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Change They Can't Believe In
The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America
By Christopher S. Parker, Matt A. Barreto
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 2013 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Toward a Theory of the Tea Party
We opened the book with a comparison of two Tea Party meetings. There were vast differences between the meeting held in Oregon and the one convened in Idaho. The gathering in Oregon was, at its core, about some basic conservative principles: small government and fiscal responsibility. The one in Idaho appeared to be little more than an expression of intolerance and bigotry in which President Obama was painted as an alien of some kind. As we mentioned, these currents have been part of the American social and political milieu from the beginning. Indeed, we freely acknowledge that a commitment to conservative principles may well be associated with sympathy for the Tea Party. Similarly, we think it likely that hostility (resentment, anger), largely based on intolerant attitudes though not exclusively so, also motivates people to support the Tea Party. Still, we think there's room for an alternative understanding of Tea Party support, one that stands analytically apart from politics and racism, though for all practical purposes may be related to both.
We have two objectives in the present chapter. First, we outline a theory of why people support the Tea Party. We argue that one of the reasons why some folks are sympathetic to the goals and objectives of the Tea Party rests upon their discomfort with Barack Obama as the president. Before going any further, we wish to make it clear that the president isn't the only reason why people support the Tea Party. In fact, in chapter 2, we show that many other factors push people to support, if not necessarily join, the Tea Party movement. Our point is simply that in addition to ideology and, say, partisanship, the fear and anger associated with the presidency of Barack Obama is an additional factor. We argue that similar to the Klan, who believed that Jews, Catholics, and blacks threatened to subvert the America to which they had become accustomed, and the John Birch Society, who worried about communists destroying their country, so, too, is this the case with the Tea Party and Obama.
In fact, this is a consistent theme at Tea Party rallies and on Tea Party websites, with signs depicting Obama and proclaiming, "Socialism is not an American value," and bumper stickers reading, "Al-Qaeda wants to destroy America—Obama is beating them to it!" In short, we entertain the possibility that he represents a threat to the America they've come to know, in which American identity is commensurate with being white, male, native-born, English-speaking, Christian, and heterosexual. Ultimately, we draw on social psychology to illustrate why President Obama is believed to be an agent of change in which neither the Tea Party nor its supporters can believe.
Using the Tea Party as an example, we ask the following: Are right-wing movements merely conservative? In other words, are they about maintaining order and stability while allowing at least incremental change as a means of avoiding revolutionary change? Or are they radical, even extreme reactions to change of some kind in which the preferred course of action isn't the status quo but regression to the past? Our second objective in this chapter is to test an oft-made claim of the Tea Party and their sympathizers: that they're simply conservative, nothing more. The Tea Party's rhetoric suggests otherwise. Many years ago, long before the rise of the Tea Party, Richard Hofstadter, drawing on the work of Theodor Adorno and his colleagues, pointedly charged that right-wing movements were "pseudoconservative." We take this to mean that they used conservative rhetoric as a means of pursuing nonconservative ends, ones at odds with timeless conservative principles such as order and stability, among others.
Hofstadter went on to argue that a telltale sign of pseudoconservatism is reliance on conspiratorial discourse in which the "enemy" is out to destroy society. This is fairly close to our claim that the Tea Party represents a reaction to the election of Barack Obama and the perceived threats of the policies he seeks to implement. We entertain the possibility that the fear and anxiety associated with Obama's presidency generates a paranoia that is easily observed through the conspiratorial discourse employed by Tea Party activists, something we investigate in some detail below.
Drawing on content analysis of elite discourse, and a survey-based experiment, we conduct a preliminary test of these alternative points of view in this chapter. In short, if the Tea Party and its supporters are conservative, we should see no difference between what they say and believe and what conservatives say and believe. If, however, we observe a marked difference between the groups, it suggests that conservative journalists, such as Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker, are correct for worrying about the ways in which the Tea Party may be damaging the conservative brand. Indeed, if her observation that "the behavior of certain Republicans who call themselves Tea Party conservatives makes them out to be the most destructive posse of misguided 'patriots' we've seen in recent memory" represents the sentiments associated with mainstream conservatives, we should witness discernible differences between Tea Party conservatives and conservatives that remain unsympathetic to the movement. After comparing the discourse of Tea Party activist-elites to conservative elites, we find no support for the proposition that the Tea Party adheres to more mainstream conservative principles. This general conclusion is reinforced among the masses, where Tea Party conservatives are far more likely than more mainstream conservatives to believe that the president of the United States is out to "destroy the country."
But before we take a stab at explaining our version of why people support the Tea Party, and subjecting it to preliminary tests, we first need to prepare the way by placing the Tea Party movement in historical context. This serves at least two purposes. First, it demonstrates that the emergence of the Tea Party as a right-wing, reactionary movement is nothing new. Second, drawing on the two most influential right-wing movements of the twentieth century, the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the John Birch Society, provides the grist for a much-needed analytical framework on which to base our appraisal of the Tea Party movement and its supporters. To the extent that right-wing movements are, at least in part, fueled by conspiracy theories, we stress the emphasis that the Klan and the JBS placed upon perceived subversion of some kind. As suggested by the late conservative political theorist Clinton Rossiter, such paranoia is indicative of the reactionary tendencies of right-wing movements, impulses driven by the inability of some people to accept the reality of social change. These are people who long for a bygone era in which American society, in some way or another, was better, and who refuse to accept the social and economic changes that have been essential to American progress.
Right-Wing Movements in the Twentieth Century
Leaving aside for the moment the social and demographic factors that motivate involvement in political participation of any kind, including age, education, and income, most of the scholarly work on right-wing movements boils down to anxiety associated with change of some kind as the principal ingredient, one that pushes people to join such movements. More pointedly, right-wing movements are driven by a reaction to what is perceived as threatening change, a sentiment captured by Hofstadter, who said that members of the "right wing ... [feel as though] America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion." For this reason, right-wing movements are, to borrow a term from Lipset and Raab, "preservatist" in that they seek to "narrow the lines of power and privilege." Right-wing movements are often mobilized by conflicts in which fundamental values are at stake—ones, as history suggests, bounded by perceptions of what Americans should believe, how Americans should behave, and how, phenotypically, Americans should look. Right-wing movements and their supporters are committed to the preservation of these ideals.
Anxiety associated with perceived change was clearly manifest in the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, the largest and most influential of the Klan's three incarnations. William Simmons of Stone Mountain, Georgia, founded the Second Klan in 1915. Members of the Invisible Empire, an alternative moniker by which the Klan was known, were relatively well educated, held relatively high occupational-status jobs, tended to be family men, and were native-born. In fact, at least one person referred to Klan members as "if not the 'best people' at least the next best ... the good, solid middle-class citizens." Unlike its late-nineteenth-century predecessor or the mid-twentieth-century version that succeeded it, the Second Klan was truly a national movement. At its zenith in the mid-1920s, it boasted a membership of one to five million and had spread to all forty-eight states. (Alaska and Hawaii both joined the Union in 1959.) The Second Klan claimed to represent "pure Americanism, patriotism, old-time religion, and morality."
According to its worldview, threats to these values had cropped up everywhere, coming particularly from blacks, Jews, women, and Catholics. World War I had transformed blacks into the "New Negro," more race-conscious and therefore more assertive than ever. Blacks—especially veterans—refused to "stay in their place" after the war, and the fact that black soldiers had been intimate with French women didn't help matters. Black migration to southern cities, and to places beyond the South threatened white dominance. So called "race mixing" posed another threat to it. Ultimately, Klan members feared black mobility, black assertiveness, and interracial relationships would topple white supremacy.
The Klan also feared Jews and Catholics. Klan members ascribed all sorts of nefarious motives and actions to Jews. First and foremost, Jews served as scapegoats for the vicissitudes of capitalism. They were accused of putting profit before anything else, including the country, as well as cheating "hardworking" Americans. The Klan charged that Jews limited the economic opportunities available to Christians, and were taking over America through their dominance in the financial sector. For their part, Catholics were feared not for their religious practices, but for their allegiance to the Old Country, particularly to the pope. The Klan imagined the possibility of papal influence in American politics, arguing that the pope wanted to play a role in American politics. Believing that Catholics voted in accordance with the wishes of the Vatican, the Klan held Catholicism to be anti-Democratic, at odds with political freedom. It didn't help matters much that Jews and Catholics hung on to Old World habits, established foreign-language newspapers, and were perceived to support what many thought were corrupt political machines.
Klan members were also concerned about maintaining their economic position. Concentration of capital in the hands of industrialists from above and the increasing power of labor from below frightened Klan members who were, by and large, drawn from small business and skilled labor. Those who were members of the skilled-labor class worried about decreasing demand for their skills due to mechanization, and the small-business class grew nervous over competition with large chain stores capable of taking over market share even at a distance from their central hubs in the big cities.
Like political competition, economic competition became intertwined with nativism, insofar as the new wave of immigrants didn't speak much English and tended to retain traditions from the Old Country. Jews, as we have already mentioned, represented the scourge of capitalism and big chain stores. Ethnic and religious economic threats from above and below prevented serious class divisions from taking place among Klan members, who rallied around their identity as white native-born Protestants. Still, even as the bulk of Klan members were squeezed between capital and labor, many of them held fast to the tenets of economic individualism and the sanctity of private property, both of which were seen as part of the great American tradition.
Finally, the Klan appointed itself a moral police force. To the extent that drinking affected a man's family and his ability to show up to work every day, and was linked to ethnicity (i.e., immigrants), the Klan tried to curb this type of vice. Members similarly policed the sexuality of females in their respective families. Male family members were charged with maintaining family honor, a significant portion of which rested upon the sexual conduct of the family's women. In short, for the Klan of the 1920s, men were responsible for maintaining the integrity of the family name.
Some thirty years later, the John Birch Society (JBS), another national mass movement, resisted the erosion of what members held to be society's most sacred values. Named in honor of an American missionary murdered by Chinese communists in the days following World War II, the organization was founded by retired candy manufacturer Robert Welch in 1958. At its height, the John Birch Society boasted a membership of eighty thousand and had four to six million sympathizers. In the mid-1960s, the JBS spread from coast-to-coast, divided into approximately five thousand local chapters. Its members and sympathizers were firmly middle-class. Approximately 33 percent of JBS activists had completed college, and almost two-thirds had attended some college, versus 10 percent and 12 percent, respectively, among the general public. Occupationally, only 14 percent of JBS members were classified as manual laborers versus 49 percent of the general public, and approximately 51 percent were forty years of age or older.
Welch preached small government, but it was his insistence upon the existence of a vast communist conspiracy that brought him the most notoriety. He believed the federal government was full of communist agents who were actively attempting to subvert the American people and their way of life. Almost no one was spared being tarred with the JBS brush, including sitting president and war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower, and every justice on the Supreme Court. Welch accused the president of treasonous behavior based in part on Eisenhower's decision to settle for peace instead of victory in Korea. He charged the court, and Chief Justice Earl Warren in particular, with treasonous activity, mostly because of how it ruled in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed segregation in public schools. Welch argued that the court had sided with the communists because the civil rights movement was nothing more than a communist plot to sow dissent in America.
Beyond serving as an ideological competitor to Western emphasis on the free market, communism did a lot of work for the JBS. Many right-wingers, including Welch and his followers, labeled as "communist" any values and policies with which they disagreed. During the heyday of the JBS, right-wingers lay the blame for moral decay, the rising crime rate, pornography, lack of respect for authority, and the avoidance of individual responsibility at the feet of communism. These were said to be un-American, as were social welfare policies that aimed to ameliorate the underlying conditions that produced poverty and racial injustice. Communism became the proxy with which middle-class, suburban, relatively educated whites on the right attacked the move away from traditional American values toward new lifestyles and distributions of prestige. In sum, for "Birchers," communism threatened to subvert American economic, political, and social life.
Excerpted from Change They Can't Believe In by Christopher S. Parker, Matt A. Barreto. Copyright © 2013 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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