The Grand Old Tea Party

The Grand Old Tea Party

Why today's wacko birds are just like yesterday's wingnuts.


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.

* * *

First, a conceptual distinction. there is in-deed little new under the wingnut sun; if studying the right full time for sixteen years has taught me anything, it is that. But the structural context for their attempts to get what they want is different from what it was in previous decades. 

The reactionary percentage of the electorate in these United States has been relatively constant since McCarthy’s day; I’d estimate it as hovering around 30 percent. A minority, but one never all that enamored of the niceties of democracy—they see themselves as fighting for the survival of civilization, after all. So, generation after generation, they’ve ruthlessly exploited the many points of structural vulnerability in the not-very-democratic American political system to get their way. For McCarthy, that meant using the rules of Senate investigations—in which the accused enjoy few of the procedural protections of the courtroom—to shape the direction of the government through the sheer power of intimidation. For the Goldwaterites, that meant flooding low-turnout party caucuses at the precinct and county level to win control of the Republican nomination process. In the past, such minoritarian ploys were stymied in the end by bottlenecks. For McCarthy, it was the canons of senatorial courtesy. For the Goldwaterites, it was the necessity of actually winning general elections. Now, however, the bottlenecks against right-wing minoritarian power are weaker than ever; America’s structural democracy deficit has never been greater. And that’s the biggest difference of all. 

For example, the Citizens United decision opened the floodgates for reactionary political money, and as a result, billionaires have become increasingly brazen in their exploitation of campaign finance loopholes. In September, The New York Times discovered that the Koch brothers and their allies gave $236 million more than had been previously known to conservative groups during the 2012 election, simply by registering a new organization as a “business league” instead of a “social welfare” group. This enabled its 200 “members” to make contributions of $100,000 or more as “dues,” which not only hid the donations but potentially qualified them as deductible business expenses.

Then there’s been the steadily increasing sophistication of the independent conservative infrastructure funded by such donations. Since the 1970s, these groups have followed a similar trajectory: ideological entrepreneurs like Viguerie or Howard Phillips of the Conservative Caucus (in the ’70s) or Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks (these days) spy some localized outrage attributable to liberal perfidy on the horizon. They then leverage the outrage for the greater conservative movement. “We organize discontent,” Phillips once explained, by which he meant he turns it into money, movement and political results. These operatives then retroactively label the outcome of their organizing as a “spontaneous” uprising, a story line that gullible reporters eagerly lap up.

I watched the process happen a decade ago during the 2003 California gubernatorial recall campaign. Talking to citizens on the ground, I discovered that their anger centered on two grievances: the possibility that undocumented immigrants might be issued driver’s licenses, and a new car tax. These grievances were then leveraged by hustlers into the successful crusade that overthrew Democratic governor Gray Davis. I interviewed one of those hustlers, Sal Russo, in his luxuriously appointed Sacramento office plastered with portraits of Ronald Reagan. He told me he considers right-wing talk radio hosts his “ward bosses.” Another consultant named Phil Paule explained to me, “We found an opponent with a really weak hand; we just kept raising and raising the stakes.”

In 2009, the weak hand held by Barack Obama was the bank bailout inaugurated by George W. Bush, which Obama was left to administer. The entrepreneurs got to work. As Thomas Frank points out in Pity the Billionaire, most participants at the sparsely populated (but overly covered) early “Tea Party” rallies were either staffers from conservative groups or congressional offices. The grassroots came later, at which point the entrepreneurs raised the stakes by launching congressional campaigns. Russo trademarked the phrase “Tea Party Express” and organized the Senate campaigns of Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware. Americans for Prosperity funneled some $40 million to rallies, phone banks and canvassing for the 2010 campaigns, including for five of the six newly elected Republicans who found their way onto the House Energy and Commerce Committee. And in 2012, AFP piloted charter buses around Wisconsin for “educational” rallies in support of Tea Party Governor Scott Walker. While reporting from there, I collected a flier with the following revealing typo: “We are gathering citizens together from across Michigan…. Join forces with Americans for Prosperity to defend the Wisconsin Way and fight back against the failed policies of Barack Obama.” This year, the strategy to shut down the government was driven by Heritage Action, the political wing of the Heritage Foundation think tank, which has been playing this game since 1973.

The engineers of the shutdown were aided by the final structural component that makes the current conservative push different from right-wing crusades of the past: the aggressive gerrymandering of Congress by conservative state legislatures. To take one infamous example, Pennsylvania has thirteen Republican and only five Democratic members of Congress, even though 52 percent of the state’s voters chose Barack Obama in 2012. That had been the plan all along: as a Texas Republican operative close to Tom DeLay said about their redistricting work following the 2000 Census, “This has a real national impact that should assure that Republicans keep the House no matter the national mood.” It has also meant that Republican seats have become so safe that the remorseless far-right ideological entrepreneurs have been able to run further- and further-right candidates in primaries against establishment Republicans. It’s a win-win strategy: even if their candidates lose, they manage to drive incumbents far to the right to save their seats; and if they win, Tea Party representatives can rest secure in the knowledge that their re-election is safe no matter how recklessly they “govern.”

Presto: after decades of trying, the reactionary tail finally wags the establishment dog. The recklessness of the goals, however, have always been the same. 

* * *

Read the paper trail. Barry Goldwater in Conscience of a Conservative (1960): “I have little interest in streamlining government…for I mean to reduce its size…. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them.” The “Leninist strategy” for undoing Social Security, published in The Cato Journal in 1983. Grover Norquist in 2001: “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years,” to “get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Why wouldn’t conservatives shut down the government? They hate it. They’ve just been biding their time, waiting for the opportunity.

One mistake of the establishments past and present has been to fail to take seriously the apocalypticism of conservative insurgencies: They couldn’t possibly mean it, could they? So the policy wizards in the Obama White House build a Rube Goldberg healthcare law that relies on states to expand Medicaid and create healthcare exchanges, and then are utterly blindsided when red-state legislatures and governors decline. Haven’t they heard the news that conservatives don’t like it when people benefit from government? Likewise, the White House offered up cuts to government programs popular with both the left (social programs) and right (the military) in the last round of budget negotiations, confident that Republicans would never let the sequester actually come to pass—blindsided again.

Another mistake has been to ignore the organizational capacity of reactionaries. In 1976, an anonymous staffer of Gerald Ford’s presidential campaign, startled at having lost the Texas primary to Ronald Reagan in a landslide and dumbfounded that Republican turnout in some cities in various states had doubled since the last election, circulated a fascinating memo. “Turnout is very high,” the staffer wrote. “The people coming to vote or to the caucuses are unknown and have not been involved in the Republican political system before; they vote overwhelmingly for Reagan.”

The memo continued, “A clear pattern is emerging; these turnouts now do not seem accidental but appear to be the result of skillful organization by extreme right-wing political groups in the Reagan camp.” They were “operating almost invisibly through direct mail and voter turnout efforts conducted by…a loose coalition of right-wing political committees. Many of these committees are set up by or in conjunction with Richard Vigurie’s [sic] political direct mail firm. Others have been funded either by a wealthy sponsor (Joe Coors) or by a special interest group like the NRA…. They have been raising money for many years, and have extensive mailing lists made up of people interested in these issues.” The groups included the National Conservative Political Action Committee, the Committee for the Survival for a Free Congress, the Heritage Foundation, the American Conservative Union, the NRA’s “Campaign 1976” and anti-abortion groups. “Many of the members of these groups are not loyal Republicans or Democrats. They are alienated from both parties because neither takes a sympathetic view toward their issues. Particularly those groups controlled by Vigurie [sic] hold a ‘rule or ruin’ attitude toward the GOP.” 

The memo also noted the Reagan supporters’ novel methodology: “They can target an effective direct mail campaign based on response to fund raising mail using outrageous literature designed to motivate people interested in a right wing cause…. The mailing lists can be turned into telephone lists and door-to-door canvassing lists and used to turn the vote out…. In caucus states where few people attend the county caucuses such an effort can control the state conventions.”

It was an accurate assessment—but a conspicuously belated one. These forces had been organizing assiduously from the time Goldwater was defeated in 1964. Viguerie had been raising millions for conservative candidates and causes ever since going into business for himself in 1965. The memo was written in May 1976. A couple of months earlier, the Reagan campaign had been so weak it couldn’t even afford fuel for the candidate’s charter plane; the Republican establishment was begging him to quit. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Reagan came back from the dead with a resounding victory in North Carolina. 

That triumph amounted to a veritable hinge in US political history: under the noses of the press, Senator Jesse Helms had all but kicked the official Reagan campaign committee out of the state, instead running the election via his own National Congressional Club, a Viguerie-style organizing machine that soon dwarfed the budgets of the state’s Republican and Democratic parties. Patiently  combing the attics and back rooms of county courthouses for months, volunteers headed by a young Helms staffer pulled together a roll of 80,000 names of Republican voters—the first such list in the state. Those 80,000 voters were bombarded with direct mail depicting the far-left horrors afoot in the Ford White House (“Do you plan to continue to lead our country to full socialism?” a questioner asked the president at one of his rallies). 

Outsiders at the time failed to understand how Reagan won North Carolina and revived his campaign. Somehow, the details of these far-right organizing coups only seem to emerge later—no one on the other side ever sees them coming in the moment. Case in point: in early October, The New York Times ran a story titled “A Federal Budget Crisis Months in the Planning,” which described a secret meeting in which the plotters, including Ed Meese, conspired to exploit the House’s power of the purse to threaten a government shutdown unless Obamacare was defunded. “To many Americans,” the Times continued, “the shutdown came out of nowhere. But interviews with a wide array of conservatives show that the confrontation that precipitated the crisis was the outgrowth of a long-running effort to undo the law, the Affordable Care Act, since its passage in 2010—waged by a galaxy of conservative groups with more money, organized tactics and interconnections than is commonly known.”

That last clause is so telling. Why wasn’t it “commonly known”? It’s not 1976 anymore. We can’t be flies on the wall in the rooms in which right-wing cabals plot—but we surely should know by now that any advance for liberalism will be subject to a vigorous effort to undo it. In the bowels of the White House, within the corridors of the Democratic National Committee, the AFL-CIO, what strategic counter-plotting was in effect? It’s OK if “to many Americans, the shutdown came out of nowhere.” Democratic professionals in Washington, on the other hand, should have seen it coming. Perhaps, though, their vision is too occluded by the example set by President Obama, who continues to see Republicans as responsible negotiating partners despite all evidence to the contrary.

* * *

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.”

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