I apologize in advance for the length of this post.
Earlier this week, Peashoot posted an interesting article by Vijay Prashad entitled “Tea Party and Taxes”. Prashad, using Richard Hofstadter’s influential “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” as a launching pad, asserts the Tea Party Movement represents a modern day equivalent – in origin and style – of the rise of Goldwater conservatism in the early 1960’s. Prashad endorses Hofstadter’s indictment of Goldwater conservatism as the germination of paranoid seeds of anti-communism, racism and a generalized aversion to government/taxes sowed by the likes of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the John Birch Society. He sees Sarah Palin and the Tea Party replacing Goldwater and the Birchers in the paranoid garden and presumably, though not directly stated, terrorism replacing communism. The dementias of anti-statism and racism retain their status in his analysis.
Hofstadter’s Theory on Goldwater
Hofstadter’s apriorism of a “paranoid style” is a valid conclusion. However, it is neither uniquely American nor solely a phenomenon of the right. In fairness, Hofstadter made no such claims, he merely sought to document the style in Goldwater’s rise to prominence. Being the President or a candidate for that office, regardless of political affiliation, inherently invites some percentage of the fringe viewing him (or her – someday) as a villian of cartoonish proportions; the old Snidely Whiplash cartoons wherein he nefariously twirls his moustache whilst devising villainous plots is a constant meme in American politics. The larger question at play with the paranoid sects is the amount of traction and credibility they gain with the electorate.
Hofstadter opines Goldwater’s nomination reflected the ascendancy of one of these sects into dominance of a major party; himself a self-professed communist, he may have been more sensitive to such a rise. Following closely on the heels of both McCarthy and the genesis of the John Birch Society, he concludes these hysterical anti-communist movements were the powers behind the throne of Goldwater conservatism. He was wrong both generally and factually.
The post-war era, fueled by fears of nuclear warfare, created rabid anti-communist sentiment throughout the country and in both political parties. The era’s politicians were united in their belief of an international communist menace. What distinguished Goldwater from his contemporaries was a greater willingness to confront the challenge, though everyone agreed it must be at least contained within its current borders. JFK famously moved to Nixon’s right in the 1960 campaign, first by proclaiming a “missle gap” existed between the US and USSR, which he promised to eliminate (the charge proved false). Kennedy further prodded Nixon’s flank by criticizing the administration’s failure to bolster and support the expatriated Cubans in their opposition to Castro. Nixon, unable to respond due to the secrecy of the planning, dismissed the idea publicly and tarnished his anti-communist credibility. The enterprise became the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion.
The debacle at the Bay of Pigs only furthered the Kennedy adminstration’s anti-communist zeal. RFK, at his brother’s behest, spearheaded Operation Mongoose which authorized CIA assassinations, sabotage and generalized subterfuge. The extent of these deeds shocked Lyndon Johnson when he assumed office after JFK’s death and he remarked to an aide, “we were running a damn Murder Incorporated, in the Carribean.” (Source for quote: Beschloss, Taking Charge). The Kennedy brothers also feared home-grown communists and authorized the FBI to wiretap Martin Luther King, Jr., whom they feared was either a communist or susceptible to Soviet influence. These facts go overlooked today, lost in the chimera of “Camelot”.
While McCarthy’s tactics had long been discredited by the 1960’s, the general fear of communism had not been allayed in the public. RFK worked on McCarthy’s committee and JFK was the only Democrat who did not vote to censure him and instead abstained. Anti-communist fervor reached an absurd peak with the Birchers who saw Soviet plotters everywhere, including in heros such as Gen. George Marshall, architect of the Marshall plan that saved Western Europe, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in World War II and former President.
The John Birch Society’s certifiably lunatic views justifiably concerned Goldwater who feared being tagged a member, if not leader, of their sect. In 1962, two years before the publication of Hoftstadter’s essay, Goldwater convened a secret meeting in Palm Beach with other members of the conservative intelligentsia to brainstorm about methods for discrediting the Society. William F. Buckley, Jr., present at the meeting and responsible for their ultimate plan, recounted the meeting in an essay published in Commentary magazine. http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewpdf.cfm?article_id=11248 The group implemented the strategy in mid-1962 with Goldwater publicly castigating the group, insisting “[w]e cannot allow the emblem of irresponsibility to attach to the conservative banner.” Hofstedter is guilty of either poor research or willful blindness to this fact which damages his thesis regarding Goldwater, though not the general contention of a “paranoid style”.
The charges of Goldwater as racist or willing to capatilize on the disharmony of the times are equally disingenuous. These charges stem solely from his no vote on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but ignore the broader history. He desegregated the Arizona National Guard two years before Truman desegregated the US armed forces, was a member of the Phoenix NAACP and Urban League since the 1950’s and participated in the desegregation of Phoenix lunch counters. As a statesman, he voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and 1960. His opposition to the 1964 Act stemmed from his belief that two provisions in it were unconstitutional and thereby voided the entire Act, which he otherwise supported. (He later confessed regretting this vote). His colleague, Senator Robert Byrd – a former KKK Grand Cyclops and co-author of the “reconciliation” process so much in the news today – unsuccessfully tried to filibuster the bill. Johnson, with epic duplicity, ran ads in the north highlighting his opponent’s vote on the Civil Rights Act and ads in the south emphasizing Goldwater’s desegregation credentials. In spite of this evidence, Goldwater’s alleged racism continues to be asserted and Byrd’s actual racism deemed irrelevant.
Prashad and the Paranoid Sect of the Tea Party
Prashad concedes the “main base” of the Tea Party movement coalesce around economic issues. Included within their ranks, however, he points out “birthers”, the radical religious right and racists. The “birthers” – an odious conspiratorial sect – remains statistically insignificant and the movement never gained any of the respectibility or numbers associated with the early version of the John Birch Society. They are also not exclusively right-wing. The “Original Birther” is Phillip Berg, a former deputy attorney general of Pennsylvania who filed suit in Federal Court seeking an injunction preventing Mr. Obama’s nomination as the Democratic candidate based on this nonsense. Berg, a Hillary supporter (though not endorsed by her) previously filed a RICO suit against President Bush alleging he orchestrated the 9/11 attacks and in 2000 actively sought the disbarment of the 5 Supreme Court Justices who ruled in in Mr. Bush’s favor regarding the contested election.
Prashad similarly links the “Obama as Muslim” with the Tea Party, but rumors persist the Clinton campaign first circulated the false story of the President receiving his early education in a madrassa during the heated primaries. Not having followed the Tea Party Convention, I confess that I learned of the presence of birthers from Prashad’s essay. What he left out, however, was that it wasn’t necessarily well received by the attendees (http://washingtonindependent.com/75949/birther-speaker-takes-heat-at-tea-party-convention ). That elements within the Tea Party, or anywhere else for that matter, continue to push these demonstrably false “issues” matters less than the fact that they gain no absorption into the public consciousness. Palin allegedly “hit the right notes” when she spoke and “pondered” whether “Obama is really an American.” If Palin embraced birtherism in her address (which I did not watch or read), the New York Times failed to report it. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/07/us/politics/08palin.html
Prashad spills less ink on Judge Roy Moore, the jurist who gained fame by putting a Ten Commandments Statue in his courtroom. While I remember that controversy, I did not remember his name until Prashad pointed him out. Again, since I do not closely follow the Tea Party movement, I must express surprise that this guy received an invitation to address a movement focused on issues of taxation, bailouts and entitlement programs. I’ll concede this point to Prashad and suggest he might be surprised to learn his ally in this arena is none other than Sen. Goldwater who once said (quoting from memory) that it was the duty of all good Christians to kick Jerry Falwell in the ass.
As usual, the charges of racism are the most incendiary aspect of the piece. Citing no direct evidence of racism at the convention, Prashad’s case is wholly circumstantial. He begins by alluding to the “strong antipathy to having a black man be President” amongst Republicans, yet cites no evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, to substantiate the claim. Overlooked is the GOP’s desperate groveling to Colin Powell to run against Clinton in 1996 (and again in 2000) and the dramatic drop in the President’s support among the independents who voted for him. He subsequently depicts “extreme Right” opposition to welfare programs which force “white Americans” to “pay for services of non-whites” as certification of his view that opposition to Health Care, Cap and Trade, bailouts and the stimulus derive from the same racial animus. This ignores the fact that most people on welfare are white.
Moreover, the argument is neither provable nor disprovable because it assumes the stated reason for voting against a social justice agenda is not the real reason. And since no one would publicly state a racial motivation, one cannot discern the merit of Prashad’s contention. Elements of the right use their own variant of this argument when they accuse Democrats of intending the creation of a socialist state, which they deny. As with Prashad’s charge, no Democrat would publicly admit such a basis for their proposals. Arguing in this style betrays a core a refusal to accept the other party is acting in good faith; it also allows the hurler of such a charge to walk away from the debate without having to deconstruct the other side’s case.
The first call for a “tea party” eminated not from any social entitlements but in opposition to corporate bailouts. Ironically, Prashad shares their disdain for corporate welfare. He then takes a bit of a snarky swipe at the very name “Tea Party” given that the original one in colonial Boston concerned taxation without representation not simply taxation. The Whiskey Rebellion, which concerned only taxation, might be more appropriate, though not as recognizable to the general public. But Prashad misses the fact that the “teabaggers” — as they are oft referred — feel unrepresented because legislators are simply ignoring the wishes of the electorate. Public support for the health care legislation has gradually eroded and this time the insurance and pharmaceutical companies can’t be wholly blamed since they largely endorse the bill they helped author. The buyout of recalcitrant legislators — the “Louisiana Purchase”, the “Cornhusker kickback” — along with specially tailored deals in exchange for support like the tax exemption for unions on the so-called Cadillac health care plans fuel a general distrust in the electorate. To be sure, the movement has attracted its fair share of kooks, but it remains, from what I see, a primarily economic movement opposed to corporate welfare and the expansion of entitlements it deems unsustainable – Friedrich Hayek on a more common-man scale.
Blast from the Past
Hofstadter, in a different discourse, once likened third parties in America to bees: they sting once and die. I hesitatingly use the word “platform” when describing the Tea Party’s tenets, but inasmuch as it has one it bears a striking resemblence to Ross Perot’s schtick in the 1992 Presidential campaign. The historical parallels are somewhat preternatural: recession grips the country, massive bailouts of financial institutions (the Savings & Loan industry in 1992), the controversial NAFTA proposal and the promises of then candidate Clinton to overhaul the nation’s health care system.
Perot sent shock waves through the political establishment of both parties. Shrewdly appearing on Larry King and advising America he’d run if people organized and got his name on the ballot in all 50 states, he set off a firestorm of grass roots activity which met his precondition for candidacy. He not only ran but actually led the race for a short time! He finished with a record percentage of the votes for a third party and arguably cost Pappy Bush the election. The Tea Party movement, to this observer, looks like the second sting of Ross Perot’s Reform Party. It also explains why the GOP is doing everything it can to bring it into the fold.
Prashad’s Advice for the President
The essay urges President Obama to ignore his detractors and resist the temptation of Clintonian triangulation. Prashad’s Wikipedia biography describes him as a Marxist, so presumably he sees a certain “social justice” element in the President’s agenda. The Goldwater quote he uses in his article (“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”) is actually only half of what Goldwater said at the convention. The complete quote is, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Prashad’s article champions the latter part of the quote as a template for the President’s strategy for dealing with his opponents.
Hofstadter’s essay is not solely applicable to politcs and can be used to analyze varying aspects of the human condition. The “paranoid style” is inherent to humanity, but only becomes dangerous when those in power discard rationality. The old cliche — just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you — seems true in the case of Soviet influence in American politics. Though certainly not on the scale that the Birchers or McCarthy imagined, recently disclosed documents since the fall of the Iron Curtain demonstrated greater infiltration into the US government than was previously believed. Finally, I noted in Prashad’s biography he identifies himself as an anti-Zionist; I’d suggest if he’s interested in documenting the “paranoid style” there could be no better place than to start with that group, of which he is a member.
The assinity of the “paranoid style” in both the left and right is something to be ferreted out and, quite frankly, destroyed. Whether it requires a coordinated, high-level campaign of destruction such as Goldwater convened to deal with the Birchers is something that must be decided on a case by case basis. Until then, centrists will simply have to stroll along singing the old Stealer’s Wheel tune:
Trying to make some sense of it all
But I can see that it makes no sense at all
Is it cool to go to sleep on the floor
‘Cause I don’t think I can take any more
Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you