Home > Uncategorized > Glenn Beck, the Tea Party, and Cleon Skousen: History in the (Re-)Making

Glenn Beck, the Tea Party, and Cleon Skousen: History in the (Re-)Making

When is history more than just “history?” Critical theory of the last few decades has skewered the idea that you can write objective, non-political history. Instead, each historical explanation is a narrative with its own set of biases and presuppositions. It has become prosaic to say that there isn’t a “history” but multiple “histories” we write about the pass.

But then again, this idea isn’t new at all.

The Tea Party has spawned a slew of articles and essays in leading magazines and newspapers trying to decode our current politics’ latest enigmatic movement. Who are these people, what are their motives, their complaints, their unconscious agenda? Some of these pieces reveal how bizarrely exotic this group seems to many such insulated writers, but the most fascinating pieces are those that dig into the text and language of the group and discover something interesting about the narratives–and “histories”–this movement is constructing. After all, the Tea Party’s extreme iterations don’t bother me that much–all feisty political movements, if they can gain any serious political representation, is immediately tempered by the vitiating ennui of filibusters, compromises, and super-majorities. But what really worries me is how this group–especially Glenn Beck–can rewrite the way we understand American history and, thus, the purpose of government, where it began, and where it is headed.

That our cultural history of America is being recast upon Glenn Beck’s infamous chalkboard is the thrust of Sean Wilentz’s “Confounding Fathers,” published in the New Yorker, which traces the American history professed by Glenn Beck to the conspiracy theories of the John Birch Society and history books of W. Cleon Skousen. The John Birch Society was convinced of a communist government takeover at the highest levels, and were obsessively suspicious of even the most American of Americans like Dwight Eisenhower. Skousen had his own communist/cabalist theories, but much of his influence on Beck lies in his shaping of the American story, as told in the “Five-Thousand Year Leap” and “The Making of America.” According to Skousen, America’s Founders–inspired by Providence and guided by the finest Judeo-Christian philosophy–laid out such a revolutionary constitution of free-market principles and moral values that our country propelled itself into the modern era with stunning growth in technology, prosperity, and civilization. The genius of someone like Skousen is that he understood you cannot simply give people a list of political agendas to uphold: current events reshape agendas all the time and people are much less committed to specific issues than you think. What they really believe in is the stories we tell about the destiny of our nation, our roles as citizens, and the mythos of its founding. Give a man a political agenda, and he’ll protest for a day. Give a man a political narrative, and he’ll protest for a lifetime.

Yet when you place these narratives under the microscope of academic methodology and consensus, these works are, to quote Stanford constitutional scholar Jack Rackove, “not worth a warm pitcher of spit.”* Beck is equally careless with facts, causation, and what he would call “elitist” history writing, which has been taken over by leftist/Marxist/socialist/Nazi professors. The “true” American history has been shrouded behind veils of political correctness, secularization, and liberal politics. Ironically (though perhaps not to him?), Beck decries academia while establishing his own Beck University, a type of for-profit, ideological remediation program.

Is Beck a threat to conservatism? Absolutely. But not merely because of his populism or his extreme rhetoric, but because his conception of history is a mish-mash of half-truths and warped realities. His historical style is revolutionary–not in the sense that it is new but because it unravels decades of slow, steady accumulation of historical understanding through careful parsing and analysis with brazen “I Hate Woodrow Wilson” T-shirts. It abandons any real concern for history in order to appropriate its ethos for the political purposes of the present.  As this NYTimes profile exhibits, he works on the fly, he talks through his ideas, and latches onto a topic and runs with it until he’s bored. He feigns a respect for history but it is only a respect for a history that supports his views, that reconfirms what he already believes.

If conservatives are seriously concerned about the influence of the Tea Party movement, they should be most scared of how Beck and others are undermining the respect of tradition and history by vilifying it even when they claim to be “recovering” it from the clutches of academia. This has implications beyond Novemeber 2010 but how an entire generation of young conservatives might understand not only American history but the very process of history is crafted. And for anyone committed to truth–both moral and historical–this should be deeply disturbing.

*Personal Note: when I was a freshman in college, writing a research paper on a 1950s 1st Amendment case, I cited a long quote from one of the Founder’s located in Skousen’s The Making of America that suggested Jefferson or another Founding Father highly encouraged Christian education for America’s children. But the first couple of words–the most crucial part of the quote–were in paraphrase brackets, and my teacher insisted I double check the source to make sure Skousen paraphrased him correctly. So I found the passage and was stunned: it didn’t fit how Skousen portrayed it at all. I had to remove the quote entirely from my paper. I don’t know about the rest of the book, but if a college freshman could almost accidently poke holes in the text, Rackove might be on to something.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Paul Skousen
    October 26, 2010 at 12:35 am

    Hi Dallin, thank you for your observatons. That New Yorker article has received a lot of attention and I’ve been chasing down the innacuracies being spread around regarding dad and his writings and life experiences. There’s nothing new in that piece, and all those charges have been answered and refutted for years. But dad was better than me—in the last decades of his life he just ignored such smears and moved forward as best he could.

    I’m working on his biography so my interest in getting to the bottom of these kinds of attacks or rejections has become important to me. …. Your concern about the misquote by Jefferson caught my eye and I wanted to make sure I was chasing down the correct quote. I find on page 683 of “Making of America” this quote by Jefferson. Is the item you were talking about in your blog (bracketed comment by dad):

    “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed [by eliminating religious instruction] their only firm basis—a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are … the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?” –cited to Bergh, 2:227.

    Thanks for checking if you have time. I’ll check his notes and see if those can shed light on his justification for including that bracketed comment. I would appreciate a confirmation if I’m looking into the correct quote. I’m at paulskousen@comcast.net. Best regards, Paul Skousen, Alpine UT

  2. October 26, 2010 at 8:18 am

    I’ll double check it–but I remember it being at the beginning of a quote so “[word word] quote,” not in the middle. But that might be it. I’ll see if I can find it.

    • Paul Skousen
      October 26, 2010 at 12:08 pm

      Thank you. –P

  3. Liz
    October 26, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    Chris would love this. I’m sending him the link.

    I’m going to go with a classically un-academic response: I freaking hate Glenn Beck.

  4. Alice-Anne
    October 28, 2010 at 12:04 am

    Dallin, you are a good writer! I am impressed with your thoughtful essays. But you leave me feeling hopeless with this one… and this question may seem simplistic and general when you obviously covered a lot here but the question that matters the most to me is this: where do I go for sources of truth about the founding of our country to teach my children from? I am not saying I would turn on Beck and say, he has the answers or that Cleon Skousen has all the answers. But if you won’t be using Skousen to teach your kids from what will you be using? What do you place confidence in? Do we share multiple histories (conservative and liberal perspectives?) so that we feel like our bases get covered? What do you feel the answer is?

  5. October 28, 2010 at 10:00 am

    Yeah, I have this same struggle, A-A. First off, I try to be skeptical of anyone that claims to have an exclusive purview of the truth that everyone else either overlooks or tries to hide. It’s one thing to say that some historians have misinterpreted an event or the facts, but it’s another to say all historians have gotten it completely wrong and that I’m the only one that can see things clearly (which is what Beck often does–I haven’t read enough Skousen or others to say whether they make these types of claims). You’ll see this with some people who are disenchanted with the church that claim “If you knew what I knew, you’d leave to.” Eh, I’m sorry, but I really doubt they’re that special.

    Also, if someone claims that history–or broad swaths of history–support their personal ideology or perspective, I have to be skeptical. Not because they must therefore be wrong, but history is rarely so neat that it fits one interpretation easily. Situations and times are so variant that to say the past justifies our current views is almost always a stretch.

    For me, its less about the content of the history and more about the way it is presented. I may not have the expertise to know everything the historians know, but I certainly don’t want my kids to think everything has been decided and there is only one way to think about these things and everyone else has got it wrong, etc. Again, I’m not entirely sure if this is Skousen’s perspective, but it is Glenn Beck’s, and that’s what most worries me here.

    And I guess, for me personally, I think we should be more circumspect about the overarching claims we make about history and politics and the like. We might have to narrow what we can confidently proclaim, but I think we can proclaim it with more certainty and conviction. I personally don’t think the Founders had a strictly Christian nation in mind (though they certainly felt we needed a moral populace) but there is so much great about America that I can still teach my kids: its democratic system, its checks and balances, its opportunities for change and its respect for tradition–everything Dallin H. Oaks’ talks about in his talks on the inspired Constitution. And, as they get older, bringing in multiple perspectives I think would be helpful, to help them see that there is a debate about these issues and that we need to be discerning and critical.

  6. Alice-Anne
    October 28, 2010 at 10:41 am

    Thanks, Dallin. I enjoyed your perspective and agree for the most party.

    I am not a big Tea Partyer and although listen to Beck occastionally I think he can be over the top. But if they have done any good…in my perspective..it is to get us to talk about the Constitution and the founding. It’s been a while.

  7. November 2, 2010 at 7:41 am

    Alice-Anne,
    I’d recommend reading the thoughts of the founders in primary sources (things like the Federalist Papers or Common Sense). There was a wide variety of belief among the founders; it would be wrong to assume that they all approached God or the Constitution in the same way. It is, after all, a compromise document.

    Dallin,
    I like your perspective.

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