About two years ago, Glenn Beck, the Fox News personality, began a series of tirades against what he called the Cloward-Piven plan for orchestrated crisis to collapse the system. The plan, he explained to his audience, had been laid out in an article written by Richard Cloward and me, and published in the Nation magazine in May 1966. In the article, we proposed a mobilisation of poor people and their advocates to claim the welfare benefits to which poor families were legally entitled, but that they often did not receive. We thought that the ensuing problems of rising rolls and costs would create pressures for federal reform of the archaic welfare system.
Whatever you think of that article, and I still like it, it was written some 45 years ago in a magazine with a rather small readership. But, astonishingly, in Glenn Beck's world, it had led to most of America's ensuing troubles, including the rise of SDS, Acorn, George Soros and the Open Society Institute, the election of Barack Obama and the financial crisis. Beck depicts this on his chalkboard as the "tree of revolution", and he continued to feature this theory of American history on some 50 subsequent shows, as well as on the Blaze, his blog.
Other rightwing blogs were quick to pick up the orchestrated crisis theory. Together with the Blaze, the news stories elicited many hundreds, if not thousands of rude and insulting postings directed at me, and many lurid death threats, as well. (My husband Richard Cloward, who would have enjoyed this more than I, has been dead for a decade.)
In January of 2010, I wrote another article in the Nation, about the difficulties that had to be overcome if the rising numbers of unemployed were to be organised to have voice and influence in American politics. In response, the outrage of Beck and his fellow rightwing bloggers escalated, as did the insults, the curses and, especially, the death threats. I am not writing now to complain about the personal threats and what appears to be the aim of extorting silence from the speakers on the left. Rather, I want to offer an explanation of why this sort of rabid and crazy talk is gaining traction in our country.
When I first became aware of my location at the base of the trunk of Beck's tree of revolution, I thought it was funny, just because it was so fantastical. It is funny, I suppose, but it is also a reflection of a deep problem. I have come to think that paranoid theories are flourishing because of serious troubles in our democracy. After all, electoral-representative democracy is a set of arrangements that enable ordinary citizens to have influence on government. But for these arrangements to work, citizens have to be able to understand what government does.
The common people who participated in the American revolution were gripped by the democratic hope that once the shackles of British rule were broken, the people would have decisive influence over their government because they would be able to watch what their legislators did, and refuse to re-elect them if they did not abide by the people's will.
This elemental democratic idea assumes that people can assess the bearing of government action on their own circumstances and the larger society, and vote for or against a candidate or party in reflection of that assessment. But when people protest against a healthcare proposal because they don't want government to get its hands on their Medicare, this elemental assumption is put in grave doubt.
Partly, the problem is that our social and economic institutions are dense and complicated, and intricately entwined with other institutions with a global reach. In reflection, contemporary government policy is also extraordinarily complicated and difficult to decipher. Healthcare legislative proposals run to many hundreds of pages, and the texts of the regulations to implement them are even longer. And none of this can be understood without a great deal of information about existing healthcare arrangements
Add to this the fact that legislation and regulation is often deliberately obscure to shield politicians and bureaucrats from their publics. Even without deliberate concealment, complex and difficult to decipher policies may well be inevitable in a large, technologically advanced and complicated society.
When the process of governing is incomprehensible, manipulation and propaganda thrives. The strange stories that Glenn Beck creates with his chalkboard gain traction with Americans, who are made anxious by the large changes that have overtaken the United States, including the election of a black president and the increasing racial diversity of the population, deindustrialisation and the decline of American power abroad, as well as cultural changes in sexual and family norms.
By telling simple fairy tales that trace these big and complex changes to the machinations of particular people, Beck makes the changes comprehensible in a way, and also makes the people who are presumably responsible the targets of his listeners' frustration and outrage. Partly because it is utterly irrational, and partly because it is an effort to bully and intimidate his political opponents, this is dangerous for democratic politics.
Frances Fox Piven is professor of political science and sociology at the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York, where she has taught since 1982. She is the author and co-author of numerous books, including The War at Home: The Domestic Costs of Bush's Militarism (2004) and Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America (2006), and has received career and lifetime achievement awards from the American Sociological Association and the American Political Science Association. Frances has been featured on Democracy Now!, and regular contributor to the Nation.