The reason we pay attention to Beck is that he both comforts and flatters his audience; he makes them feel good, and good about themselves. And by “them” I mean the two groups that obsess over Beck the most: tea partiers and liberals. Tea partiers are driven by the belief that the America that elected Barack Obama isn’t their America, and Beck comforts them by telling them they’re right: that the America they love, the America they now feel so distant from, the America of faith and the Founders and some sort of idyllic Leave It to Beaver past, is still there, waiting to be awakened from Obama’s evil spell. And he flatters them by saying that the coastal elites are too stupid or too lazy to figure out what’s really going on; only his loyal viewers are perceptive enough to see the truth and, ultimately, to save the nation. In other words, Beck makes the tea partiers feel, as Hofstadter put it, as if they are “the Elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph,” which is better than feeling disenfranchised, marginalized, and looked down upon.
For liberals, Beck serves a similar purpose. In an era of massive problems and extreme change—the Great Recession, the health-care overhaul, etc.—liberals can avoid the difficult question of whether Obama is leading America in the right direction by simply telling themselves that the only alternative would be someone like Glenn Beck: hyperbolic, demagogic, irrational, and slightly unhinged—just like all conservatives. This is comforting. And by choosing to argue against Beck’s patently absurd insinuations instead of, say, the legitimate policy proposals of someone like Rep. Paul Ryan—the progressive fact-checking site Media Matters posts about 15 anti-Beck items a day—liberals can flatter themselves into believing they’re smarter and better informed than anyone who happens to disagree with them.