by John Hawkins | October 25, 2010 5:00 am
Dave Weigel over at Slate has done a great piece on an academic conference at Berkeley. What was it about? They call it the “Tea Party Conference.” A bunch of Berkeleyites trying to figure out Tea Partiers? It was every bit as much of a hot mess as you’d imagine.
Let’s get started with an introduction and then we’ll get down to the meat of things:
BERKELEY, Calif.–On the night before we are scheduled to address this conference, the Tea Party experts are treated to a meal at the Faculty Club. It sounds fancy, and it is, with the feel and décor of a Sundance ski lodge. Over craft beers, wine, and cheese, we discuss that favorite topic of liberal academics: What the hell happened to Barack Obama? Why does the right have all the energy that he and the left used to own?
…We sit down and we’re given the full details for the conference: “Fractures, Alliances, and Mobilizations: Emerging Analyses of the Tea Party Movement.” It’s the first event of its kind hosted by Berkeley’s two-year-old Center for the Comparative Study of Right-Wing Movements. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Debra Saunders and I are two reporters invited to speak; everyone else is an academic, a think tanker, or a political researcher. One of the authors of the NAACP’s report on “Tea Party Nationalism” is here, as is Nixonland author Rick Perlstein.
The research and analysis from the panelists is along those same lines. Why are people joining the Tea Party? Perlstein kicks off the conference with an analysis of conservative anger, tracing its history and discussing the “sluicing” that conservatives do to keep people angry by giving them stories that reinforce their fears. The audience, mostly academics and activists but some students, respond to quotes from Newt Gingrich and other Republicans with nervous laughter and gasps, the air-rushing-through-teeth kind that you only hear from audiences reacting to speeches. The plaintive questions start in.
Have you ever noticed that liberals are always going on about “conservative anger” and “fears” even though they seem to spend much of their time in a state of hysteria? Have you ever seen people as perpetually outraged as liberals? And fear? These are people who believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that their opponents are the equivalent of Nazis, fascists, and the KKK. This sort of thing is why, whenever you hear liberals talk, you get the feeling that you’re talking to people who are either extraordinarily dishonest or completely self-unaware.
“One of the most famous things Saul Alinsky did was–when O’Hare Airport wasn’t hiring African-Americans–he held the ‘sh*t-in,’ ” said Perlstein. “They waited until the big planes were getting in then monopolized the toilets. I can’t see Barack Obama doing that.”
Rarely will I say this, but that probably speaks well for Barack Obama.
But the social scientists are more ready than the historians to crunch numbers and prove that racial animosity is key to the Tea Party. It’s cold comfort for people like Hardy Frye, but it does suggest that Obama’s ability to form some grand populist coalition was always limited. The University of Washington’s Christopher Parker shares his research-in-progress based on interviews in seven states that break down subjects into “true skeptics” of the Tea Party at one end and “true believers” at the other.
“If you look across the board here, true skeptics of the Tea Party, 49 percent agreed with the proposition that blacks ought to work their way up without any special favors,” says Parker. “But if you look at the true believers, that goes to 92 percent. This is another indicator of racism, right: Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve. Forty-five percent of true skeptics disagree with this; almost 80 percent of true believers disagree with this.”
This goes to another gaping flaw in the thinking of liberals: If “49 percent (of true skeptics) agreed with the proposition that blacks ought to work their way up without any special favors” it’s evidence of….well, nothing in particular. But, if “92 percent” of Tea Party fans feel the same way, they’re obviously racists. We see this ALL THE TIME. A liberal and a conservative hold the exact same views for exactly the same stated reason and the liberal conclusion is that the conservative is a racist and the liberal is….hey, what’s that over there? For people who spend so much time harping on hypocrisy, liberals sure are comfortable with glaring intellectual inconsistencies.
This crowd, steeped and marinated in radical politics, is struggling to understand the Tea Party. And part of their problem is that the wider world either doesn’t think their analyses are novel, or derides them as slander. It’s a strange place to be in. These are the people who watched Barack Obama spend a year fighting back against the charge that Bill Ayers had indoctrinated him in the ways of the Weather Underground. Then, once he came into office, they watched Obama enact an agenda that disappoints them every day but that the opposition–and sometimes the media–calls “socialist.”
Might I suggest an alternative answer to this conundrum that liberals seem to find themselves in? Here we have Barack Obama implementing the socialist agenda of their dreams and yet, they’re unhappy. How can that be? Might I suggest that it’s because they have lied to themselves about the popularity of their agenda. The liberal base has spent years, despite all the evidence to the contrary, convincing themselves that Americans want their agenda. Liberal politicians know better. That’s why they incessantly lie about what they want to do. But, to the academics and Kossacks of the world, that’s foolish. If the American people legitimately had a chance to embrace socialism, they’d do it! So, Barack Obama has given the American people that opportunity and it has produced a massive backlash. So, how do liberals deal with this? They have to create a fiction: Obama isn’t really implementing their agenda. If he was, people would love it! That’s much, much easier than admitting the truth: People don’t want what they’re selling. It’s a lot easier to point the finger at Obama than to challenge their whole belief system.
When they try to label and categorize the politics of these new, conservative radicals, they convince one another but don’t break through to the rest of the country. Over lunch, Charles Postel, an award-winning historian of populism and a professor at SFSU, talks about an interview he taped for a PBS program, in which he debated the Tea Party with the National Review’s resident historian, Richard Brookhiser. Postel tried to explain that the more out-of-nowhere ideas of the Tea Party, such as repealing the 17th Amendment, were inspired by the John Birch Society. Brookhiser wouldn’t have that.
“He blew up!” sighs Postel. “He was saying the Birchers haven’t done anything in 40 years!”
“They have a fully staffed office!” laughs Chip Berlet, a well-traveled political researcher with a cane propping him up before his scheduled March 2011 knee surgery. “They were at CPAC!”
This is another variation of an argument you often hear from lefties: Non-influential group X that is saying something liberals want to hear is actually extremely influential. Having a fully staffed office? There are gazillions of groups hardly anybody has heard of that have fully staffed offices. Attending CPAC? CPAC was heavily criticized for allowing the Birchers to have a booth. The Birchers are not an influential group in the conservative movement and as Brookhiser said, they haven’t been for decades. This is not secret information or difficult to ferret out. These people just don’t want to know the truth because it’s easier to rant about Birchers than deal with the real world.
Most of the scholars take a darker view, and provide more evidence that Obama was always going to be running uphill. Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory, presents data on the increasing partisanship of Republicans, who are more and more likely to despise Democratic presidents and deny them space to govern.
“The feeling thermometer scale goes from 0 to 100,” says Abramowitz, pointing to a chart with a collapsing line. “Over time, you can see that Democratic presidential candidates getting less and less. By the last time period, you can see that the average rating is around 27 degrees. That’s downright freezing.”
Again, we get back to the lack of self-awareness amongst liberals. Have Republicans been extremely partisan since Obama got into office? Absolutely. Of course, were Democrats extremely partisan during Bush’s presidency? Absolutely. Has Barack Obama himself been extremely partisan? Absolutely.
Liberals love to craft this myth of the bipartisan President who got nothing for it from those mean old Republicans. But, the fact of the matter is that Barack Obama has made no effort whatsoever to reach any sort of real bipartisan compromise with Republicans. What he has done is that he started with extremely liberal bills and then made some very minor changes to them to try to pick off Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. That’s not meaningful bipartisanship. That’s merely trying to get political cover. For example, at no point has Obama ever made the sort of genuine attempt to cooperate that George W. Bush did on say, No Child Left Behind. When Obama actually sits down at the table with people like Jim DeMint and Michele Bachmann to craft a bill that they don’t shred right from the getgo, then you’ll know he’s interested in working with Republicans for the first time in his presidency.
“I wonder if we’re likely to see a Timothy McVeigh situation,” says Nicholas Robert, an attendee originally from Australia, who basically wonders if any Tea Partiers can be arrested. “It seems to be that we’re being very polite. I wonder if there are any legal mechanisms–one that comes to mind are the provisions used to crush the Wobblies.”
He gets no sympathy from the academics. “I think that’s a dangerous road to go down,” says Berlet.
I have no doubt that there are a lot of liberals who would put conservatives in jail if they could. That’s where the fear of conservatives putting liberals in camps comes from: There are a significant number of liberals who know they’d do it to us if they could and they errantly expect us to have the same attitude.
I’d also add that you find just as many (if not more) liberal nuts with a tendency towards violence as you will conservative nuts. The difference is that when someone on the Right does something loopy like that, liberals insist he’s a stand-in for the entire conservative movement. But, when a liberal does something crazy, he kills alone.
Until liberals start to gain some self-awareness, they’re never going to really understand the Tea Party, conservatives, or even reality.
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