It’s morning in America, and the nativists are getting restless. Often cited amidst the moderate chagrin over rightwing rampaging in recent weeks is the dubious proposition that these factions are openly rebelling against “business as usual” in US politics. While social movement activities in general are worthwhile, we ought to distinguish between those that actually challenge power and those that are supported by it. In the case of the Tea Party and their ilk, we are witnessing a unique posture whereby people are raging against the system even as they epitomize it.
In addition to this paradoxical stance of contesting the values to which it ascribes, neo-right movement culture possesses numerous disconcerting tendencies. The eschatological impetus behind these machinations is worrisome in its capacity to openly court apocalypse, as is the inherently problematic appearance of obvious charlatans seeking to replace one form of tyranny with another. Still, despite the cartoon-like Palins and Becks at the helm, there’s a serious point to be found in all of this. As Noam Chomsky recently counseled in a speech warning of the rising tide of fascism in the US, “ridiculing the tea party shenanigans is a serious error.”
Indeed, with relatively small numbers marching to the drumbeat, the Tea Party mini-movement has made political inroads that should be the envy of the true multitudes who have marched against war, for immigrant rights, and in support of myriad environmental and cultural causes. How is it that this purported “fringe” movement – a veritable tempest in a tea party, if you will – has successfully wormed its way into the mainstream of American politics? One plausible interpretation is that “the center” has inexorably moved so far to the right that the party of T finds itself much closer to the parties of D and R than it might appear from the rhetorical show.
If you doubt the premise, consider that in recent months we’ve seen an escalation of warfare, the resurrection of nuclear power, advocacy of “drill baby drill” adventurism, draconian border policies, no public option in health care, obfuscation on climate change, and the continuation of most of the Bush-era practices vis-√†-vis the war on terror. That’s a pretty solid right-wing program being delivered, and yet the Tea Partiers have the temerity to take to the streets with incendiary verbiage about “big government,” secret socialism and other clich√©s. What more do they want at this point? Perhaps: mandatory prayer in schools, zero-tolerance abortion policies, racial segregation, completely closed borders, a return to the closet, unchallenged American exceptionalism, unfettered corporate dominance, a gun in every hand, perpetual war….
Give it a little more time and we might get there. The truly shocking aspect of this comes in the realization that the debate has already moved rightward to such an extent that the Tea Party is being afforded even a modicum of credibility. When one considers how much social movement activity was engendered during the Bush years, and how scrupulously the aims and values of those movements were scrubbed from the public dialogue, it’s doubly disconcerting that in the age of Obama the fringe right has essentially gone mainstream. This is surely a testament to where power actually resides on the political spectrum, and should be a wakeup call to ostensible liberals who still believe their interests are being served because their guy won last time out.
Here’s another quick litmus test. Name at least three widely-known and politically influential far-right figures in America today (hint: go down the FOX News queue, turn right at Limbaugh, and keep going past Coulter). Now do the same in the other direction, and name three far-left figures who meet the same criteria of influence and name recognition (hint: Kucinich and some of the anchors on MSNBC are perhaps left-leaning but are definitely not far left, so keep looking further out). If you said Chomsky you might have one on the left side of the ledger, yet there’s a qualitative difference in the present ability of someone like Glenn Beck to frame the debate.
If you follow sports, perhaps this metaphor might help describe the present situation: for all intents and purposes, the game is being played entirely on the right side of the field. That is, the two parties might alternate playing offense and defense, but the ball never crosses back over midfield into the left half of the arena. Since all of the action is on one side of the field, the television cameras never move to capture what’s happening on the other side, since by definition nothing is happening there. On the left side of the field, you could amass a million people against war and for human rights, and it would be as if a whisper was heard from somewhere off-stage. On the right side of the field where all the action is, a handful of lunatics dressed up in Civil War garb with generic talking points written on their palms can run out onto the field and command the public’s gaze. Such is the skewed nature of the game in which we find ourselves today.
We can choose to ignore it, or change channels, or not buy into the whole drama in the first place. But as Chomsky warned, trivializing it (or, by implication, ignoring it) would be unwise. I’ve been seeing quite a few postings and emails lately from the left about reaching out to the tea partiers, trying to find common ground with their anti-government tendencies and populist rhetoric. While dialogue and engagement are always preferable, I’m not persuaded that in this case they’re likely to be especially useful given the current landscape. Parody is another option that might have some merit – consider how refreshing it might be if we saw the rise of a Tea-HC Party or Tea Pot Party or Herbal Tea Party or … well, you get the idea. Calling it out for what it really is seems a necessary tack, even if no one will actually listen. To wit: reactionary rightwing movements aren’t protesting against creeping fascism – they’re demanding more of it, and faster!
More pointedly, we might offer thanks to the teabag brigade for pointing out an essential truism of our political system, namely that left to its own devices it will continue to drift rightward until finally realizing the nativist paradise envisioned in the regressive mind’s eye. The fact that the fringe right can be close enough to the mainstream at the outset to warrant so much attention tells us that they are more aligned than we might want to imagine. The powerful economic, political and military interests that hold sway follow an ideological arc that has put our nation in league with rightwing dictators worldwide; indeed, the US preferred Franco’s fascism in Spain and Pinochet’s in Chile, among many other unfortunate examples. Can we truly believe that those same forces aren’t supporting homegrown versions of these factions in our midst nowadays?
Chomsky is correct: the Tea Party’s “shenanigans” are serious. But not because they’re raging against the machine in a fit of reactionary fervor – more so because they’re manipulating it and molding it to support and extend the march of rightwing ideologies that have long been inculcated on our shores. Well after the Tea Party fad passes, its essential platform of social Darwinism and antisocial parochialism will still be with us. In a sense, these values have been at the core of American politics since the beginning, and they are equally likely to define the end as well. That is, unless critical attention is paid to how the game is being played, on whose turf it is unfolding, and why we’ve become distracted as others strive to ensure that the fix is already in.