This is not as puzzling as it seems. Beck’s libertarianism is a more developed and consistent reflection of the Tea Party’s own highly individualistic political rhetoric. But as some thoughtful conservative commentators have noted, those who identify with it also believe that American society, not just the government, has gone off the rails, that families are weaker, people less honest, less respectful, less good—that, as the pollsters put it, “the country is headed in the wrong direction.” But what these same commentators fail to appreciate is that the social developments that the movement’s sympathizers worry about are consequences of the very same individualism the Tea Party says it wants to advance. As I’ve suggested in these pages before, the Tea Party movement is yet another expression of a libertarian urge that has reshaped American politics and civil society over the past half-century.5
But it also expresses the disquiet of people unhappy about the more atomized and anarchic world they now find themselves in. Tocqueville would have understood this. One of the lessons of Democracy in America is that the prospect of absolute freedom is terrifying, the world it delivers lonely and hard. The freer a nation becomes, Tocqueville conjectured, the more people feel they are on their own and must create themselves, the less willing they and their fellow citizens are to accept authority and traditional obligations, then the more they will crave a connection to each other and to the Beyond.
Similar dynamics may help explain why Glenn Beck, sensing an opportunity, has moved into the prophet business, and why his adoring fans on the Washington Mall were so happy to be chastised and told they must transform themselves within if they wanted their country transformed. Beck is often likened to Elmer Gantry or to Lonesome Rhodes in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, and he is certainly capable of playing those roles. But coming back from his rally I was reminded of a different movie, Frank Capra’s 1941 classic Meet John Doe. In that film, Barbara Stanwyck plays a reporter losing her job during the Depression. As a final protest against her ruthless, Murdoch-like publisher (Edward Arnold), she slips into the paper a letter from a fictional “John Doe,” who laments his poverty and threatens suicide. The letter strikes a chord with readers and everyone wants to meet and help John—who doesn’t exist. Scrambling, Stanwyck holds tryouts for the part and settles on Gary Cooper, an unemployed baseball pitcher, and writes a public speech for him.
It was not just the obvious parallels with the present moment that brought the movie to mind, it was the speech Gary Cooper delivers. What makes it so successful is that it betrays no anger, only hope and love. It doesn’t demand government action to help America’s John Does, nor does it attack government as the source of their problems. Instead, it simply calls America to look within and discover its old, better self. When he begins, Cooper is only reading the lines in an awkward, half-bored manner. Halfway through, though, something dawns on him and his delivery becomes inspired; he starts believing the words coming out of his mouth, as does the audience. By the end he is thundering and the crowd is cheering:
Now, why can’t that spirit, that same warm Christmas spirit last the whole year round? Gosh, if it ever did, if each and every John Doe would make that spirit last three hundred and sixty-five days out of the year, we’d develop such a strength, we’d create such a tidal wave of good will, that no human force could stand against it. Yes, sir, my friends, the meek can only inherit the earth when the John Does start loving their neighbors. You’d better start right now. Don’t wait till the game is called on account of darkness! Wake up, John Doe! You’re the hope of the world!
The speech is a smash hit, so much so that the publisher conceives the idea—foiled when Cooper realizes what is happening—of creating and funding John Doe Clubs. Why? To create a populist third-party movement that he and his business associates can manipulate to put him in the White House.