Tag Archives: Religious Right

The Tea Party may not be what you think

A review of Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party, by Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

If you know nothing about the Tea Party other than what you’ve picked up from the daily news and a magazine article here and there, chances are excellent that you’ll learn a great deal from reading Steep. Here are just a few of the insights I gained from this superb collection of scholarly articles that examine the Tea Party from the front, the back, upside down, and sideways:

  • There is, really, no such thing as “The Tea Party.” The term encompasses thousands of organizations at the national, statewide, and local levels that at any given time may well be found squabbling with one another about ideology, tactics, or just plain personality differences. I knew about the proliferation of groups but not about the diversity of views among them.
  • The Tea Party phenomenon first surfaced less than a month after Barack Obama’s inauguration as President in 2009 — yes, less than four years ago — as what one scholar calls a “test marketing” campaign backed by money from the Koch Brothers and mainstream Republican operatives such as former Congressman Dick Armey, which we all knew very well at the time. However, the movement spawned by this intentional investment in destabilizing the fledgling Obama Administration grew so quickly and with such spontaneity that its original backers soon lost control. Whatever else it might be, the Tea Party is a grassroots phenomenon.
  • Unlike the Christian Right before it, the Tea Party brought few new voters into the Republican column. As several of the authors in Steep make clear from their studies of a wide variety of poll results, the Tea Party is populated largely by Right-Wing Republicans who usually vote, anyway. (They also tend to be white males at or nearing retirement age.) The Tea Party brought passion to the Republican grassroots base, providing the necessary motivation to draw more foot-soldiers to the conservative cause.
  • The old John Birch Society, which we all thought had gone the way of the Cult of Isis in the 1960s after William F. Buckley, Jr. consigned it to purgatory, somehow managed to resuscitate itself and become engaged in Tea Party activities. So did former leaders of the White Citizens Councils, the militia movement, and other assorted cranks, kooks, and eccentrics and the delusions they brought with them. Since nearly one-half (44%) of Tea Party adherents professed to believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim and was not born in the United States, using the term delusional is not out of line.

The most intriguing chapter in Steep is University of Michigan political science and women’s studies professor Lisa Disch’s, in which she “advances a counterintuitive argument: The Tea Party movement is sparked, in part, by the threat its supporters perceive to their share in two key programs of the liberal welfare state [i.e., Social Security and Medicare]. Tea Party politics is conservative, but its supporters’ material commitments and even aspects of their rhetoric place them in a liberal genealogy.” Disch argues that, during its first two decades, Social Security was explicitly racialized — farmworkers and domestic workers were specifically excluded from benefits (and guess who they meant by that!) — and that for decades afterward Social Security was seen as largely a benefit to white people, even after the coverage was broadened. “This makes Tea Party mobilization a ‘white citizenship’ movement: action in defense of material benefits that confer ‘racial standing’ in a polity that purports to deny precisely that — special standing based on race . . .  [T]he Tea Party movement belongs to liberal America even as Tea Party rhetoric denounces liberalism and liberals denounce Tea Partiers.”

Since I’m not bound by the strictures of academic “objectivity” (whatever that is), I can sum up all this information with my own conclusion: The Tea Party is the latest and the most extreme expression of the Right-Wing Republican movement that has been growing since its inception in the 1940s and 1950s in McCarthyite anti-Communism, the John Birch Society, and Southern opposition to civil rights, and in the backlash to the New Left, feminism, and the anti-war movement. Though the Tea Party is heterogeneous in many ways, and its focus nationally has been on advancing the Republican agenda of small government and rolling back taxes, the overwhelming majority of its adherents also embrace the social politics of the Christian Right (anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-women’s rights) and the suppressed but all too real racial resentment that has been the centerpiece of the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy since the days of Richard Nixon.  

As I write this, however, I wonder whether anyone but historians and political scientists will care much about the Tea Party five years, or even a year, from now. It remains to be seen what impact the Republican losses of 2012 will have on the spirit and the cohesion of the Tea Party.

Steep is a product of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California’s flagship campus, edited by Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost, the Center’s director and associate director, respectively. More power to them!

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Plumbing the depths of Republican pathology

A review of Republican Gomorra: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party, by Max Blumenthal

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Not a day goes by that national news reports don’t prominently feature the “Tea Party,” the creation of former Republican Congressioinal leader Dick Armey and the wealthy Right-Wing donors behind him. Those of us who disagree with the fundamental tenets of this made-to-order “grassroots movement” — and that’s a huge majority of the American people — tend to gnash our teeth, roll our eyes, and perform other uncomfortable physical acts whenever we learn about some new outrage from this motley collection of dopes and lunatics.

It wasn’t always so, though. Remember the “Religious Right?”

Barely two years ago a young, award-winning journalist and blogger named Max Blumenthal — son of Sidney Blumenthal, late of the Clinton White House — published an examination of this earlier incarnation of Republican extremism. His book, Republican Gomorra, was a New York Times bestseller and was warmly welcomed by readers who had scratched their heads in consternation over the peculiar beliefs and irrational antics of this seemingly all-powerful movement as it moved to gain dominance in the Republican Party. Blumenthal’s psychosocial analysis, grounded in the work of Erich Fromm, delves deeply into the psyches of many of the movement’s leaders, most notably James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Rick Warren (yes, the Rick Warren who gave the invocation at Barack Obama’s inauguration). .

Now, don’t make the mistake of confusing the Religious Right with the Tea Party, which are uncomfortable bedfellows and mutually inconsistent in many key ways. For example, it was Dobson and his allies who were behind the ouster of Dick Armey from his leadership post on Capitol Hill, finding that the Congressman, whose priorities revolve around federal spending, was not sufficiently supportive of the social agenda of the Religious Right.

Blumenthal, bowing to Erich Fromm, likens the Religious Right to the authoritarian movements that seized control in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. Dissecting the ideology and public practices of this allegedly “Christian” movement (which is hardly Christian in any meaningful way, so far as I can see), Blumenthal finds that its beliefs boil down to beating children into submission when young so that they will be obedient followers of the movement’s father figures as they get older. Not surprisingly, as Fromm so convincingly showed, this practice leads to numerous pathologies. It helps to explain why the Republican Party has been upended by so many lurid sex scandals in recent years. And if you think for one minute that this analysis is exaggerated, check out Dobson’s books (Dare to Discipline, The Strong-Willed Child).

This is a lively and fascinating book based on five years of interviews with the luminaries of the Religious Right, and it’s worth reading today despite the fact that its narrative ends with the election of Barack Obama. The Religious Right may no longer hog the headlines, but there’s no mistaking its continuing hold on so many of the levers of power.

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Filed under History, Nonfiction