looking like "snobs," Lind writes that ever since the Goldwater/Nixon era, "conservatives have managed to recruit populist voters by claiming that the intellectual elites look down their noses at them." I don't doubt that this is true, but I strongly disagree that we should let right-wing caricature determine our behavior. I also know that conservatives are going to do this regardless of whether we leave Beck and Palin alone or not. In 2008, the right used Obama's alleged preference for arugula and Dijon mustard as evidence of his "elitism." Sarah Palin is perpetually in victim mode, blasting out aggrieved press releases at imagined insults that are designed to churn up the outrage among her base.
The lesson here is that even if we deny them fodder for the "snob" attack, they'll just make something up and use that.
I understand what Lind is getting at, and there's something to be said for taking the high road and cultivating an accessible progressive media culture to explain "how liberalism is rooted in American values and history." But that's not mutually exclusive of documenting the eccentricities of the right's blowhards and malcontents. Actually, I think those two concepts work pretty well in concert with one another. But in the end, whatever blowback the left receives from mocking Palin and Beck will be insignificant compared to the damage that could be done by ignoring them.