HomePoliticsStephen Colbert and The 912 Project

The other day, I watched Stephen Colbert’s riff on Glenn Beck and his 912 Project. Stephen is usually quite funny with his satirical wit and wonderful deliveries. He is an entertainer, just like the man he is parodying in the following skit, Glenn Beck. In this instance, though, Mr. Colbert missed an opportunity to educate his audience.

Glenn Beck, along with all the other right wing populists, is no favorite of mine. However, he has a substantial following and Mr. Colbert’s mocking dismissal of Beck’s 912 Project only pandered to Colbert’s audience. It did not challenge them to think of a way to engage the right wing populists in a positive manner. Progressives need to stop mocking and start listening.


After watching the video, I wanted to find out more about Beck’s 912 project, so I went to his website to learn more about it.

If progressives want to create a dialogue with the rest of America, I suggest that they start taking the right wing populists very seriously. I do. We don’t like Sarah Palin and her followers, but we make no attempt to understand their concerns. Instead, we point fingers and laugh at them contemptuously. That attitude, as Dale Carnegie pointed out long ago, is not the way you win friends and influence people.

Let’s go through the 9 principles and 12 values of the 912 Project and see if there is not a way for progressives to reach out to this audience.

The 912 Project’s 9 Principles:

1. America Is Good.

Do progressives view America as “Good”? I think that many progressives have mixed feelings about this, in that they refuse to uncritically accept the myth of goodness and think that there is much that can be improved in America. But it would be good for progressives to think about the impact of their doubts on the followers of Glenn Beck and the other right wing populists and try to offer more constructive criticism instead of appearing to always be negative.

2. I believe in God and He is the Center of my Life.

God “The propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the external rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained.” from George Washington’s first Inaugural address.

An overwhelming majority of Americans say they believe in God and most progressives do also, although their God may not be recognizable to those who listen to Glenn Beck. This is a distinct problem for progressives and something that they sorely need to address. If progressives want to reach out to people outside their comfort zone, then they must learn how to speak to those people. This means recognizing that Christianity has been used in the past and is being used now as a vehicle for radical progressive social change. Progressives complain loudly about the religious right and Sarah Palin without realizing that Christianity supports, very strongly, their own progressive agenda. Progressives, if they want to be effective, must educate themselves about the mission of Jesus and reach out to those who have been led astray by the religious right.

3. I must always try to be a more honest person than I was yesterday.

Honesty “I hope that I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider to be the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.” George Washington

I don’t think progressives have any issue with honesty, but they often are cynical and unwilling to give public figures the benefit of the doubt when it comes to issues of honesty. This stance may well work against us when the followers of Glenn Beck watch us on TV. Because the followers of the right-wing populists tend to be authoritarians, any attack on an authority figure by a progressive often produces unexpected results. Progressives need to educate themselves on ways to communicate with authoritarians — that their authorities, like everyone else, commit sins and that it is not enough for those sins to be forgiven by God. The sins of their authority figures have real and damaging consequences and cannot be forgiven. George Bush is a classic authoritarian and his sins have resulted in over 4,000 dead American soldiers, not to mention untold thousands of dead Iraqis. That cannot and must not be forgiven.

4. The family is sacred. My spouse and I are the ultimate authority, not the government.

“It is in the love of one’s family only that heartfelt happiness is known. By a law of our nature, we cannot be happy without the endearing connections of a family.” Thomas Jefferson

I was unable to find the source for this quote from Mr. Jefferson, but it is very popular on blogs written by those enthralled with the 912 Project. Everyone copies it from Mr. Beck’s site and no one provides a source. I think this principle is a bit disingenous, as most Conservatives, I would say, believe in God as the ultimate authority, not a married couple. They also believe in the authority of the government when it comes to persecuting those whom they do not like. Progressives need to ask some serious questions as a way to respond to this misleading principle. In Iraq, the family and tribe is sacred – is that the future that we envision for America?

5. If you break the law you pay the penalty. Justice is blind and no one is above it.

Justice “I deem one of the essential principles of our government… equal and exact justice to all men of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political.” Thomas Jefferson

This quote is taken from Thomas Jefferson’s first Inaugural Address, delivered on March 4, 1801. I’m quite sure that progressives mostly share this principle with the followers of Glenn Beck. We do, however, have a more nuanced view of justice than the right wing populists. We also want to see this principle applied to the elite – the authority figures that the followers of Glenn Beck so uncritically follow.

6. I have a right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, but there is no guarantee of equal results.

Life, Liberty, & The Pursuit of Happiness “Everyone has a natural right to choose that vocation in life which he thinks most likely to give him comfortable subsistence.” Thomas Jefferson

This is a very interesting quote and is taken out of context because the source is a letter written in February, 1826 and the title is Thoughts on Lotteries. In the letter, Jefferson states that, indeed, “every one has a natural right to choose for his pursuit such one of them …” but in the following sentences, since he is addressing the topic of lotteries, he states that there are “some which produce nothing, and endanger the well-being of the individuals engaged in them …yet society … suppress the pursuit altogether.” This quote does not support what Beck believes that it supports, but that matters not at all to a right wing populist like Beck.

Do progressives believe in a “right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness”? Certainly. Do we believe that such a right guarantees equal results? I doubt that very much. Do we believe in leveling the playing field by supporting labor unions? You bet. Do we believe in leveling the playing field by establishing regulatory agencies? You bet. Progressives need to be much clearer that while we support a level playing field, we do not guarantee that every player will score a touchdown.

7. I work hard for what I have and I will share it with who I want to. Government cannot force me to be charitable.

Charity “It is not everyone who asketh that deserveth charity; all however, are worth of the inquiry or the deserving may suffer.” George Washington

The full quote is as follows: “Let your heart feel for the afflictions and distresses of every one, and let your hand give in proportion to your purse; remembering always the estimation of the widow’s mite, but, that it is not every one who asketh that deserveth charity; all, however, are worthy of the inquiry, or the deserving may suffer.”

George Washington, letter to Bushrod Washington, Jan. 15, 1783

Bushrod Washington was George Washington’s nephew and was an
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court from 1799 until his death in 1829.

There is nothing in this quote that says anything at all about the power of the State to force anyone to be charitable. This is a father writing to his nephew, providing moral guidance, that is all. Another example of a poor choice of quotes.

Do progressives believe that the State can force its citizens to be charitable? Yes. To allow otherwise is to create the situation we are in now, where there is such a wide disparity in wealth that 20% of the population owns 84% of the nations’ wealth. That means that 80% of the population is fighting over 16% of the wealth of this country. Is that fair? Such disparity creates social unrest that endangers everyone, even the right wing populists. Joe the Plumber, in railing against “redistribution” has it wrong – redistribution will benefit him, not hurt him.

8. It is not un-American for me to disagree with authority or to share my personal opinion.

On your right to disagree “In a free and republican government, you cannot restrain the voice of the multitude; every man will speak as he thinks, or more properly without thinking.” George Washington

This quote also has no source, but is very popular among right wing populists. I find it utterly fascinating that this is one of Beck’s principles, because his followers are also the ones most likely to believe the slogan of “America, Love it or Leave It.” Or “Support Our Troops”. It is quite alright to disagree with authority for the right wing populists, as long as it is not the authority that they follow! Do progressives believe that it is un-American to disagree with authority? Most assuredly not – we disagree all the time. But we also disagree with the authority figures that the right wing populists cherish, which leads to much strife.

9. The government works for me. I do not answer to them, they answer to me.

Who works for whom? “I consider the people who constitute a society or a nation as the source of all authority in that nation.” Thomas Jefferson

This quote comes from a document entitled “Opinion on the French Treaties” dated April 28, 1793 which was written at the request of President George Washington and helped President Washington come to a conclusion of how to deal with the government of France, which was in some disarray, due to the French Revolution, which took place from 1789 to 1799. Again, a mis-placed quote or, at best, one taken very much out of context.

Taken at face value, this principle would allow a defendant accused of murder to tell the judge that since the judge worked for the defendant, the defendant was going to tell the judge just what the sentence was going to be. In fact, one of the ideas that finds great appeal among right wing populists is the idea of jury nullification. In a complex society such as ours, this approach won’t work. Are there injustices in the justice system? Yes. Will those injustices be addressed by simplistic answers such as stating that the government works for me? No.

I will sum up my thoughts on these principles at the end of this post. For now, let’s move on to the 912 Projects’ 12 values:

* Honesty

* Reverence

* Hope

* Thrift

* Humility

* Charity

* Sincerity

* Moderation

* Hard Work

* Courage

* Personal Responsibility

* Gratitude

I see no values here that a progressive would disagree with in any way. These are American values, not values that the right wing populists should be able to claim with exclusivity.

So how could progressives reach out to the right wing populists? For starters, I think it would be most helpful if we recognize that the core of the followers of the right wing populists (Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity, O’Reilly, and all the others) are authoritarians and need to be recognized as such. Read Bob Altemeyer’s works on authoritarianism to inform yourselves. Read Dave Neiwert’s blog for pointers on how to recognize authoritarians. Read Talk to Action for insights into the religious right. Read up on right wing populism. Above all, stop being sneering, dismissive, and contemptuous of those who follow the right wing populist prophets. We may feel quite smug right now, with Barack Obama in the White House, but I’ve seen calls for Sarah Palin and Ron Paul to be the nominees for President and Vice President in 2012. That must be what we should be focused on, not mocking Beck’s 912 Project.

The 912 Project adopts a simplistic approach to complex issues. Progressives need to do the same, because right wing populists are unable to grasp complex, nuanced arguments. Our approach needs to address, in a progressive fashion, the themes of American exceptionalism, religion, justice, and the role of authority in our lives. Right now, we are preaching to the choir and our arguments result in glazed eyes for those who follow the right wing populists. Instead of listening to us, they damn us as “liberals” and “elitists” and turn to the simple and patriotic themes endorsed by the right wing populists. We need to start speaking their language if we are to make any progress. Are you listening, Stephen?


Stephen Colbert and The 912 Project — 5 Comments

  1. Would you please expand on your comment about authoritarianism? I have never viewed America as an authoritarian society, is that naive or are we defining authoritarianism differently?

    • John,
      I didn’t say that American society is an authoritarian society; I said that many right wing populists are authoritarian. Expanding on my comment would be lengthy; I’d recommend that you follow the links in the post that lead to websites that discuss authoritarianism or explore the links in the sidebar under the category “Authoritarianism”. Bob Altemeyer is a very good place to start for a discussion of authoritarianism. You can also do a search of my blog using the search tool and entering the term “authoritarianism”.

  2. Good point. I’m willing to listen to them. I’ll try to be even better. The other day I turned on O’Reilly. I wanted to be open-minded. I thought he was okay. Last week one of my right-winger friends who preaches to me said, “You’re more Republican than you think.”–because I was willing to listen to his views and again, I admitted I agreed with some of what he said. I’m not out to fight for fighting’s sake. But the question is, how do we get them to listen to and respect us?


  3. I wanted to add that even though I referred to the “rubbish” that Beck and Limbaugh “spew” (because so much of what they say IS rubbish), what I really appreciated about your post is how you took the 9 principles and 12 values of the 912 Project one by one and thoughtfully considered them, rather than just summarily dismissing and mocking them, as so many progressives would. Dismissing and mocking are a lot easier to do than giving serious thought and consideration to something. I really appreciate the time and thought this took.

  4. “Progressives need to stop mocking and start listening.”

    Amen, Jeff. This is such a articulate, well-thought-out post. You expressed my feelings so well, and I thank you. Progressives really do need to recognize that all the mocking just antagonizes right-wing populists and plays right into the hands of people like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, only giving them fodder for the rubbish they spew.

    Wonderful post.

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