14 September 2010

Sherman DeBrosse : Tea Baggers, Nativism, and the Fall Elections

Cartoon from the book Heroes of the Fiery Cross (1928) by nativist Branford Clarke that opposed immigration and promoted the Ku Klux Klan. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

An open letter to E.J. Dionne
concerning Tea Baggers, nativism,
and the possibility of reasoned discussion...

By Sherman DeBrosse / The Rag Blog / September 14, 2010

[The following is an open letter to E.J. Dionne, written in response to his column, "It's Not Over Till it's Over," published in the Washington Post and distributed by Truthout, in which Dionne suggested that Obama's recent comments and tone -- starting with his Labor Day speech -- have raised the stakes in this fall's elections, and that the presumption of a massive Republican sweep may be overstated.

Dionne referred to
"a deeply embedded media narrative that sees a Republican triumph as all but inevitable." "Paradoxically," he added, "such extravagant expectations may be the GOP's biggest problem -- by raising the bar for what will constitute success." Dionne also suggested that "the costs of tea party extremism are beginning to balance the benefits of the movement’s energy."]

I'm asking you to put on your academician's tam for a moment.

Your column on President Obama’s counterattack was excellent. The only antidote to Tea Bagger hysteria is reasoned discussion.

Unlike some, I do not apply Anthony Wallace's "revitalization movements" theory to all sorts of things, and I do not subscribe to the various stages people write about. However, the Tea Baggers do seem very much like the Ghost Dancers of the late 19th Century.

Millennialism movements have been important in our history and the Revitalization Movement, as a subset, is particularly important. This one is very significant due to its size and the speed with which it surfaced. Revitalization movements can also be labeled political fundamentalism because those within it have the attitude of survivors, reverting to unquestionable truths and withdrawing into a protective mental cocoon that usually cannot be penetrated by reason.

Revitalization movements emerge when there is intense societal stress and people seek fundamental changes in society because they feel threatened and deprived. In this case there are multiple overlapping crises: economic, socio/cultural, and terroristic, and nativism -- fear of the "Other" -- is at the center.

That is why Islamophobia has become so important lately. That has something to do with Obama as symbol of the "Other." This explains why educated people can be sure Obama is a Muslim -- above all the fear presented by growing numbers of non-whites and the presence of an African American in the White House. These folks think their social identity is threatened.

I'm not sure it is all about "jobs, jobs, jobs." These people have better than average incomes and educations and are disproportionately older. Tea Bag Republicans fear that health care reform will threaten their Medicare benefits. That is why Democrats must stress over and over again that they added years to Medicare's viability.

These people are better fixed than most but they fear future economic privation, and they need to be reminded that the biggest threat to their Social Security and Medicare is presented by Republicans. Reason might penetrate a few.

The common thread seems to be nativism. In the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680, the Pueblos killed 400 Franciscans and Spaniards. Nativism was also the center of the Handsome Lake cult and the Ghost Dancers. Today's Tea Baggers are in a literal frenzy to purge their world of "foreign influences."

Foreign or "Other" means the hippies of the Sixties, the newly assertive gays, people of different colors, and above all blacks and Hispanics. Obama has become the symbol of all that they fear, and to them, it is reasonable to think he was born in Africa, is sympathetic to the goals of terrorists (as 52% of Republicans believe) and that he is a Muslim.

The Bush administration successfully separated anti-terrorism from perception of Islam. A measure of how far the revitalization movement has gone can be seen in the nationwide protests about putting a useful Islamic Center in a bad neighborhood, two blocks away from Ground Zero. The center could not even be seen from that hallowed site.

People like Newt Gingrich previously refrained from identifying Islam with terrorism; now they conflate them because that will add some Republican votes in November. In order to lock down a huge November victory, these Republican hate-mongers are willing to stoke Islamophobia, which leads to the endangerment of American troops and the recruitment of terrorists.

During the Bush years, anti-Muslim sentiment was rife among conservatives, but muted because none of them wanted to damage Bush's foreign policy. There was even a very ugly intra-conservative campaign against Grovner Norquist because he married a Muslim and brought some Muslim leaders to the White House.

On the other hand, the conservative press cranked out pseudoscholarly volumes about "Islamofascism" -- whatever that is. But with Bush out of the White House, there was no longer any reason to tone down the prejudice and hatred of Islam. Newt Gingrich is now sounding off about "Islamic triumphalism" and relating the 51st Street Islamic Center to that.

In addition, Gingrich is telling people that to understand Obama, it is necessary to see the president fundamentally as a Kenyan militant. The former Speaker is not a birther, but he is saying that Obama is very OTHER and not to be trusted, especially by our allies, the former imperial powers.

This is irresponsible and reckless behavior. Gingrich is a seasoned politician holding a Ph.D. He did not stumble into this nonsense. He made the deliberate calculation that political fundamentalism and the revitalization movement would still be powerful in 2012.

Usually one charismatic leader is needed in a revitalization movement. But with mass communications, the Tea Bag movement can move ahead without one central figure. This movement has a number of effective demagogic leaders, including Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh. Gingrich has some of the makings of an effective rabblerouser, but his need to show that he is smart gets in the way.

Another characteristic of the movement is its unitary nature. These people are insisting on a new orthodoxy and would install a thought policeman in everyone's head if they could. It is important that they think they are getting back to real Americanism, even though their leaders seem to have embraced the political heresies that led the South to secession.

It is common for people in these movements to fear the state, and the nature of their rhetoric preconditions people to violence. However, there are so many people sharing this spirit that it is unlikely that much violence will occur. They perceive their prospects of ultimate success as good, so violence is pointless.

Revitalization movements can be political without being religious, but the umbrella of religion adds authority. Hence Glenn Beck moved belatedly to give himself religious credentials and sought to add a religious canopy to his movement at Lincoln Memorial.

Psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich saw an intense strain of political fundamentalism in the Germany of the 1930s. He attributed it to repressive parents and sexual frustrations. Konrad Lorenz, a Nazi sympathizer who later won a Nobel Prize in genetics, never got beyond thinking that many -- probably most people -- are just emotionally wired to accept such appeals. At bottom, most people fear death and also cannot deal with severe crises, they need to live in a world of illusions and fear the conclusions reason might present.

Many times when there have been Democratic presidents, well-financed movements sprung up to oppose them. The American Liberty League opposed FDR with libertarianism and lavish spending, but it was relatively small. The John Birch Society was somewhat larger and used libertarianism and outrageous conspiracy theories to go after John F. Kennedy. The arguments of the League and the Birchers could be met and defeated in the public arena.

Ronald Reagan transformed the media environment in many ways, making possible the eventual triumph of the Right. When Ronald Reagan’s FCC appointees ended the fairness doctrine, they handed the Right a weapon so powerful that it could be used to transform American politics.

Conservative talk shows will always far outdraw liberal ones because they play to basic emotions. The arguments they make are very simple and do not rely upon facts or complicated reasoning. Countering the arguments made on right wing media is a little like the man who tries to gather feathers from a pillow which has been cut open so the contents are spread to the four winds.

Bill Clinton faced the Arkansas Project, a very well financed and organized effort that questioned his legitimacy and spun endless conspiracy theories around the false claim that Clinton had Vince Foster killed.

Today’s Tea Baggers are far more numerous and better financed and organized than their predecessors. They subscribe to selective libertarianism, almost all the odd rightist conspiracy theories of the past, but draw their enormous energy from fear and hatred of the "Other." With FOX News -- which just gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association -- and the many shock jocks promoting the Tea Bag wing of the Republican Party, it is no wonder it has taken over the Republican Party and the conservative movement. There are no Bill Buckleys to push back.

It is unclear just how Tea Baggism came about. Perhaps its origins were in those Sarah Palin political meetings that looked so much like Klan rallies. Scholars claim these movements do not last long, but they wrote the same thing about right-wing populism, which has lasted more than 30 years and is a permanent force in our national life.

Maybe it was ginned up by super-bright academicians in conservative think tanks. That cannot be proven. It is clear that conservative consultants understand far more about the non-rational and cognitive science than progressives.

Through reason, Obama and the Democrats can reactivate some progressive voters. IF the spell of the Tea Baggers is to be broken, the Democrats must take a chance on discussing the issues and shattering illusions that make people feel good about themselves and their future.

[Sherman DeBrosse is a retired history professor. He also blogs at Sherm Says and on DailyKos.]

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