The Tea Party: the right’s New Left?
The plunge of ideological movements into an ever-deeper irrationality at the far end of the horseshoe when they near intellectual exhaustion may be a recurring feature of American political life. The New Left emerged at the moment when American liberalism was sputtering to a halt in the face of the contradictions between a domestic policy of social and economic reform and a foreign policy of aerial bombardment and hawkishness. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party, the main vehicle of the American left, was tearing itself into two camps — minorities and liberals who supported civil rights, feminism, and other social reform movements, and Southern segregationists (who, until the '70s, viewed the Republicans as the party of the War of Northern Aggression) and working-class Northerners (who were socially conservative, but voted Democratic due to labor issues) who felt that these changes were destroying America’s moral foundation.
Today, the same thing is happening in American politics… but on the other side of the aisle. The Tea Party movement has emerged at the moment when growing numbers of Americans realized there was a contradiction between the Christian values espoused by the Republican Party and the actual practice of a militarist foreign policy and a laissez-faire capitalism devoid of concern for human well-being — and indeed, a further contradiction between the hate spewed by the religious right towards the LGBT community, Muslims, and other minorities and what was actually preached by Jesus.
Partly for this reason, some have drawn comparisons between the Tea Party movement and the New Left. Dick Armey, one of the main figures behind the Tea Party, praised the methods of Saul Alinsky, the leading tactician of the New Left, and Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, the famous guidebook for left-wing activists and organizers, has become a right-wing bestseller, co-opted by the Tea Party in the form of Rules for Radical Conservatives. The Tea Party, like the New Left, has a penchant for shock value, street theater, marches, and rallies in order to bring attention to the movement. Anti-science denialism infects both movements – the New Left had an irrational fear of nuclear power and industry, while many Tea Party supporters harbor a similar distrust of stem cell research, evolution, and the idea that global warming is man-made. A few especially radical New Leftists talked about going “back to the land” to escape the corruption of modern society; likewise, radical teabaggers talk about “going Galt” or becoming survivalists to escape from big government. Some have even compared Glenn Beck to Abbie Hoffman.
At their core, however, both believe in the fundamental purity and virtue of individual people, and that evil is introduced from above, by corrupt authority and elites – Third-World-destroying warmongers and thieving capitalists for the New Left, and socialist bureaucrats and Hollywood elitists for the Tea Party. Both groups dismiss the prior 30 years of liberal (then) or conservative (now) government as failing to meet standards of ideological purity. The New Left thought that the Democratic Party under Presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Johnson were all corporate sellouts and warmongers who were upholding the decadent capitalist system, while to the Tea Party, the Republican Party under Bush, Nixon, and even (to some) Reagan, the man they once revered as a conservative icon, were nothing more than deficit-spending socialists. Most importantly, both the New Left and the Tea Party viewed “the establishment” as the enemy, wanted to return power to “the people”, and start a revolution.
If the Tea Party is a modern-day New Left, then judging by history, this has foreboding consequences for the right, and very welcome consequences for the left. In the late '60s, while the left was spinning into such moonbattery and radicalism as the Weather Underground, the LaRouche movement, and various corporate-imperialist conspiracy theories, conservative intellectuals like William F. Buckley Jr. and Russell Kirk were offering a sensible-sounding alternative to the crumbling New Deal consensus, while simultaneously purging the right of fringe groups like the John Birch Society and the hardcore white supremacists and anti-Semites. Cue the triumphant election of Ronald Reagan.
Today, however, the conservative movement has moved far to the right in the name of ideological purity. Tax protesters and assorted denialism and conspiracy theories (including birthers and the militia movement) are all gaining sympathy, while Glenn Beck and Joseph Farah have become trusted names in news and commentary. Liberals, meanwhile, are increasingly dismissive of the rantings of Al Sharpton, the hard greens (while simultaneously seizing from them the banner of environmentalism), and 9/11 conspiracy theorists, while more moderate, center-left leaders are becoming the public face of progressivism. If the Tea Party shoots itself in the foot the way the New Left did, then sane political thought may prevail in the years to come.
The biggest difference between the New Left and Tea Party, however, is that the New Left was alienated by most of the Democratic Party (even the liberal faction), who felt they were too extreme. The Tea Party, on the other hand, had been largely embraced by the Republican Party in 2010 and, because of this, the Tea Party has managed to be far more influential and powerful among policymakers than the New Left ever was.