Friday, May 28, 2010

Over the Cliff

Next week is the official publication date for the new book, Over the Cliff: How Obama's Election Drove the American Right Insane (2010) by Dave Neiwert and John Amato with an introduction by Digby, but it's been available on for a couple of weeks.

Dave provides a partial early peek in 'Over the Cliff' warmup: The Top Ten Provably Untrue Things Tea Partiers Believe Crooks and Liars 05/22/2010.

This book provides a great look at the Republican Party's mass mobilization of 2009 against the Obama administration, with lots of details about the Tea Party movement. Two things about this book strike me as particularly notable. One is that it shows, as clearly as I've seen done yet, how the Tea Party movement is both a normal part of the Republican Party but also a new phase in the long-term radicalization of the Party. The other is that it gives readers not familiar with the sometimes strange and even cult-like way of talking about politics among rightwing "populist" conservatives a good introduction.

Regular readers of John Amato's Crooks and Liars, of which Dave Neiwert is the editor, will have seen a lot of the particular events described in real time. Dave is a genuine journalistic expert on the Radical Right and writes about it regularly.

But even for those who have followed the Radical Right at Crooks and Liars and other news sources, there's real value in seeing a book length description of various events and personalities, which allows the writers to focus at some length on major themes while also making the chronological narrative clear.

In the chapter called "Bloodying the Shirt", they offer some insight into a favorite habit of conservatives, especially of the far right, that can often be disconcerting to those not familiar with it. They tell the story of anti-abortion fanatic and Christian terrorist Scott Roeder who murdered Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider on May 31, 2009. Bill O'Reilly had run reports on Tiller and framed them in inflammatory terms. But, of course, when Roeder struck, O'Reilly indignantly tried to distance himself from any kind responsibility for contributing to the atmosphere that encouraged a Christian terrorist like Roeder.

Amato and Neiwert talk about the reverse accusations that people like O'Reilly often make when confronted with such challenges: they make the critics into the problem, not their own actions or incitement. Amato and Neiwert explain this by Southern whining in the late 19th century about the "bloody shirt" tactic. Citing historian Stephan Budiansky, they explain that pro-Reconstruction Congressman Ben Butler made an issue out of a Northerner whipped on the back by Ku Klux Klan thugs, and legend arose that he had waved a bloody shirt of the man's on the House floor.

Though there is no evidence for Butler ever having made that particularly dramatic gesture, conservative white Southerners made "waving the bloody shirt" a favorite slogan to use against any criticism of violence and lawlessness committed by anti-Reconstruction whites. They quote Budiansky:

To white conservative Southerners, the outrage was never the acts they committed, only the effrontery of having those acts held against them. The outrage was never the "manly" inflicting of "well-deserved" punishment on poltroons, only the craven and sniveling whines of the recipients of their wrath. And the outrage was never the violent defense of "honor" by the aristocrat, only the vulgar rabble-rousing by his social inferior. ...

The bloody shirt captured the inversion of truth that would characterize the distorted memories of Reconstruction that the nation would hold for generations after. The way it made a victim of the bully and a bully of the victim, turned the very blood of their African American victims into an affront against Southern white decency, turned the very act of Southern white violence into wounded Southern innocence; the way it suggested that the real story was never the atrocities white Southerners committed but only the attempt by their political enemies to make political hay out of it.
We see Republican conservatives using a variation of this tactic today, and not only in response to criticism of violent acts. As the authors point out, Republican pundits used it to fend off criticism of the Tea Party.

The book traces the rise of the Tea Party with heavy support from Republican Party front groups like Dick Armey's FreedomWorks and the de facto Party channel, FOX News. It's tricky to characterize a relatively amorphous "movement". But there has been extensive media coverage and well as a good deal of opinion polling probing the ideas and perspectives of those who identify with the Tea Party. It's hard to see how one reasonably interprets this available information in any other way than to see the Tea Party movement as a Republican Party mobilization of its base.

But the fact that the movement was ginned up by the Republican Party does not mean that it is nothing but Party astroturf (fake grass roots). Dave Neiwert and other close observers of the Radical Right have been pointing out from the beginning of the Tea Party that far-right activists from the Patriot Militia, xenophobic anti-immigrant, and other militant fringe groups have used the Tea Party to raise their own profiles and to mainstream more of their own ideology. In their chapter, "The Brakes Fail", they detail some of the ways in which Tea Party activists have proved to be something a loose cannon for the Party in some instances.

The Republican Party has undergone an extended process of radicalization. From whenever one dates its beginning, anyone capable of recognizing the radicalization can see that by the time the Party made torture one of its core values, the radicalization process was quite far along. The reporting and analysis put together in Over the Cliff show how the Tea Party can represent both an intensification of the radicalization process and at the same time be not some nonpartisan political insurgency, but rather the face of the Republican Party out of power.

I would pick nits with a couple of historical points. They write that the rise of the Tea Party movement in 2009 "was when the craziness reached depths previously unseen in American politics." But we haven't yet reached nearly the level of craziness of the South in the run-up to the Civil War. I'm not sure some of the far right hysteria during the early years of the Franklin Roosevelt administration or during the period of McCarthyism wasn't worse than now.

And, having a particular interest in the historical phenomenon of Jacksonian democracy, I did a big double-take at a quote they include from Chip Berlet on the ideology of "producerism", which is the description they apply to the Tea Party brand of "populism" that tries to rally working people to oppose Big Government and unfavored races (African-Americans and Latinos in the Tea Party case), while defending Big Business and the very wealthy doing what they want, the public interest be damned. They quote Berlet saying, "Producerism begins in the U.S. with the Jacksonians, who wove together intra-elite factionalism and lower-class Whites' double-edged resentments."

This is an very misleading, ahistorical characterization of Jacksonian democracy and the Jacksonian movement. In fact, the group that the late historian Richard Hofstadter and others agree was the first significant element to promote the "paranoid style" in US politics, aka, crackpot extremism, did arise during the Jacksonian era. It was the Anti-Masonic Party and was bitterly opposed to Jackson and his reforms. That claim of Berlet's is a real whopper.

But those are sidelines in Amato's and Neiwert's analysis of the contemporary right wing in the United States. Now that primary results are rolling in and Rand Paul has become a star of sorts among our leading pundits with his Bircher-theocratic brand of "libertarianism", Over the Cliff is a valuable resource for understanding daily politics in the US at the moment.

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