Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Tea Party: Deja Vu All Over Again

By Tom Kando

For now, the Tea Party remains as popular as ever. This amorphous “social movement” includes birthers, armed militias, survivalists who sometimes wish to secede from the US, and assorted others. Not all Tea Party sympathizers are extremists, but they are all on the political right. Although they wish to dissociate themselves from both parties, they overlap with Republicans. The Tea Partyers share a hostility to the institution of government in general, a particular hatred for this government, i.e. the Obama administration, and generalized anger.

The Tea Party is (1) overwhelmingly white (although it welcomes token people of color), and (2) protestant (although other Christian religions will do). It is not dominated by males. Its leaders include Stepford-wife-like women as well as other conservative women. It is inspired by some fat, pompous, filthy- rich demagogues, but most followers are not rich. Indeed, such movements are often a reflection of the frustration felt by a downwardly mobile lower middle class. Atheists, agnostics, public employees, academicians, socialists and foreigners should not apply for Tea Party membership.

All of this is well known. Here is the more interesting question: Is this new, and is it dangerous?

Dangerous, yes. Revolutionary, ignorant paranoid extremism is always dangerous. But it is not new, and therefore it may not be as dangerous as it sometimes seems to be. I like to be optimistic, and I believe that we’ll survive this nonsense just as we have survived similar waves in the past.

Why do I say this?

Because even a superficial knowledge of American history shows that movements and demagoguery like this have been a regularly recurring phenomenon in our country’s past. And yet, we have not turned fascist.

Right-wing radicalism in American history has been documented by such scholars as the great historian Richard Hofstadter (see The Paranoid Style in American Politics) and my friend, sociologist Scott McNall, among many others.

Throughout the 19th century, the country underwent periodic nativist, anti-immigrant swings. During the 1850s, anti-Irish sentiment was feverish, captured in such slogans as Rhum, Romanism and Rebellion.

By the 1930s, picking on Catholics had been replaced by anti-Semitism. Now it was Father Coughlin’s turn to blame Jews for everything, and to sympathize with Hitler and Mussolini - something in which he was joined by Charles Lindbergh and millions of devout radio listeners.

There have been many others, from the John Birchers to various militias, from the KKK to many apocalyptic, conspiratorial, populist movements.

Perhaps the clearest predecessor of today’s political mood is the McCarthy era and the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s. That’s when demagogue Joe McCarthy launched a crusade to purge the country of its communists. The toll was particularly heavy in Hollywood, where some of the most talented people were fired and then blackballed . McCarthy went hog-wild, calling even President Eisenhower a communist! At the height of his popularity, 50% of the American people sympathized with him! Today, one third of all Republicans believe that President Obama is not American-born. Same widespread kookiness.

There was never the remotest chance that communists would take over America. There was paranoia. And there is paranoia today. Terrorism, Al Qaeda, illegal immigrants, Islam, Socialists, the Federal Government. take your pick. As the man said, Deja Vu all over again.leave comment here