The Grand Old Tea Party
A Democratic president begins a new term in the White House. Two years later, America votes a cadre of aggressive conservatives into Congress, loaded for bear. At first the Republican establishment, thrilled to have the Democrats on the run, puts its wariness about the fire-breathers aside. Within a few years, though, the new guys throw out all the old rules of consensus and compromise, and the establishment shows signs of buyer’s remorse. One of the new conservatives, a bulky, take-no-prisoners senator who sees socialist quislings everywhere, takes control of the agenda and threatens to drive the GOP into the ground.
But this is not 2008 or 2013. It’s the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the senator is not Ted Cruz but Joseph McCarthy.
A new sort of conservative has taken over the Republican Party from the ground up—and they don’t give a goddamn about anything the US Chamber of Commerce says. They want a total divorce between capitalism and the government, and whoever disagrees can go straight to hell. Business people, above all else pragmatists, are alarmed at the prospect of losing control of “the party of business” and hatch schemes to take it back. The Democratic president, for his part, declares a White House open-door policy for business leaders and makes maintaining a climate favorable to business a keynote of his administration. Suddenly, the direction of the Republican Party itself seems to be at stake.
But this is not 2013. It is 1964. The business-friendly president is Lyndon Johnson, and the Republican insurgents are followers of Barry Goldwater.
Moderate Republicans are on the run. The most powerful establishment Republican in Washington is by most measures a conservative. He argues in his speeches that the nation’s economic problems “bear a label: Made in Washington, DC.” He proclaims “a crossroads in our history”: whether America will continue on the path of “bigger government” and “higher taxes” or take a new direction to “halt the momentous growth of government.” But that’s not enough for the leader of the grassroots conservatives, who proclaims the establishment leader a sellout. But even more rabid conservatives distrust the conservative leader and call him a sellout as well. They hatch an insurgency against the insurgency.
But the establishment leader is not John Boehner. It is Gerald Ford. The conservative leader is not a Tea Partier but Ronald Reagan. And the insurgents—led by Jesse Helms, fresh from an effort to start a conservative third party—insist that Reagan’s campaign strategy isn’t conservative enough. So they effect a boarding party and attempt to turn the Republican platform into a full-on extrusion of right-wing ideological rage—“a reminder,” a columnist then opined, “that Helms belongs to that rabid band of committed conservatives who stop just short of conceding that they are willing to kill the party if they can’t control it.” Sound familiar?
I could proliferate the analogies endlessly: the New Right ideologues who called the newly elected President Reagan a sellout (a 1982 article in Richard Viguerie’s Conservative Digest devoted two pages to attacking the establishment cast of White House state dinners); the Gingrich revolutionaries who horrified establishment Republican leaders by squandering the party’s historic 1994 takeover of Congress with their insistence on shutting down the government. Each and every time, the right-wing fire-breathers insist that the only reason their insurrection failed was that they hadn’t been conservative enough.
No historical analogies are exactly precise. I offer these to drive home a point. The phrase “Tea Party conservatives” is on everyone’s lips these days. And because the movement has a new identity (although if I were being pedantic, I’d point out that conservatives in 1975 called for citizens to staple tea bags to their IRS returns to protest high taxes, even though President Ford, like President Obama, had just lowered taxes), the temptation has been to depict the Tea Party’s brand of reactionary extremism as a new thing, too. Their radicalism this fall has indeed been breathtaking. But understanding today’s right-wing insurgency as a new phenomenon only weakens our attempts to defeat it. Grasping it instead as the product of a slow, steady evolution is our only hope of stopping the cycle before it repeats itself anew.
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