Welcome, "Axis of the Obsessed and Deranged." This was the title of a hysterical column, vibrant with class hatred, by Frank Rich in the February 28 New York Times. Rich shrieked that "the acrid stench of 1995 is back in the air." The militias are on the rampage. The sky is dark with the threat of Piper Cherokees being flown by populists into government buildings. To match the virulence of Rich’s language you’d have to go back to the tirades flung at David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, some eighty of whom were burned alive outside Waco, Texas, on April 19, 1993, on orders from Attorney General Janet Reno. It was this crime that Timothy McVeigh said he was avenging when he blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City exactly two years later.
As one might expect, Rich had a handy citation to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which plumps up its $170 million-plus asset portfolio with regular alarums about the rise of "hate groups," defined as those "with beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people," which pretty much covers the whole ballpark. That’s the same SPLC whose Mark Potok sensitively said after the incineration of the Branch Davidians and children, "The antigovernment movement, the militia, hate groups are absolutely going to get a boost out of this, and I think it’s really a tragedy for that reason."
This brings us to the American class system, which Russell Baker once beautifully defined in terms of access to lawyers. Having a lawyer on permanent retainer "is the very essence of richness." That’s the upper class. Those in the upper middle class hire a lawyer when they feel they need one to handle wills, contracts and so forth. Middle-class people know they ought to employ lawyers but can’t quite afford them. Members of the lower middle class believe they can defend themselves better than any lawyer, and can’t afford one anyway. To lower-class folk, public defender and prosecutor look identical.
The lower middle class is what we’re focusing on here, the people who own auto repair shops, bakeries, bicycle shops, plant stores, dry cleaners, fish stores and all the other small businesses across America–in sum, the "petite bourgeoisie," stomped by regulators and bureaucrats while the big fry get zoning variances and special clause exemptions. The left always hated the petite bourgeoisie because it wasn’t the urban proletariat and thus the designated agent of revolutionary change. Today’s left no longer believes in revolutionary change but despises the petite bourgeoisie out of inherited political disposition and class outlook. Ninety-five percent of all the firms in America hire fewer than ten people. There’s your petite bourgeoisie for you: not frightening, not terrifying and in fact quite indispensable.
And the petit bourgeois are legitimately pissed off. Whatever backwash they got from the stimulus often wasn’t readily apparent. They can’t afford health plans for themselves or their employees. They’re three or four payrolls away from the edge of the cliff, and when they read about trillions in handouts for bankers, trillions in impending deficits, blueprints for green energy regs that will put them out of business, what they hear is the ocean surge pounding away at the bottom of that same cliff.
The conventional parties have nothing to offer them. The left disdains them. But here comes the tea party, whose spirit is very well caught by David Barstow, the Times reporter whose long piece on February 16 prompted Rich’s mad column. Rich refers to Barstow’s "chilling, months-long investigation of the tea party movement," as though the reporter had gone undercover, watching Klan rituals through binoculars somewhere in a cow pasture. This is a silly mischaracterization of Barstow’s perceptive and rather sympathetic account of tea partydom, in which he significantly doesn’t quote the SPLC but pops in, right at the end, an obligatory quote from an Idaho lawyer who sued the Hayden Lake Aryans into extinction.
Of course, there are many flavors in the tea party blend. There are nuts and opportunists, as in any political formation. You can trace some of its ideology back to the nineteenth-century Know-Nothings, a typical platform of which, in 1841, called for extending the term of naturalization to twenty-one years, restricting public office to the native-born (there’s your birther movement), keeping the Bible in schools and resisting "the encroachment of a foreign civil and spiritual power upon the institutions of our country." Back then this meant the Vatican; today it’s Davos, Bilderberg, the UN, the IPCC.
At this point leftists invariably start quoting Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." They should put aside that snotty essay and reflect on their own dismal failures. Under the leadership of Obama–cheered into office by 99.9 percent of the left–and a Democratic Congress, we have a whole new war and no antiwar movement of any heft; a bailout for Wall Street; an awful health bill connived at by both parties; the prospect of loan guarantees for new nuclear energy plants; a huge hike in defense spending, particularly nuclear weapons; and, at least at the rhetorical level, an impending onslaught on Social Security. Constitutional abuses endorsed or instigated by the White House continue in a straight sequence from the Bush years.
Response from the left? No twitch in the morgue. The AFL-CIO was bought off from resistance to the health bill by getting relief on its Cadillac health plans. Because of alleged anthropologically prompted global warming, the green movement has sat on its hands, hopelessly split on nuclear power, whose real, baneful effects have been irrefutably demonstrated, starting with nuclear waste. There’s been near total silence on the huge nuclear weapons budget boost (the largest for Los Alamos since 1944). Total silence on the Patriot Act, reauthorized February 27. What to do? Rally round the flag and scaremonger about the right, where’s there’s actual political ferment.