Does the right have a future?

April 27, 2010

The Tea Party isn't a "third force" in American politics. It's not much of a force at all.

ONE OF the more unfortunate things about the media obsession with the so-called Tea Party movement has been its impact in shaking the confidence of people on the left. Case in point: Noam Chomsky, probably the left's leading intellectual.

In an interview with's Chris Hedges, Chomsky compared the atmosphere in the U.S. today to that of the Weimar Republic in Germany before Adolf Hitler took power:

I have never seen anything like this in my lifetime. I am old enough to remember the 1930s. My whole family was unemployed. There were far more desperate conditions than today. But it was hopeful. People had hope...There is nothing like that now. The mood of the country is frightening. The level of anger, frustration and hatred of institutions is not organized in a constructive way. It is going off into self-destructive fantasies.

Like Chomsky, many on the left have seen in the Tea Partiers an incipient American fascism.

There's no doubt that elements of the U.S. far right, such as the Oath Keepers and militias, have reconstituted themselves on the fringes of Tea Party organizations. But the core of the "movement" is Republican "base" voters, organized through conservative networks, with encouragement from Republican operatives and the GOP's media wing, Fox News.

For months, the mainstream media allowed the Tea Partiers to get away with its populist charade as "ordinary folks" rising up against a "government takeover" of the U.S. health care system. But one consequence of the Democrats' passage of health care reform has been a media reassessment of the Tea Partiers. As the Tea Partiers started looking like the "losers" on health care reform, the media have cast a more skeptical eye in their direction.

Major news and research organizations, from the New York Times to the Pew Center for People and the Press, have produced detailed profiles of the Tea Partiers. These show consistently that self-identified Tea Partiers are older, wealthier, whiter, more conservative and more Republican than the population as a whole.

They are not a "third force" in American politics. And their numbers are much exaggerated. As Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith, writing in the Politico, noted:

In Washington, about 10,000 people showed up on the national Mall [for April 15 Tax Day protests]--a rally worth covering, but far fewer than the tens of thousands who marched in support of immigration reform in March.

Tea Partiers rally in Boston at the close of the Tea Party Express tour
Tea Partiers rally in Boston at the close of the Tea Party Express tour (Jonathan Hinkle)

THE REPUBLICANS may be able to leverage Tea Party support in the 2010 midterm elections--where, traditionally, low turnout magnifies the impact of riled-up minorities. But conservatives shouldn't bank on the Tea Party to provide them with another generation of support for pro-business policies like the New Right of the 1970s did.

In her 2009 book Invisible Hands, Kim Phillips-Fein reconstructs the emergence of that New Right as the culmination of a decade-long "businessmen's crusade against the New Deal." She notes three factors that came together to produce a broader base for pro-business, right-wing politics in the 1970s.

First, the end of the postwar economic boom produced three major recessions in the period of 1974 to 1982. At the time, the reigning Keynesian orthodoxy collapsed, and free-market ideas that had been discredited since the Great Depression began to win a new hearing.

Second, an upsurge of religious sentiment--particularly centered in conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant denominations--swept the country in the 1970s.

Third, the conservative backlash against the civil rights, antiwar and other popular movements of the 1960s became the way for the right to oppose the social gains accomplished by those struggles by casting themselves as opponents of "big government," which was seen as siding with Blacks, women, welfare recipients and so on.

These social factors made it possible for right-wing pro-business politicians and activists to pose as "populist" opponents of the "liberal elite," rather than be seen as water carriers for big business. Right-winger Patrick Buchanan understood this when he wrote in 1977, "If there is any political future for us, it is forfeit, so long as we let ourselves be perceived as the obedient foot soldiers of the Fortune 500."

Another leader of the New Right of the 1970s and 1980s, Paul Weyrich, explained its strategy: "We talk about issues that people care about, like gun control, abortion, taxes and crime. Yes, they're emotional issues, but that's better than talking about capital formation."

Flash forward to today. If we can accept the mounting evidence from serious efforts to find out just who the Tea Partiers are, and what they believe, it should be clear that they represent the generation of the New Right of the 1970s and 1980s that is now middle-aged or senior citizens.

But it's worth noting that the three factors Phillips-Fein stressed in explaining the emergence of the "populist" economic right of the 1970s don't exist today. In fact, social trends point in the opposite direction.

First, the current economic crisis is a crisis of conservative orthodoxy. Political leaders have had to dust off Keynesian policies to address them.

Second, opinion polls have demonstrated pretty consistently over the last decade that the fastest-growing group in the religious firmament is actually the non-religious and non-churchgoing. That's perhaps one reason why even the Tea Partiers haven't really foregrounded conservative social issues like opposition to LGBT rights.

When Weyrich talked about the "issues people care about," he was talking about ways that traditional pro-business, blueblood conservatives could broaden their appeal by couching their ideology through hot-button social issues. Today, opposition to LGBT or women's rights appeals to a dwindling minority of the population.

Finally, the "white backlash" that figures like George Wallace, Pat Buchanan and Ronald Reagan rode for decades has less purchase today than it did 30 years ago. Playing to a white backlash in a country where the president is Black and where, according to Census Bureau projections, the majority of people will be non-white in a little more than 30 years is no way to build a lasting political coalition.

Even African American Republican Party chair Michael Steele, had to concede recently: "For the last 40-plus years, we had a 'Southern Strategy' that alienated many minority voters by focusing on the white male vote in the South. Well, guess what happened in 1992, folks--'Bubba' went back home to the Democratic Party and voted for Bill Clinton."

There are still more than six months to go before the November midterm elections. Opinion polls predict a Republican comeback from two landslide defeats in the last two national votes, but even if the GOP does well, that's no reason for the left to succumb to fears that the U.S. has become Weimar Germany.

Still, demography is not destiny. Support for conservatism won't just die of old age. If the left wants to assure that the Tea Partiers and their right-wing friends are tossed into history's dustbin, we have to organize a movement that will channel ordinary people's anger and frustrations against big business and for social progress.

Otherwise, the fake populism of millionaires can carry the day by default.

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