In answer to the unspoken question What the hell can the Morons be thinking? this blog offers a pair of perspectives on the Moron mind. Michael Lindy [sic] hops on the Moron train (of thought) to nowhere and then Robert Brent Toplin calls upon St. Hofstadter to explain Moron madness. See the postscript for today's navigation hints. If this is a (fair & balanced) virtual field trip to the asylum, so be it.
P.S. Helpful hint from the blogger: click on the bracketed numbers below to hop from one item to another; click on "Back To Directory" to return to the starting point. Thanks be to Vannevar Bush for giving us the idea of hypertext.
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Tea Party Radicalism Is Misunderstood: Meet The “Newest Right”
By Michael Lind
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To judge from the commentary inspired by the shutdown, most progressives and centrists, and even many non-Tea Party conservatives, do not understand the radical force that has captured the Republican Party and paralyzed the federal government. Having grown up in what is rapidly becoming a Tea Party heartland–Texas–I think I do understand it. Allow me to clear away a few misconceptions about what really should be called, not the Tea Party Right, but the Newest Right.
The first misconception that is widespread in the commentariat is that the Newest Right can be thought of as being simply a group of “extremists” who happen to be further on the same political spectrum on which leftists, liberals, centrists and moderate conservatives find their places. But reducing politics to points on a single line is more confusing than enlightening. Most political movements result from the intersection of several axes—ideology, class, occupation, religion, ethnicity and region—of which abstract ideology is seldom the most important.
The second misconception is that the Newest Right or Tea Party Right is populist. The data, however, show that Tea Party activists and leaders on average are more affluent than the average American. The white working class often votes for the Newest Right, but then the white working class has voted for Republicans ever since Nixon. For all its Jacksonian populist rhetoric, the Newest Right is no more a rebellion of the white working class than was the original faux-populist Jacksonian movement, led by rich slaveowners like Andrew Jackson and agents of New York banks like Martin Van Buren.
The third misconception is that the Newest Right is irrational. The American center-left, whose white social base is among highly-educated, credentialed individuals like professors and professionals, repeatedly has committed political suicide by assuming that anyone who disagrees with its views is an ignorant “Neanderthal.” Progressive snobs to the contrary, the leaders of the Newest Right, including Harvard-educated Ted Cruz, like the leaders of any successful political movement, tend to be highly educated and well-off. The self-described members of the Tea Party tend to be more affluent and educated than the general public.
The Newest Right, then, cannot be explained in terms of abstract ideological extremism, working-class populism or ignorance and stupidity. What, then, is the Newest Right?
The Newest Right is the simply the old Jeffersonian-Jacksonian right, adopting new strategies in response to changed circumstances. While it has followers nationwide, its territorial bases are the South and the West, particularly the South, whose population dwarfs that of the Mountain and Prairie West. According to one study by scholars at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas:
While less than one in five (19.4%) minority non-Southerners and about 36% of Anglo non-Southerners report supporting the movement, almost half of white Southerners (47.1%) express support….
In fact, the role that anti-government sentiment in the South plays in Tea Party movement support is the strongest in our analysis.
The Tea Party right is not only disproportionately Southern but also disproportionately upscale. Its social base consists of what, in other countries, are called the “local notables”—provincial elites whose power and privileges are threatened from above by a stronger central government they do not control and from below by the local poor and the local working class.
Even though, like the Jacksonians and Confederates of the nineteenth century, they have allies in places like Wisconsin and Massachusetts, the dominant members of the Newest Right are white Southern local notables—the Big Mules, as the Southern populist Big Jim Folsom once described the lords of the local car dealership, country club and chamber of commerce. These are not the super-rich of Silicon Valley or Wall Street (although they have Wall Street allies). The Koch dynasty rooted in Texas notwithstanding, those who make up the backbone of the Newest Right are more likely to be millionaires than billionaires, more likely to run low-wage construction or auto supply businesses than multinational corporations. They are second-tier people on a national level but first-tier people in their states and counties and cities.
For nearly a century, from the end of Reconstruction, when white Southern terrorism drove federal troops out of the conquered South, until the Civil Rights Revolution, the South’s local notables maintained their control over a region of the U.S. larger than Western Europe by means of segregation, disenfranchisement, and bloc voting and the filibuster at the federal level. Segregation created a powerless black workforce and helped the South’s notables pit poor whites against poor blacks. The local notables also used literacy tests and other tricks to disenfranchise lower-income whites as well as blacks in the South, creating a distinctly upscale electorate. Finally, by voting as a unit in Congress and presidential elections, the “Solid South” sought to thwart any federal reforms that could undermine the power of Southern notables at the state, county and city level. When the Solid South failed, Southern senators made a specialty of the filibuster, the last defense of the embattled former Confederacy.
When the post-Civil War system broke down during the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, the South’s local notable class and its Northern and Western allies unexpectedly won a temporary three-decade reprieve, thanks to the “Reagan Democrats.” From the 1970s to the 2000s, white working-class voters alienated from the Democratic Party by civil rights and cultural liberalism made possible Republican presidential dominance from Reagan to George W. Bush and Republican dominance of Congress from 1994 to 2008. Because their politicians dominated the federal government much of the time, the conservative notables were less threatened by federal power, and some of them, like the second Bush, could even imagine a “governing conservatism” which, I have argued, sought to “Southernize” the entire U.S.
But then, by the 2000s, demography destroyed the temporary Nixon-to-Bush conservative majority (although conceivably it could enjoy an illusory Indian summer if Republicans pick up the Senate and retain the House in 2016). Absent ever-growing shares of the white vote, in the long run the Republican Party cannot win without attracting more black and Latino support.
That may well happen, in the long run. But right now most conservative white local notables in the South and elsewhere in the country don’t want black and Latino support. They would rather disenfranchise blacks and Latinos than compete for their votes. And they would rather dismantle the federal government than surrender their local power and privilege.
The political strategy of the Newest Right, then, is simply a new strategy for the very old, chiefly-Southern Jefferson-Jackson right. It is a perfectly rational strategy, given its goal: maximizing the political power and wealth of white local notables who find themselves living in states, and eventually a nation, with present or potential nonwhite majorities.
Although racial segregation can no longer be employed, the tool kit of the older Southern white right is pretty much the same as that of the Newest Right:
The Solid South. By means of partisan and racial gerrymandering—packing white liberal voters into conservative majority districts and ghettoizing black and Latino voters–Republicans in Texas and other Southern and Western states control the U.S. Congress, even though in the last election more Americans voted for Democrats than Republicans. The same undemocratic technique makes the South far more Republican in its political representation than it really is in terms of voters.
The Filibuster. By using a semi-filibuster to help shut down the government rather than implement Obamacare, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas is acting rationally on behalf of his constituency—the surburban and exurban white local notables of Texas and other states, whom the demagogic Senator seems to confuse with “the American people.” Newt Gingrich, another Southern conservative demagogue, pioneered the modern use of government shutdowns and debt-ceiling negotiations as supplements to the classic filibuster used by embattled white provincial elites who prefer to paralyze a federal government they cannot control.
Disenfranchisement. In state after state controlled by Republican governors and legislators, a fictitious epidemic of voter fraud is being used as an excuse for onerous voter registration requirements which have the effect, and the manifest purpose, of disenfranchising disproportionately poor blacks and Latinos. The upscale leaders of the Newest Right also tend to have be more supportive of mass immigration than their downscale populist supporters—on the condition, however, that “guest workers” and amnestied illegal immigrants not be allowed to vote or become citizens any time soon. In the twenty-first century, as in the twentieth and nineteenth, the Southern ideal is a society in which local white elites lord it over a largely-nonwhite population of poor workers who can’t vote.
Localization and privatization of federal programs. It is perfectly rational for the white local notables of the South and their allies in other regions to oppose universal, federal social programs, if they expect to lose control of the federal government to a new, largely-nonwhite national electoral majority.
Turning over federal programs to the states allows Southern states controlled by local conservative elites to make those programs less generous—thereby attracting investment to their states by national and global corporations seeking low wages.
Privatizing other federal programs allows affluent whites in the South and elsewhere to turn the welfare state into a private country club for those who can afford to pay the fees, with underfunded public clinics and emergency rooms for the lower orders. In the words of Mitt Romney: “We pick them up in an ambulance, and take them to the hospital, and give them care. And different states have different ways of providing for that care.”
When the election of Lincoln seemed to foreshadow a future national political majority based outside of the South, the local notables of the South tried to create a smaller system they could dominate by seceding from the U.S. That effort failed, after having killed more Americans than have been killed in all our foreign wars combined. However, during Reconstruction the Southern elite snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and succeeded in turning the South into a nation-within-a-nation within U.S. borders until the 1950s and 1960s.
Today the white notables of the South increasingly live in states like Texas, which already have nonwhite majorities. They fear that Obama’s election, like Lincoln’s, foreshadows the emergence of a new national majority coalition that excludes them and will act against their interest. Having been reduced to the status of members of a minority race, they fear they will next lose their status as members of the dominant local class.
While each of the Newest Right’s proposals and policies might be defended by libertarians or conservatives on other grounds, the package as a whole—from privatizing Social Security and Medicare to disenfranchising likely Democratic voters to opposing voting rights and citizenship for illegal immigrants to chopping federal programs into 50 state programs that can be controlled by right-wing state legislatures—represents a coherent and rational strategy for maximizing the relative power of provincial white elites at a time when their numbers are in decline and history has turned against them. They are not ignoramuses, any more than Jacksonian, Confederate and Dixiecrat elites were idiots. They know what they want and they have a plan to get it—which may be more than can be said for their opponents. Ω
[Michael Lind is Policy Director of the New America Foundation's Economic Growth Program and most recently the author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States (2012). Lind holds a B.A. from The University of Texas-Austin, an M.A. from Yale University, and a J.D. from The University of Texas-Austin.]
Copyright © 2013 Salon Media Group
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Even Richard Hofstadter Would Be Amazed By Tea Party Extremism
By Robert Brent Toplin
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Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when new forms of right-wing extremism began to make an impact in American life, historian Richard Hofstadter published essays that drew attention to the “symbolic aspect of politics.” Hofstadter acted in the fashion of an amateur psychologist, attempting to make sense of “non-rational” factors. His judgments about the mentality of leaders and followers on the right, based on emerging social science research of the time, were highly speculative. Nevertheless, some of his observations still excite interest. Historians and pundits often refer to Hofstadter’s ideas about the “paranoid style.” Much-overlooked, however, is a sub-theme in Hofstadter’s writing. That discussion focused on the emergence of “fundamentalism” in American politics. Individuals who seek a broader understanding of the present political standoff in Washington may find Hofstadter’s judgments thought-provoking.
Richard Hofstadter recognized that evangelical leaders were playing a significant role in right-wing movements of his time, but he noticed that a “fundamentalist” style of mind was not confined to matters of religious doctrine. It affected opinions about secular affairs, especially political battles. Hofstadter associated that mentality with a “Manichean and apocalyptic” mode of thought. He noticed that right-wing spokesmen applied the methods and messages of evangelical revivalists to U.S. politics. Agitated partisans on the right talked about epic clashes between good and evil, and they recommended extraordinary measures to resist liberalism. The American way of life was at stake, they argued. Compromise was unsatisfactory; the situation required militancy. Nothing but complete victory would do.
A related outlook has appeared in recent fights over the budget and the debt ceiling. These days, many Republicans claim the stakes in current political confrontations are huge. They say Obamacare will ruin the country. It represents another incursion of Big Government. Washington is the principal source of our economic problem; it needs major downsizing. Barack Obama, champion of Big Government, is a terrible president. We must oppose him vigorously to save the free and prosperous society we all cherish.
As many journalists have pointed out, these hyperbolic claims do not pass the reality test. They represent gross exaggerations. Furthermore, Obama and the Democrats are not going to undermine the president’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act. Additionally, journalists warn that Republican threats to take the nation to the brink may cause another gigantic financial crisis.
These critics understand that the current fight in Congress is not 100 percent about ideology. Many GOP representatives and senators fear that they will lose their seats in a primary election if they do not satisfy diehard conservatives, especially Tea Party enthusiasts at the grass roots. Journalists also recognize that some moderate Republicans are willing to support a clean Continuing Resolution. They would agree to end the government shutdown if Speaker John Boehner would allow the entire House to vote.
Republicans have split on questions about strategy, but they have not divided significantly on matters of ideology. Most of them remain solidly opposed to the Affordable Care Act. They have defended that stand as a highly principled position. Representative Steven King, Republican from Iowa, asserted that Republicans were on the correct track “because we’re right, simply because were right.” Congressman, John Culberson, Republican of Texas, said he was holding firm in demanding major adjustments to Obamacare because he had been elected to defend “core principles.”
Culberson could just as well have said he was defending core beliefs, for that is an essential element in radically conservative politics today. With religious-like intensity, many in the GOP express their political faith. On economic questions, they view government as far too large, costly and encroaching in the lives of Americans. Important questions about the potential of government to advance the society’s goals receive scant attention in conservative rhetoric and in right-oriented media. Often conservatives couch negative judgments about government with fundamentalist-style certitude.
Obviously, political fundamentalism is not the exclusive outlook of partisans on the right. All political groups have the potential to act like True Believers. Liberals, too, often close their thoughts to contrary opinions. In the years since Richard Hofstadter’s death in 1970, however, many observers of American politics have noted that resemblances to fundamentalist religion appear especially in the thinking and behavior of militant conservatives.
In What’s the Matter With Kansas? (2004) Thomas Frank observed that, “Conservatives often speak of a conversion experience, a quasi-religious revelation.” Frank noticed that right-wing militants often try to “excommunicate” individuals in their movement who seem guilty of “this or that bit of heresy or thought-error.” Michael Lind, who worked inside the conservative movement before abandoning it, pointed out in 1996 that “American conservatives have adopted free-market fundamentalism, in its crudest forms, as their political religion.” In a similar way in 2004 Robert Reich detected a fundamentalist mentality in arguments about the economy. Conservatives believe “the free market has the same intoxicating quality that religion has to born-again Christians,” observed Reich. “Facts aren’t especially relevant. The perfection of the market has to be accepted as a matter of faith.”
These judgments do not imply criticism of pious Americans. “Faith” is a respected personal choice in matters of religion. But when a fundamentalist perspective applies to politics, compromise becomes extremely difficult. Political notions take on the character of orthodoxy -- of accepted and unquestioned truths. Supporters of the faith often fail to exhibit the kind of critical and open-minded mentality that that is essential for the working of a vibrant and effective democracy.
The scholarship on fundamentalist religious thought has produced findings that seem relevant to present-day U.S. politics (and relevant to observations Richard Hofstadter made years ago). In major studies that examine diverse groups, including Christians, Jews and Muslims, Martin E. Marty, R. Scott Appleby, Gabriel Almond, and Karen Armstrong have discovered patterns that cut across groups. Fundamentalists often project a dualistic, Manichaean viewpoint. Judging disagreements in apocalyptic terms, fundamentalists characterize societal issues as vital struggles between the forces of light and darkness. Champions of a fundamentalist perspective call for uncompromising commitment to the faith.
These writers examined religious views, not political ones, yet a reading of important recent scholarship on conservatism suggests connections. In It’s Even Worse Than It Looks (2012), Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein largely blame Republicans for dysfunction in Washington. The GOP has become “ideologically extreme,” they conclude, disregarding “conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science..." In Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party (2012), Geoffrey Kabaservice shows how champions of extreme conservatism squeezed out defenders of a more responsible and balanced kind. His book traces a rich American tradition of moderate conservatism. Unfortunately, the current GOP has lost sight of that tradition. “Political movements based on dogmatic, unthinking certitude may be fatal to treasured American values,” argues Kabaservice.
George M. Marsden, a prominent historian of fundamentalist religious movements in the United States, offered an “offhand” definition of a fundamentalist as “an evangelical who is angry about something.” A related political outlook in U.S. politics appeared in a poll by the Pew Research Center released in late September, 2013. The 41 percent of Republicans who said they were “angry” at the government was a far higher percentage than anger expressed by any other political or ideological group tested. A news story about the poll in the Washington Post concluded that the Republican base is “mad as hell at the federal government and by extension Barack Obama.” The article reported that angry citizens are eager to march, give money, and vote.
Here, then, is the significant marriage between practical politics and a fundamentalist-style political religion. Republican intransigence in clashes over Obamacare, budgets, and debt ceilings may reflect smart politics from the radical Right’s point of view. Militant conservatives in Washington can succeed in channeling the base’s anger while also boosting their political careers. They treat political fights in Washington like holy crusades and are generously rewarded for their militancy in conservative voting districts.
Ultras of the right may eventually fold in their battle against Obama and the Affordable Care Act, but their fundamentalist approach to politics is likely to remain an important characteristic of national politics. It will remain difficult to achieve progress when one party is especially influenced by leaders and supporters who treat compromise as an abandonment of core principles and who judge issues in the manner of a political faith. The nation’s leaders may find ways to squirm out the current crisis, but they will face continued challenges as long as a religion-like approach to conservatism remains prominent in Washington.
If Richard Hofstadter were alive today, he would probably be amazed to see that the fundamentalist style exhibited by a relatively small minority in the 1950s and 1960s has become a major force in the nation’s politics. Ω
[Robert Brent Toplin is a professor of history, emeritus who taught at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He has published several books on history, politics, and film, and he operates a website, www.politicsoftheusa.com. His film-related books include Oliver Stone’s USA: Film, History, and Controversy (2000), Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood (2002), and History By Hollywood (2010). Toplin received a B.S. from Pennsylvania State University and both an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Rutgers University.
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