Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Old Whine In New Bottles

Digby reflects on the tea-baggers and their “revolutionary” movement.

Katie Couric sits down with a couple of teabaggers to find out what they really believe. And it turns out that they believe in individual liberty, fiscal responsibility, free markets, limited government, low taxes, a strong national defense and protecting our borders against the immigrant invasion. They think the government has usurped the constitution and see themselves as uber-patriots fulfilling the founders’ intent. They believe fervently in American exceptionalism and that the nation is under mortal threat from foreign enemies without and traitors within. They are divided on social issues but insist that they are irrelevant to their movement — they repeat Republican talking points verbatim but insist they are not Republicans. In other words they are standard issue conservative movement wingnuts without the cross.

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This is the right wing I grew up with — before the God Squad was recruited and turned the movement into the panty sniffing morals police. I know them very well. They are racists and conspiracy mongers and they have absolutely no business being anywhere near real power. The Big Money boyz know they have nothing to fear from them — indeed, they sponsor them. They are good Republicans even if they don’t know it.

As J. Patrick Coolican points out, this isn’t anything new. It’s the same old paranoia that pops up every twenty years or so.

Every few years, usually though not always during a Democratic administration, the movement reappears, with a similar set of grievances: The expansion of government is moving us toward socialism; there’s been a dangerous weakening of the national security apparatus but also, paradoxically, the threat of police state provisions at home; an alien subversive of nefarious intentions, composed of cosmopolitan elites and corrupt “one worlders” has infected the government.

In the 1950s, conservatives were angered when their champion, Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, was shoved aside by Republican elites in favor of the moderate Dwight Eisenhower.

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The most fitting parallel, however, may be the early 1960s, when right-wing activists believed the civil rights movement was the work of the Soviets and, as Ronald Reagan alleged, Medicare a push for socialized medicine.

“The tropes, the rhetoric, the cultural profile — there are profound similarities,” says Rick Perlstein, who has completed two books of a trilogy on the history of the conservative movement and is widely viewed by conservatives and liberals alike as its key chronicler.

Like President Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy was a “first” — the first Catholic president in a nation with a long history of anti-Catholic bigotry and conspiracy theories about powerful papists. Like Obama, Kennedy’s administration was staffed with Eastern elites from the best schools and largest corporations, all viewed warily by Sun Belt and rural Americans.

Another parallel, Olmsted says, the Tea Party movement is not unlike a right-wing activist group of the time, The John Birch Society. “The John Birch Society was extreme, but also connected to the Republican Party, and Republican politicians had to make a decision about whether they were with the movement,” she says.

Then there’s the paranoia: Before it was communist plots, now it is “death panels” and the belief that the administration is eager to seize guns.

Gun sales have skyrocketed since Obama’s election. In November 2008, FBI background checks for prospective gun buyers rose 41.6 percent compared with a year earlier, even though Democratic politicians have shown no interest in meaningful gun control in years and have blamed the issue for electoral losses in 1994 and 2000.

Even reasonable Tea Party activists, such as some from the recent Las Vegas event interviewed by the Sun, take it as given that Obama is a socialist. It hardly seems to matter that a significant chunk of the stimulus was a tax cut, or that his chief economist is centrist Larry Summers, or that the bailouts of the auto and banking industries began under President George W. Bush, or that Reagan favored the bailout of Chrysler in 1980, or that Reagan raised taxes to save Social Security.

Obama is a socialist, if he’s not a fascist, a Nazi, or a totalitarian.

I remember when I was in high school in the late 1960’s we had some family friends who were way over on the right wing — Barry Goldwater was a moderate to them — and there were a couple who kept guns in their house after the riots in 1967 because they were sure the blacks would come after them, all snug in their beds in the lily-white suburbs of Northwestern Ohio. I used to call the “Let Freedom Ring” recording of the local John Birch Society to giggle to their rants about the Commies and the Black Panthers who were corrupting all the “good Negroes.” I remember reading furious letters to the editor of The Blade because the University of Toledo was putting on a production of “Hair,” and it had nothing to do with the fact that it’s not really that good a show: it was about sex, drugs, rock and roll, naked people and homosexuals! They talked about voting for George Wallace but ended up going with Nixon and said the kids at Kent State got what they deserved. (They also had kids my age, and some of them ended up in rehab or running off to join a commune. Coincidence? Perhaps.)

When I was home last summer visiting my parents, we sat at a table next to some people at dinner who carried on in loud voices about how the country was going to hell in a handbasket, that minorities were taking over the country, and “that man in the White House” was going to destroy America. I think they were talking about FDR, but I couldn’t be sure.