The Grand Old Tea Party
This time, liberals are also making a new mistake. Call it “racial defeatism.” Folks throw their hands up and say, “Of course reactionary rage is going to flow like mighty waters against an African-American president! What can we possibly do about that?” But it’s crucial to realize that the vituperation directed at Obama is little different from that aimed at John F. Kennedy, who was so hated by the right that his assassination was initially assumed by most observers to have been done by a conservative; or Bill Clinton, who was warned by Helms in 1994 that if he visited a military base in North Carolina, he’d “better have a bodyguard.”
All right-wing antigovernment rage in America bears a racial component, because liberalism is understood, consciously or unconsciously, as the ideology that steals from hard-working, taxpaying whites and gives the spoils to indolent, grasping blacks. Racial rhetoric has been entwined with government from the start, all the way back to when the enemy was not Obamacare but the Grand Army of the Republic (and further in the past than that: Thomas Jefferson, after all, was derided as “the Negro President”). When former IRS Commissioner T. Coleman Andrews ran for president in 1956 on a platform of abolishing the income tax, it was no accident that his war cry—he was fighting against the “degeneration of the union of states into an all-powerful central government!”—was indistinguishable from that of the Southern governors enacting a policy of massive resistance against Brown v. Board of Education. Every time the government acts to expand the prerogatives of citizenship and economic opportunity to formerly disenfranchised groups, a racism-soaked backlash ensues. Defeatism—or ideological accommodation—only makes it worse.
Ironically, liberals of previous generations understood this better than we do now, despite decades more experience watching how the right’s game is played. For a Partisan Review symposium in 1962, Harvard sociologist David Riesman advised that the Kennedy administration “can gain the leeway on the domestic front…only by combatting the radical right rather than seeking itself to move onto rightist ground—an illusory operation since the right can always go still further right and will.”
Well, we’re on rightist ground now. Listen to Norquist in a recent interview with The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein: “We won in 2011 and then again with the president making 85 percent of the Bush tax cuts permanent. We really did get caps and sequestration that limits government spending. If we just went home and put the government on autopilot, it would be a win. This Republican Congress has made a fundamental shift in the size of government equation.”
Note, though, he said it in an interview meant to excoriate Ted Cruz and his strategy to defund Obamacare by holding the continuing resolution funding the government hostage. “And people went out on talk radio and said if you’re not for this you’re a coward, you’re a RINO [Republican in Name Only].” This was stupid, said Norquist. But how stupid? The continuing resolution that eventually went through, with Democrats everywhere declaring victory over Tea Party intransigence, cuts spending at a faster pace than the budget Paul Ryan proposed in 2011—$217 billion less in discretionary spending than the budget Obama proposed. They’ve also made crisis governing the new normal, as the deal that the two sides struck funds the government only until January; then we get to enjoy the whole melodrama over again.
And here, finally, is a pattern to sear into your brain, too. They’re revolutionaries—they say so themselves. Revolutionaries, we all know, eat their children. When Goldwater broke with Reagan in favor of negotiating with Panama over the future of the Panama Canal, he got such angry hate mail he told an interviewer, “I didn’t realize Western Union would send telegrams like that.” He complained, like today’s establishment Republicans talking about Tea Partiers, “Reagan has some of those people, the really ideological ones who won’t change.”
Now this: Grover Norquist, last year’s revolutionary, is the responsible one, complaining about radical right intransigence. Scary times. At least we have a road map to navigate it. It’s the right’s own history, which doesn’t change much. They’re maximalists. They want it all. And the bigger our democracy deficit, the more they’ll be able to get.
Check out Rick Perlstein’s series on “Thinking Like a Conservative”: Part One: ”Mass Shootings and Gun Control,” Part Two: “Biding Time on Voting Rights,” Part Three: “On Shutting Down Government,” Part Four: “Goalpost Moving” and Part Five: “Epistemology and Empathy.”