With all the talk about Rick Perlstein’s new book, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, it got me looking for some lectures by him that I could listen to while I made dinner. And I came upon this conference at Berkeley he was part of back in 2010. His talk is called, “The Tea Parties Now.” I’ve embedded it below and it is well worth listening to the whole thing. But a couple of things stuck out to me.
Left vs Right Wing Reactions
Perhaps the biggest thing was the idea that government authorities have generally been concerned about left wing movements but only in an indirect way. The concern is that left wing movements might cause a right wing backlash that would be hard to control. To some extent, I think this is just a convenient excuse for people who always want the status quo, no matter what it is at any time. And so these people have come up with this as a reason to justify suppressing entirely reasonable and nonviolent left wing movements. But I don’t think that’s all.
For a long time, I’ve been worried about the right wing gun movement. I don’t mean to be cute, but as a movement, it has a hair trigger. It is a revolutionary movement. And it could go off over the slightest of things. And we saw a bit of this recently at the Bundy Ranch. Now, it’s also true that I think these people are mostly chick hawks. But things could easily and quickly get out of hand. And this is more generally true of right wing movements like the Tea Party. These are people who all convinced (as they have been for at least the last six years) that communism is coming to America any day now.
I know the caricature of the left wing revolutionary. But these are all based on teenage hippies from the sixties. Kids do stupid things all the time. In general, although the (far) left is in a state of constant disappointment, we see the erosion of our preferred country as a gradual thing. For example, in 2012, we didn’t think that if Romney became president it would mean the end of freedom in America, even though what he planned to do was far more radical than anything Obama ever even mentioned. Those on the far right see catastrophe just around the corner, so it isn’t hard to imagine them reacting quickly and violently to actual liberal policy suggestions, much less implementations.
What Is the Tea Party?
The other thing he had to say that stuck out was what I thought was a pretty good description of what the Tea Party is all about. In the talk, he discusses how similar the movement is to the John Birch Society of the 1950s and 1960s. I’ve long noticed this. I first noticed it when I started hearing Tea Party folks talking about the dangers of fluoridated water. What’s wacky about this is that this interest was at the start of the Tea Party movement, but it was what got the John Birch Society thrown out of the mainstream conservative movement in the 1960s. It was brilliantly lampooned in Dr Strangelove:
So this is always what I most associate the Tea Party with. And it is certainly true that most of their concerns are no more reasonable than those of Brigadier General Jack Ripper. But Perlstein gets at the same thing in a more (but not completely) serious way:
Jefferson Cowie in another great book, Stayin’ Alive, talks about the characteristic note of country music as a paradoxical combination of rebellion and patriotic nationalism. “The state is his enemy, the nation his mystical identity.” So if I can do a recitation [of] “God Bless the USA,” which I think has had just a extraordinary life—a country song by Lee Greenwood that I’m sure everyone would know the words to at any Tea Party anywhere in America.
And I had to start again with just my children and my wife
I’d thank my lucky stars to be living here today
Because the flag still stands for freedom and they can’t take that away
And I’m proud to be an American where as least I know I’m free
[Won’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me]
And I’d gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today
‘Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land God bless the USA
The storyline is basically, “Yes, in America, you—interpolated as the white male patriarch—can be dispossessed of your livelihood at any time. And that’s fate! That’s just it, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But at least, like W E B Du Bois talked about the psychic wage of whiteness that white southerners had that at least they weren’t black, there’s this psychic wage patriotism—that this is still the best possible country no matter what, because one can remain free even after one’s boss fires you without cause—fires you for starting a union—and takes away all the things that you’ve worked for all your life. There is nothing in the mystically true America that can hold you back from deliverance. But America is polluted by its internal enemies. And that sounds like a Tea Partier to me.
I’d go further. That sounds like just about any conservative to me. Remember just five days after 9/11, Andrew Sullivan writing, “The middle part of the country—the great red zone that voted for Bush—is clearly ready for war. The decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead—and may well mount a fifth column.” And that’s from an Obama voter: an extremely moderate conservative.
There’s an obvious retort to this: but liberals think that conservatives want to destroy the country! That’s not really true. Liberals think that conservatives will destroy the country. We think that conservative middle class voters manage to vote against their economic interest in the name of social issues that don’t really matter and dog whistle politics that they aren’t even aware of. And we think they are led by politicians who are even more cynical than our own and who are incompetent. We also think they are revolutionaries, who have a mythical view of America that never actually existed and cannot become a reality. But we don’t think conservatives want to destroy the country—just that they will if given a chance.
Watch the whole thing. I’ve cued it to the start of his talk: