June 27, 2010


The Two Faces of the Tea Party: Rick Santelli, Glenn Beck, and the future of the populist insurgency. (Matthew Continetti, June 28, 2010, Weekly Standard)

As a student in the exciting new field of Tea Party Studies, I’ve noticed that no one agrees on what the Tea Party actually is. Is the anti-Obama, anti-big government movement simply AstroTurf fabricated by Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks? Is it a bunch of Birthers, Birchers, conspiracists, and white power misfits? Is it a strictly economic phenomenon—the inevitable result of high and persistent unemployment? Or are the Tea Partiers nothing more than indulgent Boomers who combine 1960s social libertarianism with 1980s laissez-faire economics? Does the Tea Party draw on longstanding American constitutional, political, and economic traditions, eddies of thought that one can trace back to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson? Or is it of a more recent vintage: Are the Tea Partiers simply the same folks who once were called Reagan Democrats and Perotistas?

All of the above. [...]

But there are also signs that the Tea Party is in the middle of a tumultuous adolescence. Its activists haven’t had much to say, for example, on the topic of the big banks. A recent Washington Post poll showed it losing support. Divisions between Tea Party factions split the conservative vote in GOP primaries in Nevada and Virginia, and threaten the unity of purpose that marks successful activist campaigns. The Tea Party may have guaranteed that Marco Rubio will be the GOP Senate nominee in Florida, but there is a chance that Charlie Crist’s independent campaign will make this a Pyrrhic victory. There is the palpable anxiety among sympathizers that if the Tea Party did gain power, it would be unable to shape its diverse sentiments into a programmatic agenda.

Most important, Tea Party rhetoric has become a double-edged sword. Some of the movement’s ideas are simply too radical for the public. One of the hottest controversies in some Tea Party circles is whether to repeal the Seventeenth Amendment, which allows for the direct election of senators. Part of the reason the Republican candidate lost in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District was that he supported the Fair Tax, which would abolish the tax code and replace it with a consumption tax. Rand Paul may have won the Republican Senate nomination in Kentucky, but he quickly had to walk back statements opposing the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Sharron Angle, the Republican Senate nominee in Nevada, has had to explain what she meant when she said that Social Security and Medicare ought to be “phased out.” Rick Barber, a Republican candidate for Congress in Alabama, opens his latest ad with the words, “I’d impeach him,” and closes it with a man dressed in Revolutionary War garb saying menacingly, “Gather. Your. Armies.”

Now, any large political movement is going to have its share of people who push the ideological envelope. It’s going to have some cranks who break the rules of political decorum. In times of economic crisis and political ferment, tempers are going to become heated. And even liberals have to acknowledge that the Tea Party, despite the wild charges thrown against it, has shunned violence and racism.

Nevertheless, while most Americans disapprove of the Obama Democrats, they do not back a full-scale revolt against the government. They do not support the abolition of the welfare state. They may want to repeal Obama-care, but they do not want to repeal the 20th century.

The Tea Party’s movements and currents, its successes and setbacks, have revealed the dual nature of conservative populism. There is one tendency that tries, in Wilfred M. McClay’s evocative phrase, “to restore and preserve a less regimented, less status-stratified, less school-sorted, more open-ended America.” But there is also another tendency, one that believes the government is so corrupt, the constitutional system so perverted, that only radical solutions will save America from certain doom.

The first tendency is forward-looking, optimistic, and comfortable in contemporary America. The second tendency looks to the distant past, feels not just pessimistic but apocalyptic, and always sees the powerful conspiring against the powerless. And while it is possible to distinguish between the two tendencies, they nonetheless overlap in many places. They are different parts of the same creature. One part, however, is more attractive to outsiders than the other. In our future-oriented, optimistic American polity, the first tendency has limitless appeal. The second does not.

The Tea Party, like the Roman god Janus, has two faces. One looks to the future. The other looks to the past. One wants to repair deformities in the American political structure and move on. The other is ready to scrap the whole thing and restore a lost Eden.

They are the faces, in other words, of the cable TV stars who are arguably the Tea Party’s two founders: Rick Santelli and Glenn Beck. [...]

What bothered Santelli was that Obama’s proposals made neither moral nor intellectual sense. “You can’t buy your way into prosperity,” he said. “And if the multiplier that all of these Washington economists are selling us is over one, then we never have to worry about the economy again. The government should spend a trillion dollars an hour because we’ll get $1.5 trillion back.” To Santelli, such an idea was plainly absurd. It takes the silent majority to recognize that spending, debt, and subsidies for the undeserving do not create a prosperous future.

This is the same mix of symbols, allusions, and issues that conservatives have deployed for decades. This is the same impulse as the one behind the tax revolt in the 1970s, behind Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan’s critique of the welfare state in the 1980s, behind Newt Gingrich’s Opportunity Society rhetoric in the 1990s. The language of fiscal responsibility, individual initiative, self-discipline, and market competition is embedded in the conservative movement and the Republican grassroots. It’s a political language squarely in the mainstream. Large majorities of voters have embraced it in the past. They are likely to embrace it again.

What Santelli did not say was just as important. His speech contained no conspiracy theories. He did not rant against “the system.” He did not say that Obama is an illegitimate president. He did not say that Obama is a socialist. Instead, he said (perhaps slightly sarcastically) that White House adviser Lawrence Summers is “a great economist.” On March 2, 2009, he wrote, “I hope that the president and the final stimulus plan succeed,” and, “I love my country and hope that the current administration succeeds in fixing the complicated economic and social issues our country now faces.”

These are not the words of a conspiracy theorist. They are not the words of someone who believes the government is fundamentally corrupt. They are the words of a man who is worried about America’s future, but who thinks the right mix of policy and leadership can cure the nation’s ills. They are the words of a forward-looking, optimistic, free-market populist. [...]

This intellectual journey has led Beck to some disturbing conclusions. Whereas Rick Santelli says the housing plan and the stimulus aren’t sensible, Beck says the Obama administration is the culmination of 100 years of unconstitutional governance. On the “We Surround Them” episode, Beck said, “The system has been perverted and it has to be restored.” In between bouts of weeping, he asked, “What happened to the country that loved the underdog and stood up for the little guy?” That country, he implied, is vanishing before our eyes. In Beck’s world, politics is less about issues than it is about “us” versus “them.” We may have them surrounded. But “we can’t trust anyone.” [...]

By attacking progressivism, Beck is taking on a big idea. He is forcing people to question their assumptions. He is introducing new thinkers to the reading public. But he is also engaging in a line of inquiry that—interesting though it may sometimes be—is tangential to the political realities of our day. And his intellectual inquiries have a purpose: to foster the perception that a benighted American public is being preyed upon by an internationalist conspiracy.

So, the difference between communism and progressivism, Beck argued at CPAC, is “revolution” or “evolution.” In other words, the difference between communism and progressivism is one of means not ends. “There is no difference,” he said, “except one requires a gun and the other does it slowly.”

“Socialism and fascism,” the author writes in Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, “have been on the rise for two administrations now.” Beck’s book Arguing with Idiots contains a list of the “Top Ten Bastards of All Time,” on which Pol Pot (No. 10), Adolf Hitler (No. 6), and Pontius Pilate (No. 4) all rank lower than FDR (No. 3) and Woodrow Wilson (No. 1). In Glenn Beck’s Common Sense Beck writes, “With a few notable exceptions, our political leaders have become nothing more than parasites who feed off our sweat and blood.” [...]

Read and watch enough Glenn Beck, and you realize that he is not only introducing new authors and ideas into public life, he is reintroducing old ideas. Some very old ideas. The notion that America’s leaders are indistinguishable from America’s enemies has a long and sorry history. In the 1950s it led Robert Welch, the head of the John Birch Society, to proclaim that President Dwight Eisenhower was a Communist sympathizer. For this, William F. Buckley Jr. famously denounced Welch and severed the Birchers’ ties to mainstream conservatism. The group was ostracized for decades.

But not everyone denounced Welch. One author, the Mormon autodidact W. Cleon Skousen, continued to support the Birchers as he penned books on politics and the American founding. And Skousen continued to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that American political, social, and economic elites were working with the Communists to foist a world government on the United States.

Glenn Beck is a Skousenite. During the “We Surround Them” program, he urged his audience to read Skousen’s 5000 Year Leap (1981), for which he has written a foreword, and The Real George Washington (1991). “The 5000 Year Leap is essential to understanding why our Founders built this Republic the way they did,” the author writes in Glenn Beck’s Common Sense. More controversially, Beck has recommended Skousen’s Naked Communist (1958) and Naked Capitalist (1970), which lay out the writer’s paranoid scenarios in detail. The latter book, for example, draws on Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope (1966), which argues that the history of the 20th century is the product of secret societies in conflict. “Carroll Quigley laid open the plan in Tragedy and Hope,” says a character in Beck’s new novel, The Overton Window. “The only hope to avoid the tragedy of war was to bind together the economies of the world to foster global stability and peace.”

For Beck, conspiracy theories are not aberrations. They are central to his worldview. They are the natural consequence of assuming that the world hangs by a thread, and that everyone is out to get you. On his television program, Beck promised to “find out what’s true and what’s not with the FEMA concentration camps”—referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a federal bureaucracy that chiefly funnels relief funds to victims of natural disasters, and is more commonly (and accurately) thought of as punchless. Beck later acknowledged that his staff could not find any evidence for such camps.

Beck has urged his viewers to read The Coming Insurrection, an impenetrable political tract by a French Marxist group called The Invisible Committee that has no clear relationship to U.S. politics (or to reality). In Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, the author writes that “efforts are now also being made to empower the State to retain, test, and research the blood and DNA of newborn babies.” The plot of The Overton Window is one big conspiracy theory in which the United States government, Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and the Trilateral Commission are all plotting an antidemocratic coup. It is a fever-dream that Oliver Stone would envy. “Who needs a list when they can monitor you whenever they want?” says one of the book’s characters at a fictional Tea Party rally. “You’ve all heard of that ‘Digital Angel’ device that can be implanted under your skin, right? They say it’s to store medical information and for the safety of children and Alzheimer’s patients.” Scary stuff. But also fantastical. In an author’s note, Beck says his novel is not fiction but “faction”—“completely fictional books with plots rooted in fact.” Which “facts” are those?

Conspiracism is only one reason Beck’s populism is self-limiting. Another is that its attitude toward government is radically adversarial. The American electorate may have turned against Obama liberalism, but it has no appetite for ending the New Deal, much less the FDA. Nor is it true that both parties are equally corrupted by the progressive “cancer.” There always has been a wing of the Republican party hostile to progressivism, stretching back to William Howard Taft’s nomination over Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.

Nor is it as easy to distinguish the “State” from the people, as Beck might imagine. Americans do not live in Russia or Germany or China. Socialism and communism never were mass movements in our politics. Our constitutional machinery and democratic ethos continue to operate as checks on state power. For evidence, look no further than the Tea Party.

....if the Right even understood that there is a choice between Goldwater and Reagan and that the former was not an echo of the latter.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 27, 2010 7:01 AM
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