CALLING THE SHOTS…. A couple of weeks ago, Media Matters had a good piece, noting the ways in which a certain self-described rodeo clown influenced political news coverage: “It used to be common knowledge that Matt Drudge ruled the media’s world. These days, Drudge must be jealous. If the past few months have shown us anything, it’s that Drudge’s position as the media’s assignment editor is now filled by Fox News’ Glenn Beck.”

But it’s not just major news outlets. In Salon today, Gabriel Winant and Tim Bella put together a very interesting report noting the influence Beck has over Republican Party priorities and talking points.

Something strange has happened to rank-and-file Republicans since President Obama took office. These past few months, standard-issue gray lawmakers have sounded like fire-and-brimstone demagogues. Conspiracy theories and over-the-top legislation to fix imaginary wrongs are flying wildly around formerly mainstream GOP circles.

It turns out that like so much of what ails the world today, this can be traced back to Glenn Beck. Some fifth-term Iowa senator might be railing against death panels, but it’s really Beck’s voice you’re hearing. With his show on Fox News, Beck has successfully positioned himself as the weirdo right’s ambassador-at-large to the rest of the world. When the patron saint of the Tea Parties lets his freak flag fly, seemingly normal right-wing functionaries have been known to line up and salute. Republicans parrot Beck’s crackpot notions and pet issues routinely — sometimes running with his manias the morning after he first airs them. […]

Beck is more than a harmless — if deranged — entertainer. His ability to push the GOP from rhetoric to action means he can inject toxic ideas and fears directly into the body politic.

It’s surprisingly common given Beck’s instability. The Fox News personality complains about so-called “czars,” and soon after, Republican officials are deeply concerned about the issue. Beck decides he doesn’t like Cass Sunstein, so Republicans decide to slow down Sunstein’s nomination. Beck is bothered by the president encouraging kids to do well in school, so Republicans start complaining about the president encouraging kids to do well in school.

The Democratic Strategist noted that pieces like these should matter to conservatives who deny that Fox News personalities have real influence in Republican circles: “If conservatives want to dismiss Beck as nothing more than an entertainer with no practical impact on politics, they might want to tell their pols to stop dancing to his loony tunes.”

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.