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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Conservatives Let Their Freak Flag Fly

There are a couple of interesting articles out today offering meditations on the theatrics of the contemporary American Right. At TAP, Paul Waldman mocks the American Revolutionary trappings of the conservative movement in its efforts to get down with the Tea Party folk–most notably the staging of the Mount Vernon Statement, featuring a rogue’s gallery of old-school conservative power brokers:

What [former Attorney General Ed] Meese and his aging colleagues no doubt realized was that if you want to be relevant in the quickly changing conservative movement of 2010, you’d better pretend it’s 1776. Donning revolutionary regalia — sartorially or rhetorically — is becoming to today’s right what slipping on a tie-dye was to Grateful Dead shows back in the day. It tells other participants that you’re all part of the same tribe. It may seem silly to pretend to be a radical agent of change fighting against “tyranny” — the word you hear over and over again from conservatives these days — from a corner office in a corporate-funded D.C. think tank, but they’ll do their best.

Meanwhile, at Salon, Michael Lind characteristically sees something more profound going on, as the Right adopts a self-conscious counter-cultural stance similar to the one that got the Left off course in the 1970s. Lind notes how far conservatives have been backsliding in recent years towards the zaniness that kept them in the political wilderness before the rise of the organized conservative movement:

When [William F.]Buckley came on the scene in the mid-1950s, the American right was dominated by kooks: right-wing isolationists, Pearl Harbor and Yalta conspiracy theorists, anti-Semites and members of the John Birch Society like the palindromical y-named Professor Revilo P. Oliver. Buckley and his movement conservatives, and later the early neoconservatives, struggled to purge the right of crackpots and create an intellectually serious movement capable of governing the country.
And yet the right of 2010 looks like the fever-swamp right of 1950 instead of the triumphant right of 1980. The John Birch Society, which Buckley and Goldwater expelled from the conservative movement in the early 1960s, was a co-sponsor of this year’s Conservative Political Action Convention (CPAC). Folks who claimed that Eisenhower was a communist now insist that Obama is a socialist.

Calling tea partiers the “hippies of our time,” Lind goes on to compare today’s conservative counter-culture with its leftist forebears, noting a common anti-system radicalism, a Luddite tendency to disparage science and technology, a flair for street theater, and an underlying desire to secede from the broader society. This last observation is interesting; I suppose “going Galt” really is the contemporary equivalent to “getting back to the land,” and could portend a retreat from political activism by tea partiers if they become frustrated by the failure of Americans to embrace their cause.
In any event, Lind concludes, the counter-cultural tendencies of the Right may represent good news for progressives:

The rise of the conservative counterculture may provide the beleaguered Democrats with a stay of execution. A serious Republican counter-establishment, putting forth credible plans for addressing the nation’s problems and determined to collaborate with the other party to govern the country in this crisis, would be a greater threat to the new, shaky Democratic establishment than the theatrics of the right’s Summer of Love.
Or should it be called the Winter of Hate?

I tend to agree with Lind on this point, and also think Waldman may not be taking the implications of the conservative movement’s flirtation with revolutionary rhetoric quite seriously enough. The tea partiers have seized on 1776 rhetoric and imagery not just because of the anti-tax nature of the original Tea Party, but because they argue with considerable consistency that the cure for America’s ills is a rollback of much of the country’s political and constitutional developments over not just years or decades, but centuries. It’s no accident that there’s been a remarkable revival of talk on the Right, even among elected officials, of such discredited nineteenth century theories as the “right” of states to nullify federal laws or even express their “sovereignty” by secession. And the prevailing school of constitutional “thinking” among conservatives is a sort of crude fundamentalist originalism that dismisses health care reform as unconstitutional on grounds that the Constitution itself does not mention health care (an argument Glenn Beck, among others, often makes).
This is powerfully radical stuff, and it will not be easy for Republican pols to whip up crowds by embracing it and then going back to the twenty-first century where the machinery of modern government depends on hundreds of Supreme Court decisions (not to mention a Civil War) that have modified the strict letter of the Constitution.
It’s not clear how long and far today’s counter-cultural trends on the Right will last; maybe Mark Schmitt is correct in predicting this is just another populist wave that will soon recede.
But in the mean time, these are some fine days for conservative-watching, whether it’s Ed Meese posing as a revolutionary or conservatives raptly listening to the deep jurisprudence of Glenn Beck.

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