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Will the Tea Get Cold?

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Charles Ommanney/Reportage by Getty Images
Ron Paul preparing to speak at a rally in Nashua, New Hampshire, January 6, 2012

With one exception, Skocpol and Williamson write, “not a single grassroots Tea Party supporter we encountered argued for privatization of Social Security or Medicare,” pet projects of a conservative legislator like Paul Ryan and of organizations like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity. The Republican aspirants have adapted to these internal contradictions. They attack Obama for increasing government spending and at the same time for trimming $500 billion from Medicare.

The impracticality of this war against government, which in fact offers no serious plan to scale government back, suggests that the conservative populism of our moment is rooted not in a coherent worldview so much as in a “mood” or atmosphere of generalized, undifferentiated protest. This is why Gingrich’s actual record, in and out of office, has mattered less to the Republican base than his skill at channeling the passions of the moment and his attunement to the idiom of grievance. While Romney, who seems to lack an authentic, individual voice, is always reciting standard texts, whether the lyrics of “America the Beautiful” or the warning that Obama is “building a European-style welfare state,”17 Gingrich has shown a gift for the original, crowd-stirring punch line: Obama is “the best food-stamp president in American history”18 as well as “the most radical president in American history.”19 He stirred the crowd even more when he scolded moderators at the two televised debates in South Carolina, touching on themes he repeated in his victory remarks when, as Politico reported, “he chastised elites, elite media or just the media seven times; Saul Alinsky, four; religious bigots, three; food stamps, three; and added pokes at San Francisco, socialism and bowing to Saudi kings for good measure.”20

This is the sort of script Romney seems incapable of mastering. In a roomful of true believers he is the interloper who mechanically moves his lips in synch with the rest but doesn’t seem to feel the emotional rhythm of the message. But his awkward style is only part of the problem. There is a more serious one, too. His recalibrations move in the wrong direction. Authentic tribunes of the right, like Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, were credentialed ideologues who were forgiven their many accommodations to the mainstream. Romney, by contrast, is the natural pragmatist seeking (for the second time; he tried it also in 2008) to recast himself as a radical, even though he knows the epithet “moderate” will eventually work to his advantage in the general election.

Richard Hofstadter, an early astute observer of modern right-wing passions, gave such a position the name “pseudo-conservatism” in 1955 and asked, “Why do the pseudo-conservatives express such a persistent fear and suspicion of their own government?” He was writing during the period when Joseph McCarthy gave the Republican Party its first contemporary flavor of insurgent populism. Hofstadter located this “dynamic of dissent” in the murky realm of “political culture,” with its pulsing “undercurrent of provincial resentments, popular and ‘democratic’ rebelliousness and suspiciousness, and nativism.”21

He emphasized these cultural matters because the mid-1950s were among the prosperous years in American history; the economy grew at rates equivalent to China’s today. This is no longer the case, obviously enough. And yet the attitudes Hofstadter recorded are still with us and attached, often, to the same emotions—nostalgia for an earlier, better America, unthreatened by ethnic diversity or by the rise of educated “technocrats.” In their interviews, Skocpol and Williamson note,

Tea Party members rarely stressed economic concerns to us—and they never blamed business or the superrich for America’s troubles. The nightmare of societal decline is usually painted in cultural hues, and the villains in the picture are freeloading social groups, liberal politicians, bossy professionals, big government, and the mainstream media.

Illegal immigration is a particular anxiety—not because employers give low-wage jobs to illegals or outsource them to China and India, but because those who slip over the border, or their children, crowd schools and hospitals. They are the “undeserving,” who drain the federal treasury and imperil the benefits due to birthright citizens.

All this exists at a remove from the arguments made by champions of the Tea Party, such as Elizabeth Price Foley in her book The Tea Party: Three Principles. Foley, a professor of constitutional law, describes a movement driven by “constitutional principles.” These include “limited government, US sovereignty and constitutional originalism.” She adds that these principles are distinct from the “‘social conservatism’ that has dominated the conservative movement for the last thirty years” and that Tea Partiers are at best lukewarm in their attitudes toward issues like “abortion” or “gay marriage.”

Foley’s brand of constitutional ideas, in turn, derives from long-standing doctrine on the right—for instance, the theories of the political scientist Willmoore Kendall, who in the 1960s, prefiguring the “constitutional conservatives” of today, wrote lengthily on the importance of the nation’s founding creedal documents, dating from the Mayflower Compact. Kendall argued that the expanding powers of the federal government

moved away from the unique and defining principles and practices central to the political tradition of our Founding Fathers, those associated with self-government by a virtuous people deliberating under God. In their place…we have embraced a new, largely contrived “tradition” derived from the language of the Declaration of Independence with “equality” and “rights” at its center.22

For Kendall the original heretic was Lincoln, who prepared the way for the later trespasses of the New Deal and the Great Society. Echoes of this argument can also be found among current followers of Leo Strauss, particularly those connected with the Claremont Institute, in California, who for nearly forty years have identified Woodrow Wilson as the author of an intrusive and even predatory “administrative state.”23

This idea has filtered into more popular venues, for instance the broadcasts of Glenn Beck and some Tea Party dogma.24 In their book Tea Party Patriots: The Second American Revolution, Mark Meckler and Jenny Beth Martin, cofounders of the Tea Party Patriots, Inc., one of the largest of the insurgent organizations, inveigh against the evils introduced in 1913, when the federal income tax began, and “the Seventeenth Amendment to the US Constitution,” providing for direct election of senators, “was ratified, forever tipping the balance of power toward Washington, and leading to a hundred-year march toward federal tyranny.”

The early accounts of the Tea Party phenomenon often depicted its adherents as apolitical citizens disturbed by the recession and mounting debt and roused from their apathy to do something about it. This may be true of some, but others are seasoned activists long involved in politics. This is certainly the case with organizers like Dick Armey, the former House majority leader who heads FreedomWorks, a 2004 offshoot of an organization set up in 1984 by the billionaire Koch brothers. Jenny Beth Martin affects a pose of naiveté in her book: “If someone had told me [in 2009] that I would soon be writing a book about American politics, I would have laughed,” she writes. But only a few pages later, when recounting her expert use of “Facebook, Twitter, and other social media,” Martin explains that “I already had a political network, having been involved at the local and state level for many years”—and since the early 2000s she was “a full-time blogger and Republican activist.” So too with the lower-profile Tea Partiers interviewed by Skocpol and Williamson: “An extraordinary number dated their first political experiences to the 1964 Goldwater campaign.”

Did ideological conservatism inspire primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, or Florida? Probably not, if Skocpol and Williamson’s findings can be believed. The picture they give is closer to Hofstadter’s account of provincial resentments, suspicion, and nativism, and highlights what might be termed the cultural contradictions of modern-day conservatism—contradictions that allow politicians like Gingrich and Santorum to present themselves as struggling outsiders or that obligate Romney to disown his one true accomplishment, the innovative Massachusetts health care program that was a blueprint for Obama’s, although its centerpiece, the “individual mandate” requiring that people have health insurance, is an idea once favored by conservative policy experts, including some at the Heritage Foundation, who saw it not as a predatory big-government scheme but as a useful compromise between government and market forces.

The strength of the conservative movement in our time begins with successful efforts at harnessing energetic factions within the GOP, sufficiently well organized at times to dictate the party’s policies and platforms and on rare occasion to achieve national victories. But it has bred internal conflict. The spectacle of the self-proclaimed anti-politician, favored by the Republican establishment, locked in combat with a putative outsider who is in fact a career politician has been a staple of GOP politics since 1940, when Wendell Willkie, “the barefoot boy from Wall Street,” a former Democrat with almost no experience in politics, wrested the nomination from the Senate stalwarts Robert A. Taft and Arthur Vandenberg. The issue then was World War II, and whether America should enter. Taft and Vandenberg, true to their “old guard” midwestern roots, were isolationists. Willkie was an interventionist, and “the only man the Republicans have who stands a chance of making an effective case” for mobilizing US industries for wartime—so a Time columnist wrote a week before the Republican convention.25

Thus was the pattern set, with favorite sons of the heartland such as Taft pitted against and usually losing to one proto-Romney or another, each an ideologically suspect moderate who commanded no particular loyalty among the GOP base but was deemed electable by of a cabal of “secret” and “highly placed New York kingmakers,”26 to quote A Choice Not an Echo, Phyllis Schlafly’s self-published tract. Some 1.6 million copies of it were printed in May and June 1964, amid Barry Goldwater’s insurgent campaign against patrician moderates. Goldwater lost major primaries to each, most humiliatingly in New Hampshire, where he was thrashed by the write-in candidate Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. Goldwater staggered through on the strength of delegates collected in uncontested primaries, and then by edging out Nelson Rockefeller in California. He then overcame a third East Coast moderate, William Scranton, who made a belated futile charge of the kind some members of today’s establishment envision Jeb Bush or Mitch Daniels making. But LBJ carried forty-four states and beat Goldwater by 61.1 to 38.5 percent.

In between Willkie and Goldwater came Thomas Dewey, the New York governor and early exemplar of compassionate conservatism unloved by the old guard, and Dwight Eisenhower, so blank a slate ideologically that the Democratic Party had courted him too, as a successor to Harry Truman in 1952.

“Bob Taft was clearly robbed of the Republican nomination, primarily because the public [was]…persuaded that Taft could not win if nominated,” William F. Buckley wrote in 1954, in a letter sent to potential backers of National Review,27 a magazine founded in part to “read Dwight Eisenhower out of the conservative movement”28 and to restore the GOP to pre–New Deal purity.

  1. 17

    Michael D. Shear, “Romney Attacks Obama’s Address as Nothing More Than ‘Tall Tales,’” The New York Times, January 24, 2012. 

  2. 18

    Alan Bjerga and Jennifer Oldham, “Gingrich Calling Obama ‘Food-Stamp President’ Draws Critics,” Bloomberg, January 20, 2012. 

  3. 19

    Joe Klein, “Obama’s Fairness Doctrine,” Time, February 6, 2012. 

  4. 20

    Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, “Newt Gingrich: The Master of Disguise,” Politico, January 23, 2012. 

  5. 21

    Hofstadter’s essay was first collected in The New American Right (1955; it was updated and expanded in the volume The Radical Right, in 1963; both edited by Daniel Bell), pp. 82, 76; other quotations from The Age of Reform (Vintage, 1955), pp. 4–5. 

  6. 22

    Willmoore Kendall and George W. Carey, The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition (Catholic University of America Press, 1970; repr. 1995), p. ix. Kendall died in 1967. These lectures were assembled posthumously. 

  7. 23

    For an early, Straussian discussion of Wilson as subverter of constitutional ideals, see Paul Eidelberg, A Discourse on Statesmanship (University of Illinois Press, 1974), pp. 279–362. For a more recent one, see Ronald J. Pestritto, Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism (Rowman, Littlefield, 2009). See also Jacob Heilbrunn, “The Claremont Institute, Ron Paul, and the State of Conservatism,” on The National Interest website, October 11, 2011. 

  8. 24

    See Sean Wilentz, “Confounding Fathers,” The New Yorker, October 18, 2010. 

  9. 25

    Alan Brinkley, The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century (Knopf, 2010), p. 256. 

  10. 26

    Phyllis Schlafly, A Choice Not an Echo (self-published, 1964), p. 108. 

  11. 27

    Draft of “selling memo,” spring- summer 1954 (Buckley Papers, Yale University). 

  12. 28

    See my Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (Modern Library, 1998), p. 487. 

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