John Birch redivivus

In the New Yorker, historian Sean Wilentz notes the parallels between the ideology and tactics of the Glenn Beck-inspired tea party movement and the Cold War-era John Birch Society. The similarities extend even to drawing on some of the same crackpot conspiracy-mongering “scholarship.”

What I didn’t realize before reading this is that Woodrow Wilson has become the hate figure du jour among tea partiers. Now, I’m not a big fan of Wilson either, but that has more to do with his support of segregation, atrocious record on civil liberties, and the fact that he dragged the country into World War I than it does with the Federal Reserve or the progressive income tax.

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7 thoughts on “John Birch redivivus

  1. I’ve not read the article, but did hear the interview with the author on NPR. The John Birchers tried to take over the GOP in the 50s and 60s, but were pushed back because of their wackiness. They’ve reappeared under a new guise and are poised to do what they couldn’t do before. The question is — who in the GOP can/will stand up to them for the good of the country.

  2. Judging by the article, Wilentz isn’t confident that anyone in the GOP will stand up to it. He ends with this:

    “In 1906, early in the Progressive era, the humorist Finley Peter Dunne’s fictional barroom sage, Mr. Dooley, put the social and political tumult of the day into perspective. ‘Th’ noise ye hear is not th’ first gun iv a revolution,’ Dooley remarked. ‘It’s on’y th’ people iv th’ United States batin’ a carpet.’ A century from now, or even a year from now, Americans may say the same about the Tea Party. For the moment, though, it appears that the extreme right wing is on the verge of securing a degree of power over Congress and the Republican Party that is unprecedented in modern American history. For defenders of national cohesion and tempered adversity in our politics, it is an alarming state of affairs.”

  3. On a slightly more serious note, what I think is wrong with the “anti-statism” of the tea party is that it’s blind to context.

    As a Jeffersonian democrat (of sorts), I have a soft spot for the anti-Federalists.

    But at that time, anti-statism was based in opposition to established wealth and privilege.

    The “anti-statism” of the tea party-GOP axis, however, is largely in defense of wealth and privilege.

    So, far from harking back to the nation’s founding principles, the tea party movement is actually flouting them.

    Or so I think.

  4. My own view of the Tea Party is more ambivalent. I haven’t attended anything. When I see rallies, half the time I think, “My people!” and half the time “Not my people!” I don’t see the thing as having one center. That said, the reactions often appear to be directed at a monolith. Whether or not many or most Tea Partiers are as moderately conservative as Berkowitz, it is important to note that people who are often feel some affinity for them.

    Now when you say that the anti-statism is blind to context, but go on to say that it is in defense of wealth and privilege, do you mean that you think the Tea Partiers are purposely defending anti-statism as a means to defend wealth and privilege, but are blind to the fact that this is unlike the anti-statism of the founding? Or do you mean that the Tea Partiers are anti-statist in principle, but are blind to the fact that the consequences of their anti-statism would be to defend wealth and privilege?

    I am for holding such principles in a way that is blind in the latter fashion. I think procedural justice should be stuck to regardless of consequences.

    I also suspect that many see a different kind of privilege in Washington, on both sides of the aisles. That the purpose in Washington is to hold onto power, sometimes used for helping the privileged, and sometimes used for helping the poor, but power collected and loved for its own sake. The key thing that would keep me away from these gatherings is that I fear they imagine if they just get their own guys into power, it will be different.

  5. I imagine there are tea-partiers who fall into both of the categories you mention: those who use anti-statist or libertarian language to defend wealth and privilege and those who use that language sincerely irrespective of the consequences it has for reinforcing existing wealth and privilege.

    Mostly, the American right-wing tends to be very selective about what areas it wants the government to get out of, and I don’t see the Tea Party movement as significantly different in that regard.

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