On Blind Rage, Government By John Bircher, and the Absence of Consequences

Kevin Drum asks the following question (boldface mine):

The reason the tea party caucus isn’t willing to compromise is because there’s no pressure on them to compromise. Their constituents are as crazy as they are. They want the safety net slashed, taxes cut, the EPA put out of business, and the Fed eliminated. They believe that Obamacare is the thin edge of the wedge that’s driving America into decline and ruin. They believe this so strongly that they’re willing to do anything to turn the country around. If that means government shutdowns and financial panic, so be it.

But why? There’s always been a faction of right-wing craziness in America. It’s part of our DNA. But how did it become so widespread? The usual answer involves the rise of conservative think tanks, conservative talk radio, Fox News, the Christian right, and racial resentment toward a black president. And maybe that’s it. Somehow, though, it doesn’t feel quite sufficient. But if it’s not, then what’s going on? What’s happened over the past decade or two to spin up so many Americans into a blind rage?

Drum is right: there have always been right-wing paranoiacs. But to understand what has changed, we have to look at the fall of the John Birch Society. In the fifties and early sixties, the right-wing political organization known as the John Birch society enjoyed considerable political influence. While they were more focused on Communism and ‘leftists’, they did also have a strong social conservative streak (and in the 70s and later, many would go on to become social conservatives; a smaller number joined the nascent white supremacist movement). They formed part of Goldwater’s shock troops in his failed 1960 primary run against Nixon and were influential among conservatives (Nixon was seen as too liberal–sound familiar?).

But among those who know about the John Birch Society, today the term ‘Bircher’ is widely used as a term of derision. Why? In 1960, Bircher leader Robert Welch wrote an internal document to be shared only among the Bircher leadership known as The Black Book (later, it would be published as The Politician). The Black Book was full of right-wing zaniness, including the charge that Dwight Eisenhower–yes, the former Supreme Allied Commander (awesomest title EVAH!) and U.S. president–was a Communist. Oddly enough, people found this both ludicrous and offensive. The John Birch Society was assailed both in the mainstream press and by more than a few conservatives (though it’s not clear to what extent the latter was merely political preservation). Bircher changed from right-wing, albeit respectable, conservative to full-bore wackaloon.

So to return to Drum’s question: until this shutdown, as I noted recently, the Tea Party hasn’t come under widespread condemnation outside of what passes for the left. Yes, their policies and views have been criticized, but until the last few weeks, the mainstream punditariat hasn’t launched a full-bore assault on the basic legitimacy–or sanity–of their views. They haven’t viewed the ascent of the Tea Party as an existential threat. Now, they’re starting. The Tea Party expresses “blind rage” because that expression has not been delegitimized. They do so publicly because they can. And the rage builds on itself.

I have written again and again that nothing in movement conservatism makes sense except in the light of creationism. In my opinion, the tide started to turn against creationism when two things began to happen. First, the he-said/she-said reporting declined (or, more accurately, was helped to decline by activists). Second, rather than just debating the arguments, the fundamental legitimacy of creationism and creationists was called into question.

When that happens, the “blind rage” will begin to wane as a legitimate form of political expression.

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3 Responses to On Blind Rage, Government By John Bircher, and the Absence of Consequences

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