18 June 2010

Pitchfork Populism : What Damage Will The Tea Baggers Do?

Photo from jkurt58 / Photobucket.

What will they do to America?
Right wing populism and the Tea Baggers

By Sherman DeBrosse / The Rag Blog / June 18, 2010

Maybe the great body of Tea Baggers cannot be reached, but we must answer their charges in hopes of contributing to an eventual paradigm shift for some of them. Only disconcerting facts or personal experiences lead people to change mindsets.

Many of us are tired of reading and writing about the Tea Baggers, but a few facts will help us to understand why we need to keep studying them.

Half of the unaffiliated voters in the United States say they are closer to the Tea Bag movement than to anyone else. This movement has the potential to recreate the situation after 9/11, when the political middle shrank dramatically. This time, there is the possibility that the near disappearance of the middle will greatly benefit the right. Third, Noam Chomsky, one of our brightest progressive scholars, warns that the present level of anger in politics arouses legitimate fear that fascism could emerge here

When the Tea Baggers appeared, they very briefly seemed a little like real economic populists as they were raising hell about what the Wall Street speculators did to our economy and financial system. But they soon forgot about the bankers and focused on punishing those who voted for the TARP and upon “taking back our country.”

A Republican pundit tried to paint the Tea Baggers as playing a role similar to that of the hippie counterculture radicals of the 1960s. But the young rebels of that time read some good journalism and often had a serious theoretical critique of the system. And they had ethical grounding that came from their roots in the civil rights movement. The Tea Baggers might be like Wall Mart hippies in that they do not see through the establishment’s propaganda machine; rather they soaked up much of what it had to say.

Pitchfork Populism

Time used the term “pitchfork populism” to describe the Tea Party movement. That is a reference to the Southern Populists of the late 19th Century, one of whose leaders was called “Pitchfork Ben.” That movement, starting out as the Farmers or Southern Alliance, had genuine economic grievances against the banks and railroads. There was a brief moment when some of those deeply frustrated white farmers allied with African-American share-croppers. After all they were all in the same boat. The Southern establishment eventually co-opted the white farmers by getting them excited about preventing blacks from voting and enacting Jim Crow legislation.

Some of these people were not nice, God-fearing farmers who were somehow misled. More than a few spent years in paramilitary anti-black movements and were deeply hostile to Catholics and Jews. There is a parallel here with some of the extreme right militia groups that constitute one of the two nuclei of the Tea Baggers. (The other nucleus is libertarianism, which is far less important in Teabaggism than some suppose.)

What the Southern Bourbons accomplished over some time in the 1890s occurred among the Tea Baggers in a matter of months. People who started out as would-be populists soon became spear carriers for the Southern Establishment, and some of them fought strenuously to uphold every aspect of the southern conservative canon. They became political fundamentalists.

Similarly, the Tea Baggers briefly showed a flash of economic populism when they complained about Wall Street, the insurance companies, and the pharmaceutical companies. In less than a few months, they were denouncing efforts to regulate business or the banks, and were running cover for people like Mitch McConnell, who on behalf of the banks and speculators, watered down financial reform. Like the Southern Populists, these people became preoccupied with race.

Their talk about “taking back government” seems to be about race and resenting the poor. They oppose big government but cannot define what that means other than being against taxes and programs that assist “people who don’t want to work.”

Pitchfork populists at 2009 Chicago tea party. Photo from Marathon Pundit.

Extreme right-wing populism
Ratcheted up to a dangerous level?

These are hard times, and people whose incomes and security are threatened sometimes grasp at straws. Most Tea Baggers appear to have jobs and some savings, but they seem to be worried about their 401ks, mortgages under water, whether their pensions will be cut, and whether their Medicaid benefits will be cut to provide medical coverage for over 30 million more people.

For more than three decades the income of the middle class has been shrinking. Few reasonable people can deny this or argue that this will change soon. Even the slightest knowledge of what happened in 2007 and 2008 would prompt the expectation that things are likely to get a lot worse for the middle class. Some people -- perhaps even a majority -- just cannot live with that kind of knowledge. Their solution is to resort to hysterics, anger, threatening behavior, and simplistic thinking.


This writer and others have worked within the framework that classifies Teabaggism as the most extreme form of right-wing populism. Some, following Daniel J. Goldhagen, call it “ Eliminationism” because these extremists react so harshly against pluralism and people who are culturally and racially different from them. Granted, what we observe here is what might be a relatively mild form of eliminationism. None of them are talking about camps or Nuremberg laws.

Tea Baggism = Political fundamentalism

On the other hand, this model may be flawed. For one thing, the Republicans have had over three decades to ramp up right-wing populism. One can doubt that there were that many more conservative religious and rural folk out there to enlist in these ranks. What is happening now is that large numbers who were formerly not affiliated have flooded into Tea Bagger ranks. They are not, for the most part, people who think mainly about such hot button issues as abortion and stem cell research. Perhaps something else is going on.

It is very difficult to draw a clear line between the two phenomena, and they sometimes merge. Many of the Tea Baggers clearly have roots in right-wing populism and the Christian Right. Today, the Tea Baggers share characteristics with right-wing populists, and there are elements of overlap. Sometimes we find in the Tea Baggers an admixture of conventional religious thought. The political fundamentalist tends toward dogmatic attitudes, violence -- at least verbally, and a refusal to accept challenges to the conservative elements of the conventional wisdom. The inclination toward dogmatic attitudes does not include carefully stated policies.

When one studies the European right-wing authoritarian movements of the 1930s, right-wing populism was there, but over time it diminished and became political fundamentalism with an inclination toward accepting authoritarianism. Political fundamentalism was at the core of those movements. It was larger and more fanatical and dangerous. Tea Baggism is essentially a version of “political fundamentalism. ” There is a strong urge to shut down one’s critical processes and hang on desperately to some elements of conservative conventional wisdom. They offer ready-made answers and are embedded in our culture and sold to us daily by mainstream media and culture. What is happening is that frightened people are simply reverting to “default” positions and clinging to them for dear life. They try very hard to convince others perhaps because they want to be convinced themselves.

A blinkered view of reality is reassuring and comforting. Political fundamentalism thrives on simplicities and simplifications. There is such a thing as “protective stupidity” which more than a few need in order to be comfortable with their lives and it is likely that conservative strategists know how to feed it. The only antidote is continual reality therapy, and it may not work quickly.

Right-wing populists are mainly concerned with cultural and values questions. Aside from the matter of race, these hot button values are often of secondary importance to political fundamentalists. People in both movements seem to have problems with race, but it is a much more central to the American political fundamentalist.

Most American populists -- right or left -- believe in the democratic process. No matter what the Tea Baggers say, their actions show that they are perfectly willing to do permanent harm to that process by disrupting rallies, displaying weapons to intimidate people, threatening opponents, and demanding that their elected officials do all they can to shut down the legislative process. Some even spat on Congressmen and called them vile names.

Populists differ from political fundamentalists in another important way. Back in the 1930s, the followers of Huey Long and Father Charles Caughlin embraced some very unorthodox monetary theories. It is difficult to imagine the political fundamentalists flirting with fiscal heterodoxy for very long. We have already seen how they have taken up arms to defend big business and the Wall Street bankers sand speculators from government regulation.

The Kingfish: Former Louisiana governor Huey Long. Photo from News Real Blog.

Political fundamentalism is a barometer of crisis

The more people who are in turmoil and crisis, the more political fundamentalism there will be.

Even before 2001, there were conditions present that encouraged political fundamentalism. Many people could not deal with a diverse, urban society and the anomie that went with it. Truth seemed harder to establish, and many simply could not deal with the relativity of truth. They hankered for absolute certainties, and were unable to compartmentalize things in their own minds. People were less connected to others than before, and people were so absorbed multitasking that they had little opportunity to develop rich inner lives, without which there can be nothing but selfishness, fear of others, and a lack of empathy.

Then came the terrible events of 9/11, creating a siege atmosphere that began to move many Americans toward political fundamentalism, and the George W. Bush administration did all it could to produce this result -- recklessly insinuating that anyone who disagreed with it was an ally of Al Qaeda. Thus, Max Cleland, a U.S. Senator from Georgia who lost three limbs in service to his country, was turned out of office because he was said to be insufficiently patriotic. He was replaced by someone who had not worn the uniform. The onset of a near depression and the near destruction of our financial system in 2008 greatly exacerbated the crisis atmosphere.

Why some are more prone to political fundamentalism

Recently, Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weller noted that many Americans have a great need for order and certainty and cannot deal with ambiguities. People who find reality difficult to tolerate have a deep need to find simple and certain explanations. They develop an aversion to unbiased information. They also need scapegoats, such as blacks, Hispanics, Moslems, liberals, and homosexuals. These are authoritarian tendencies, so using the imagery of the Boston Tea Party and griping about government in general terms does not make one anti-authoritarian.

Sixty years ago, Konrad Lorenz, a brilliant scientist whose politics we rightly deplore, knew that there were many people who were naturally fearful and given to simple solutions. These people had problems facing unpleasant realities and reverted to the sunny promises offered by conventional wisdom. In a crisis, these people become politically activated and embrace political fundamentalism. This is why people in Europe moved to the right when struck with inflation and the great depression. To go the other way would require the ability to accept reality, question accepted wisdom, eschew simple answers, and abandon core beliefs of a lifetime.

When confronted with a crisis, it is so much easier to accept a simple framework that explains “everything” quickly; it is much like a religious conversion. Tea Bag ideas transform some of these people from feeling helpless and victimized to feeling empowered. Attending Tea Bagger meetings for them can be cathartic and deeply therapeutic. Many of their converts are political neophytes for whom this is not so much a political rebirth as a political birth.

Political fundamentalism is a somewhat new ideology and a metaphor for dogmatic solutions that are like panaceas. It offers black-and-white, simple answers that do not require careful thought, weighing of evidence, or compartmentalizing things.

Teabagging became a sort of hysteria that seems to be easily moved from target to target by those who have subtly directed it. At first these people thought they were victims of the banks and Big Pharma. In no time flat, they were fierce defenders of those in Congress who do the most for the banks and Big Pharma. Tea Baggers even denounced Senator Scott Brown when he did not back Republican efforts to defend Wall Street by blocking financial reform.

This transformation would be amusing if it were not such a tragedy. But in all these cases, they moved naturally from brief complaints about banks, speculators, or Big Pharma to dogmatic adherence to what they think are American “givens” -- opposing meddling government and regulations that could harm banks and business. They are back to the old idea that so-called free markets solve all problems. It was this outlook that nearly brought on a depression and the destruction of the financial system.

It is astonishing to watch the growing number of Americans who share this sentiment as hostility to regulation and the health care legislation continue to grow. Apparently, Americans are so stressed now that many naturally revert to some degree or other to the verities that we have long been fed by our culture, the mass media, and the Republican information machine.

Certainty resides to the right

Tea Bag sentiment, of necessity, tends to the right and to authoritarian positions. Perhaps they are first aroused by the misbehavior of the banks, but in the long run their quest for certainty and simple answers leads them to what they think are American fundamentals. In 2004, some of these people were deeply offended that anyone could suggest that Americans were actually torturing detainees. Once it became clear that this was the case, political fundamentalists quickly moved toward approving the torture. It was a matter of Americans versus “Others.” Some mistakenly think the Tea Baggers are essentially libertarians. A few are, like Rand Paul, but most are not libertarians. Most of them do not complain about the surveillance state and agree with Texas Senator John Cornyn, who ridicules people who worry about civil liberties: “None of your civil liberties matter after you are dead.”

Probably not one Tea Bagger in a thousand will see the inconsistency in Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s and Sarah Palin’s conduct. For a long time, Jindal said the federal government should stay out of our lives, but now it must build sand barriers and compensate fishermen. Sarah Palin sang the same song about less government and is now all over President Barack Obama because he has not figured out how to shut down the well in the Gulf or found a way to scoop up millions of gallons of oil heading toward marshes and beaches.

Paul has talked about a planned 10-lane highway -- coupled with a pipeline and rail line -- that will soon link Mexico. the U.S. and Canada -- as part of NAFTA. He says there might also be a common currency. Wild stuff!

Now Rand Paul, perhaps the nation’s leading Tea Bagger, denounced Obama for criticizing BP; Paul says criticizing business is “un-American.” Maybe he forgot that the original Tea Baggers -- those angry folks in Boston back in 1773 -- were reacting against a monopoly given to a business, the East India Company. In Colorado, Dan Maes, a Tea Bagger-backed candidate for Governor, is saying Coloradans should “beg forgiveness from the energy industry that Bill Ritter chased out of this state.”

Sharron Angle, the Tea Bagger nominated to oppose Harry Reid, calls for abolition of Social Security, and the 16th Amendment. Will senior citizen Tea Baggers in Nevada become rational enough to realize she wants to stop their monthly checks? Time will tell.

One truly zany Tea Bagger, Tim D’ Annunzio, was not nominated for a North Carolina congressional seat. According to his estranged wife, he thinks he is the Messiah and tried to raise his father-in-law from the dead. He wants to abolish 11 cabinet departments.

We may be certain that the folks at FAUX News and the big conservative think tanks, as well as Richard Armey, Mrs. Clarence Thomas, and the small army of cable and radio shock jocks are pleased with their work and laughing about how these little people are so easily manipulated. Hysteria is one of the characteristics of such movements, and it is easy for skilled propagandists to use it to political advantage.

Interviews with ordinary Tea Baggers have been published in several places. One of the most interesting phenomena that recur is that so many of these people say that the economy went bad after Barack Obama took office. They have the chronology of events completely wrong and they refuse to acknowledge that Obama had a role in preventing another depression. Some -- though a smaller number -- insist that Obama and the Democrats initiated TARP.

Chip Berlet, an expert on right-wing populism, says this movement has the force of a tornado, but he adds, “Its unpredictable. It can blow away in 10 seconds, or it can blow society up.” This applies even more to political fundamentalism. Right-wing populism these days has greater staying power because it has been so well cultivated and has deep roots in culture and religion. Political populism will develop staying power if progressives delay taking it on with civility and reason. It is dangerous to let these ideas take root and fester because the false historical memory the movement promotes will become part of the collective memory and be reinforced by intense emotion.

[Sherman DeBrosse is a regular contributor to The Rag Blog. A retired history professor, he also blogs at Sherm Says and on DailyKos.]

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