What Stephen Harper has in common with Glenn Beck

Politics of venom: voter turnout is near historic lows, and the sniping is only going to get worse

Chris Young CP/ Alex Wong Getty Images

How was your week? Glenn Beck’s was pretty good, thanks. On Saturday he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and faced a crowd conservatively estimated at one million people (but liberally estimated at 87,000). “Something that is beyond man is happening,” Beck said. “America today begins to turn back to God.”

Two days later, Beck launched an Internet news website, The Blaze. (“The flame of freedom is dwindling,” he told a different crowd last week. “If you don’t want it to go out on our watch, then you must stand in the blaze. The fire of truth that does not burn those who stand in it, but consumes everything that is not.”) As I write this, The Blaze’s front page has three stories about the “Ground Zero” mosque, one about the “ballooning welfare state,” four about Glenn Beck and three about how Al Sharpton’s simultaneous Washington rally wasn’t as good as Glenn Beck’s.

Also on Monday, a Gallup poll showed the largest Republican lead over congressional Democrats that Gallup has ever measured.

What you will make of these events will, in a profound way, depend. Christopher Hitchens, sometime advocate on behalf of Republican presidents, was baffled. “What does it take to believe that Christianity is an endangered religion in America or that the name of Jesus is insufficiently spoken or appreciated?” he wrote. “Who wakes up believing that there is no appreciation for our veterans and our armed forces, and that without a noisy speech from Sarah Palin, their sacrifice would be scorned?”

Hitchens’s answer was that what it takes is “white self-pity.” Whatever it is, there seems to be a lot of it going around. That crowd in front of Beck was big, and people who think like the Fox News host are contributing many of the foot soldiers for the Republican wave that seems set to push back hard against Barack Obama’s foundering presidency in November’s mid-term elections.

I’m not sure my own opinions about Beck are as important as the simple observation that so many other people have such strong feelings about him. And opinions about Beck, like opinions about so much else in public life today, are written in acid and invective.

In the U.S., but also in Australia after the photo-finish elections there and, increasingly, in Stephen Harper’s Canada, the gulf between cultural visions on the left and right is so wide the two sides cannot even speak comprehensibly to each other. Ottawa lifers have taken to calling the two sides Starbucks and Tim Hortons, but the rift is deeper than one’s choice of coffee. It’s the gulf between daycare and church, between the faculty club and the tool shop. It is coming increasingly to define our politics, and to envenom them.

In 1992, the Catholic conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan sought to mend fences among Republicans at the nominating convention for George H.W. Bush’s re-election effort. “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” Buchanan’s speech felt a little hot for the ’90s and was considered to be one of the reasons for Bush’s loss to Bill Clinton that year. But this fall the culture war, with more than a dose of religion to it, is back.

Nor is it confined to the U.S. Last December I wrote here about Tony Abbott, the “Mad Monk” who’d gone from Catholic seminary school to a Rhodes Scholarship to the top spot in Australia’s conservative coalition. Seasoned observers of Australian politics hurried to assure me there was no way a right-wing whack job like Abbott could win an election. Which was true, technically. All he managed to do on Aug. 21 was tie with Labor. “At the cultural level, there is a gulf between middle Australia and an educated elite concentrated in inner-urban areas who hold values at odds with one another,” an editorial in the Australian said last week. “Middle Australia is more socially conservative, comfortable with religion, patriotic and sports-loving; while the inner-urban group is progressive, secular and likely to mock suburban Australia.”

Of the secular, mocking urbanites, the Australian noted that “the political class, particularly Labor, is dominated by this group and the ABC”—Australia’s equivalent of the CBC—“broadcasts to them. The Canberra press gallery is part of this culture, explaining why so many journalists could believe for so long that Mr. Abbott was unelectable.”

This might be the moment to point out that the Australian is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns Fox News, which makes him Glenn Beck’s boss, too.

Of course Canada’s own political debate has been framed in similar terms at least since Stephen Harper became leader of the new Conservative party in 2004. More than any Conservative leader since Diefenbaker, Harper has worked to pull our politics onto the treacherous but potentially highly rewarding terrain of culture, patriotism and religion. Who believes Christianity is an endangered religion in Canada, or that there is not enough appreciation for our veterans? Enough people to give the Harper Conservatives a tenacious voter base is who.

The historical moment that most resembles the current one is the 1960s, when social change and national-security tension provided the setting for acrimony that seemed insurmountable. In his 2008 book Nixonland, author Rick Perlstein pointed out that during that period, America went from the biggest Democratic landslide in presidential election history, for Lyndon Johnson in 1964, to the largest Republican landslide, for Richard Nixon in 1972.

Throughout that period, writes Perlstein, “America was engulfed in a pitched battle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. The only thing was: Americans disagreed radically over which side was which.”

And so it is today in our own politics. Whether it’s the long-form census, the long-gun registry, criminal justice or Canada’s role in the Middle East, our politics has become nasty and hotly accusatory. One noteworthy feature of the acrimony is that each side blames the other for all the ugliness. Another is that, thanks to websites and broadcasts that preach to the converted with pinpoint accuracy (Huffington Post, Beck’s The Blaze), the possibility of consensus collapses further because neither side even hears what the other is talking about.

This is useful to Harper and disorienting to the federal Liberals. The Prime Minister is content with a polarized debate, first because it suits his personality, but also because the Conservatives get all of one side and the Liberals have to fight the Bloc and the NDP for the rest. The Liberals, meanwhile, still hope to straddle a centre that’s increasingly hard even to find.

Meanwhile, all the sniping turns off legions of potential voters: turnout is near historic lows in both Canadian and U.S. elections. (Turnout’s still fine in Australia, where voting is mandatory.)

One more feature of the new landscape: because the new conservatism is resolutely populist and frankly doesn’t seriously care about fiscal balance, it risks running some surprising characters offside.

Take Conrad Black. When he launched the National Post in 1998, Black saw himself as the finest example of well-earned elitism in battle against “envy,” which he defined as jealous carping by people who had not earned their bragging rights. But Stephen Harper has reversed the polarity of Canadian conservatism: envy is in now. Elites are the enemy. Black, fresh from his detour through the correctional system, struggles to find his bearings. “It is a howling mystery to me why the Harper government is seeing to placate the reactionary end of the law and order vote,” Black writes. You and me both, boss. Welcome back to the urban elites.

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