While the official Tea Party estimates of Saturday's rally attendance may range between a gajillion and the fafillion, the company CBS hired to give an estimate placed the turnout at a respectably large 87,000, larger than the official estimates of turnout last year's 9/12 rally but no where near the estimated 1.8 million that attended President Obama's inauguration.
The number of people who showed up for Glenn Beck's rally was also considerably smaller than the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom, at which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have A Dream" speech and which Beck self-consciously styled his "restoring honor" event after, to the irritation of many liberals. The 1963 march drew about 200,000 people, according to contemporary estimates. The crowd then was considerably more diverse, had a leftist economic agenda and was organized by admitted socialists who palled around with a number of other lefty types who likely would have ended up on Beck's chalkboard back in the day. That crowd also was produced without the kind of financial support provided by Freedomworks and Americans for Prosperity, and at a time when long-distance communication tools were considerably more limited.
In fact, given the money and technology available to Beck, it feels like there should be a way to adjust for inflation when it comes to historical comparisons of crowd sizes. Imagine what King, the black church and labor movement could have done if they'd had access to the Internet and a television network.
The Million Man March in 1995, the last big event that similarly mixed a sort of vague spirituality with political criticism of the then-Republican majority's congressional agenda, drew about 450,000 people, according to the lowest estimates. Louis Farrakhan's relative obscurity other than as a right-wing bogeyman may also be instructive for liberals looking for some historical perspective. Ten years after positioning himself as the de-facto leader of black America, he was pretty much a non-factor politically.
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All of which invites the question of why liberals wrung their hands so publicly over Beck's spectacle, as though this even might actually dwarf the 1963 March on Washington in terms of historical and political significance. At this point, it's obvious that Beck's stunts have a self-conscious hint of irony to them. His increasingly messianic self-conception and his outsize comparisons between himself and important American historical figures seem deliberately designed to make liberals issue angry public denunciations, which only increase his profile and solidify his stature in the conservative movement, where angering liberals is actually more important than anything else. He's figured out how this hustle works. What I don't understand is why liberals keep indulging him with their outrage.
Beck's inversion of history, by which a people demanding more supply-side tax cuts and a conservative takeover of Congress become the civil rights activists of their time, is too patently absurd to take seriously. The historical context of the 1963 march, the size of the crowd, and MLK's avowedly leftist social and economic politics make an enduring association between that event and this one impossible. The only people who should be genuinely angry about Beck's event are the conservatives who have apparently decided to take the comparison to heart.
Democrats are going to get shellacked in November because of the unemployment rate, not because Beck is leading a new civil rights movement for white people who don't want to see the marginal tax rate for people making more than $250,000 a year go any higher. Given the economic misery most Americans are feeling, it's probably a testament to the enduring mistrust people have for Republicans that Beck, even with the help of the conservative movement's biggest star, couldn't draw a bigger crowd.