Teabags and the Altamont of the Right
The best way to understand the state of modern conservatism today is to look back at the demise of FDR liberalism in the 1960s. The similarities aren’t perfect, mind you, but they are instructive. American political movements that develop over decades tend to follow a pattern. They rise, drawing from years of pent-up frustration channeled into polished plans and sold by charismatic political leaders; and then, after they run their course, they falter amidst their own contradictions. In the aftermath comes the sad spectacle of denial and, occasionally, rage. This was the story of Populism, Progressivism and FDR liberalism. Often they fail spectacularly, as they did in the Election of 1896, the Red Summer of 1919, and the Altamont Festival in December 1969, which effectively bookended the idealistic 1960s Left. Such is the story of modern conservatism. The tea parties represent the same sort of frustration among the Right over unfulfilled dreams and lost power that the various comical and occasionally violent left wing protest movements did from 1968 to 1972.
Consider the state of American liberalism in early August 1965. LBJ had just won a landslide victory in the Presidential election in November. A coalition of Northern Democrats and Republicans helped to pass landmark Civil Rights legislation a year before and had just passed the Voting Rights Act, finally making the Fifteenth Amendment a reality. Johnson had already launched his Great Society programs that aimed to eradicate poverty and encourage a better quality of life for all Americans. With Medicare and Medicaid, Johnson had fulfilled JFK’s promise to offer health care to the elderly and the poor.
But then came Watts.
And then the escalation of Vietnam.
And it all started unraveling. Crime spun out of control and riots tore cities apart, only furthering the process of suburbanization that left largely black cities behind. The Federal government reneged on all of its “community-based” principles at the heart of the Great Society and turned it into a bureaucratic nightmare. The Vietnam War merely polarized two wings of the Democratic base against one another – the “hard hat” white working class against the young, idealistic Baby Boomers.
And then came Nixon, who expertly exploited the deepening cultural rifts, turning the very rage on the Left against the Democratic Party. The FDR liberals had run out of ideas. Their base was divided. And the leaders of the Democratic Party – especially 1972 nominee George McGovern – epitomized a movement whose best days lay behind it.
From 1968 to 2008, the conservative movement grew to power, established hegemony throughout the American political system, re-shaped the American economy, and reinvigorated American military might. Though it failed to turn back the sexual revolution and the sundry other cultural movements of the 1960s, the conservative wing of the Republican Party managed to reassert a certain cultural conservatism and outline a set of “wedge” issues that would propel it to electoral victory for a long time.
While that 40-year reign produced some notable accomplishments, including the end of Communism and the restructuring of the tax code, it ran out of steam after the 2004 election. What killed it – just as with FDR liberalism in the 1960s – were the internal contradictions. Take the big “tea party” issue of government spending, for example. As Andrew Sullivan points out, the Right wasn’t exactly filled with rage over the Medicare Prescription Drug bill that added $32 trillion to the future debt; sure, there were voices of protest in the blogosphere and among a small minority of Congressmen, but the conservative media establishment and the Republican political leadership supported this radical expansion of entitlements.
There was a reason Karl Rove and co. supported such a “Big Government Conservatism” position – it was the only way the GOP could win. The greatest selling point of small-government conservatism from the late 1970s through the 1990s was welfare reform. Yes, highly educated libertarians and very wealthy people supported small government conservatism as a matter of core principle. But the voting base of the GOP lay with the white lower middle class in the South and Midwest, and the way that Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush Sr. sold small-government conservatism was this: big government = your hard-earned tax dollars going to lazy black people on welfare. From busing to welfare queens to affirmative action, the GOP made opposition to big government-based redistribution of wealth to the mostly minority poor a central selling point. But then President Clinton signed Welfare Reform in 1996 and, in a moment, destroyed the Bob Dole campaign in its tracks. No single act altered the course of conservative Republicanism more than Clinton’s signing of welfare reform. From that moment on, the GOP needed a new tack. Racial backlash against perceived “reverse discrimination” could no longer win at the polls. More importantly, “small government conservatism” no longer had the cache among among lower middle class whites.
And so the GOP turned to religion. In 2000 and 2004, the GOP and George W. Bush made his evangelical Christianity his greatest selling point. Much of this Christianity was explicitly politicized, drawing heavily upon anti-1960s sexual revolution backlash. Abortion and, later, gay marriage could rally millions of voters to the polls. And, as Rove saw it, the new religious “wedge” issues could divide core Democratic constituencies like Latinos and even African Americans. As 2004 showed, the strategy worked. But it came with a price.
In order to attract these newer, lower middle class voters – many of them non-white – the GOP had to abandon small-government conservatism in all but rhetoric and push for a Big Government that benefited the religiously conservative. To prove to these folks – traditionally Democratic in economics – that the GOP cared about them, Rove pushed his prescription drug plan and other “compassionate conservatism” policies like education reform. This was triangulation, Republican style. And it started to rankle some of the older core constituencies on the right. Nativists worried about illegal immigration and Bush’s demand for comprehensive immigration reform; these were the old law-and-order types among the white lower middle class that once flocked to Nixon and Reagan and now felt Bush was abandoned them for the Latino vote. A small group of fiscal conservatives started complaining about the deficit. And then, with the Administration’s incompetence on display in Iraq and Katrina, soft Republicans started jumping ship. It was as if those who thought government really was the problem had set out to prove it. Finally there emerged an economic crisis borne of decades of financial deregulation and a government push for “expanded home ownership” that Bush (and Reagan) embraced every bit as enthusiastically as did liberal Democrats.
Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 closed this chapter in American history. The left triumphantly proclaimed a New Progressive era, confirmed in President Obama’s budget. The center moved to the left and embraced “hope” and “change”. The soft right moved to the center, still remembering the utter failure of the Bush years and willing to give Obama a chance. Remaining on the right rump are the teabaggers. The Glenn Becks. The far right ideologues who have not – and cannot – come to grips with the death of American conservatism. When they finally held the full reigns of power in 2002, they proceeded to “govern like liberals.” Why would the self-proclaimed conservative Republicans “sell out” when they got to power? Surely, the only reason Republicans lost in 2006 and 2008 was the party’s “abandonment” of “core conservative principles.” (Forget, for a moment, that absolutely none of the polling among the general electorate shows voter anger at the GOP’s alleged leftward movement.) This, the true believers tell themselves.
And so the right lives on in a state of denial. Paranoid conspiracies about Obama’s “Islam”, or “socialism” substitute for principled political opposition. Even capitalism and Christianity – twin pillars of American conservatism – seem to be on the wane.
The conservative Republican base looks out on an America that is less Christian, less supportive of free market capitalism, less nationalistic, and less white and sees a country in decline. While Obama represents a multicultural future for an America based on a resurgent liberalism, multilateralism and social tolerance, the Right wonders where their country has gone.
That is what this tea party is all about. It represents a profound sense of loss – the true believers’ last act. It isn’t really about bank bailouts or taxes, though those issues are certainly part of the agenda (of course the Left despises the bank bailouts just as much as the Right). It is merely a requiem for a movement that promised, as recently as four years ago, to move the country in a permanent rightward direction.
To understand the rage and frustration of the teabaggers of 2009, then, is to understand the confusion and alienation among the Left in December 1969. That month, what could have been one of the greatest cultural moments of all time – a rock festival including the Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane and the Flying Burrito Brothers – turned into a disaster. In the midst of it, a Hells Angel guard stabbed a drug-addled black man with a gun who had planned to kill Mick Jagger. More important than the event itself, Altamont signaled the death of the hippie dream – and even the death of optimism on the Left as a whole.
This is where the Right is at this point. In the wilderness, confused, angry, and occasionally paranoid. Utterly unsure of how to approach the Obama Administration and its ambitious progressive agenda, the Right hopes that America will just “snap out of it” and “wake up.”
If history is any guide, the Right will be waiting for about 30 years.