The Two Faces of the Tea Party

Liberal bloggers are always tearing their hair out, asking when demagogues like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are going to be exposed as the extremists that they are by the mainstream media, or better yet, called to account by their own ideological allies.

Last week’s Weekly Standard pretty much does just that and more to Glenn Beck, in Matthew Continetti’s article “The Two Faces of the Tea Party.”

“For Beck,” Continetti writes, “conspiracy theories are not aberrations. They are central to his worldview. They are the natural consequence of assuming that the world hangs by a thread, and that everyone is out to get you.”

Whatever you think of Theodore Roosevelt, he was not Lenin. Woodrow Wilson was not Stalin. The philosophical foundations of progressivism may be wrong. The policies that progressivism generates may be counterproductive. Its view of the Constitution may betray the Founders’. Nevertheless, progressivism is a distinctly American tradition that partly came into being as a way to prevent ideologies like communism and fascism from taking root in the United States. And not even the stupidest American liberal shares the morality of the totalitarian monsters whom Beck analogizes to American politics so flippantly.

Beck himself is analogized to Barry Goldwater, the conservative firebrand and 1964 presidential hopeful whose nomination speech famously declared that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and that “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Goldwater, of course, lost big. The other face of the Tea Party is CNBC’s Rick Santelli, “a man,” Continetti tells us, “who is worried about America’s future, but who thinks the right mix of policy and leadership can cure the nation’s ills.” Santenelli is “a forward-looking, optimistic, free-market populist”–in short, a Ronald Reagan for our times. He might not be running for anything himself, but he embodies Republicanism’s next winning formula.

Continetti’s very name implies a sensible middle path of fiscal responsibility and prudential conservativism, of Tocquevillean “self interest rightly understood.” Far be it from me to question the sincerity of The Weekly Standard, which gave my Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies one of the most appreciative reviews it received, but I do take issue with its efforts to validate the Tea Party’s ugly backlash politics by throwing Glenn Beck under a bus. Not that he doesn’t deserve it, but Tea Partyism, even without Glenn Beck, is still a pretty vile brew.

Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes discovered Sarah Palin during a Weekly Standard cruise; they did as much to pump her up into a national figure as anyone except John McCain. Matthew Continetti, lest we forget, is the author of The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Elite Media Tried to Bring Down a Rising Star (Sentinel, 2009). As grateful as I am for its critique of Glenn Beck’s demagoguery, I remain mindful that the primary agenda of The Weekly Standard is to redeem Republicanism’s electoral brand, not to question its values, ethics, or ideas.

7 thoughts on “The Two Faces of the Tea Party

  1. Interesting article, but I agree with your assessment. Still, it’s good to see anyone in the conservative movement try to distance themselves even a little from the extreme lunatic fringe.

    I also found it amusing that Continetti kept mixing up Franklin & Teddy Roosevelt.

  2. “is unified in opposition to the policies that it believes put America in its current predicament”

    Right. Key word being “believes” – as opposed to what actually did put America in this predicament. Both Beck and Santelli want more of the same policies that brought us here.

  3. Populist vs. Progressive. Am I feeling this is a shifting soils arguement? It may be harder for Beck to continue his hardliner stance. A danger to a bullypulpit the more fringe a speaker he becomes. I had to e-mail a teacher yesterday because she was explaining socio-economic disparities in the U.S. Though she didn’t come out and say it but I felt strong undertones of “Fairness Doctrine”. To make her point in saying that minorities don’t have the same access to technological fields she employed an interesting average. She said that the average white household makes $82k more than the average Black household. I asked her how that was possible when the median U.S. income was 40-52K a year. She said it was an average made up from all wage earners. An earlier number she presented was that the top (0.9%) make as much as a thousand times that of the average worker. Including this group was where the 82k came from. I had to call bullshit; after class of course. If one excludes the top ten percent as an aberation and looks at the median spread, the landscape completely changes. If fact, Asians are by far wealthier than Whites, Blacks or Hispanics when you look a fifths. The middle fifth of income households is interesting because the four races are represented from 19-22%. I.E. there is almost the same number of racial representation in the dead center of income households. This is what gives the demagoges alot of traction.

    1. “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics,” as Disraeli put it. Citing mean, median, or average incomes skews their relative levels dramatically; as does discounting the top 10% as an “aberration” (as value-laden a term as you’ll ever see). One non-quantifiable fact about American earnings: everyone considers themselves to be members of the “middle class,” no matter what their income really is. This is why you have so many millionaire politicians who style themselves as champions of the middle class–because that is what they believe they are. This is also why you have so many Americans leveraged to a fare-thee-well, living beyond their means: because that is what it takes for them to live a lifestyle that is appropriate to their presumed middle class standing.

      Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab’s The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing Extremism in America 1790-1977 (Chicago, 1978) noted that America’s egalitarian assumptions have always been anxiety-producing. Those who can’t rise to the top feel a nagging sense of inferiority; those who fall from the top feel victimized. In Europe, where there has always been a hereditary aristocracy, there’s more of a sense of noblesse oblige. “The community, aristocrats, the church, the state, are responsible for helping the less fortunate, for the maintenance of welfare institutions. Such welfare objectives were not designed to facilitate upward social mobility, to break down class barriers. Thus various conservatives such as Bismarck and Disraeli could approve of socialist objectives.”

      American conservatives, as contrasted with British, Scandinavian, or even Canadian, find the growth of the welfare state much more antithetical to their values, to their sense of moral rectitude. …The War on Poverty initiated by President Johnson was premised on the assumption that people are poor because they lack the attributes to succeed, such as education, skills, and motivation. This position is not very different from that of the conservative Republicans who also traditionally have believed that the poor are poor because they are lazy or stupid…..

      The quality of anti-elitism has made many with a claim to high status much more insecure about their status than would be true for the equivalents in many European countries. Many of the American elite are status-anxious, feel threatened and insecure, and react politically to this sense of being under attack, to lacking legitimacy. They feel weak and rejected by the majority….Thus, what has been called backlash politics has characterized certain segments of the American right wing for much of American history…..But right-wing groups typically have to appeal to the populace within the framework of values which are themselves a source of right-wing discontent in the first place: anti-elitism, individualism, and egalitarianism. These remain the supreme American political values. Commitment to these values is the American ideology, there being no more concrete political philosophy or dogma….It is perhaps the ultimate paradox that extremist movements in this country have been powerfully spawned by the same American characteristics that finally rejected them.

  4. Damn, tell me to shut-up and dance why don’t ya! Lol. Yes, my beef with the prof, which I expressed thrice in my e-mail, was not that Blacks aren’t stuck in the lower fifth. Because they are, 32%-ish. I just don’t see leadership that provides a “how-to” guide in reality beyond throwing tax dollars. The conversation did delve into diversity and sub-culture. That the Black “nerd” is shat upon by their own cultural standards or stereo-typing. Auto-segrigation in the flavor that Steve Urkle is anti-black culture. This isn’t true because Malcom X was very much a “nerd”. The Commercial-Industrial Complex conspiracy tells inner-city youths that buying an Escalade (Corp. Sponsorship of performing artists), living a “gansta” lifestyle and living the dream of victimology leads to a recording contract and a big house w/ bling and money. Not true. If I were a Black leader I would point to a map of median income and ask, “Why do they make so much in Alaska and Wyoming?” Recipe for success: Graduate High School. Get a CC or saving 3 grand. Pack the one bag you own and leave the poor city you are in. Head west to the oil fields (or wherever has work and few workers). They pay more in WY because they are desperate for labor. Don’t be skeered. Rent a trailer and hit the fields. Rake in the 40-50k a year for five years but live like your poor because you know how. Then you can go to school wherever or return to the city of origen(if you want) with skills and some fold-money. It is just that so many people are so afraid of leaving that junk neighborhood and they don’t know how easy it really is. To me it is frustrating. There is such a prevailent stereotype embedded in urbanites about the rural west. The truth is you have to make your own ship instead of waiting for it to come in.

  5. I think all the points you make are valid and important.

    I find it interesting that black nationalists like Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, and Louis Farrakhan pushed much the same things–entrepreneurialism, work ethic, self-empowerment–only they mixed their message up with Conspiracy theory and victimology too.

    Lipset and Raab leaned left but they made a devastating (and very neo-connish) point about how the War on Poverty was based on premises that weren’t that different than those that under-girded conservativism’s knee-jerk contempt for the poor*. Another point that Lipset and Raab make that’s almost universally applicable is to be wary of “simple” and “moral” solutions, which they identify as hallmarks of both conservative and leftist extremism.

    But of course any solution that’s premised totally on “free market” solutions is going to be illusory. There has never been a “free market” in this country or probably anywhere else.

    *Late addendum: But if the liberals are condescending, at least they try to do something. Big difference.

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