The misguided reaction to Tea Party candidates

The condescension toward these new right-wing standard-bearers seems more cultural than ideological

Published September 16, 2010 12:17PM (EDT)

The "tea party" movement is, in my view, a mirror image of the Republican Party generally.  There are some diverse, heterodox factions which compose a small, inconsequential minority of it (various libertarian, independent, and Reagan Democrat types), but it is dominated -- in terms of leadership, ideology, and the vast majority of adherents -- by the same set of beliefs which have long shaped the American Right:  Reagan-era domestic policies, blinding American exceptionalism and nativism, fetishizing American wars, total disregard for civil liberties, social and religious conservatism, hatred of the minority-Enemy du Jour (currently: Muslims), allegiance to self-interested demagogic leaders, hidden exploitation by corporatist masters, and divisive cultural tribalism.  Other than the fact that (1) it is driven (at least in part) by genuine citizen passion and engagement, and (2) represents a justifiable rebellion against the Washington and GOP establishments, I see little good in it and much potential for bad.  To me, it's little more than the same extremely discredited faction which drove the country into the ground for the last decade, merely re-branded under a new name.

All that said, there are some reactions to the Tea Party movement coming from many different directions -- illustrated by the patronizing mockery of Christine O'Donnell -- which I find quite misguided, revealingly condescending, and somewhat obnoxious.  In two separate appearances -- one on Hannity and the other on some daytime Fox show -- Karl Rove, that Paragon of Honor, insisted that she lacks the "character and rectitude" to be in the Senate, and raised these points in support of his accusation:

One thing that Christine O'Donnell is going to have answer is her own checkered background . . . . These serious questions:  how does she make her living?  Why did she mislead voters about her college education?  How come it took nearly two decades to pay her college tuition?  How does she make a living?  Why did she sue a well-known conservative think tank? . . . . questions about why she had a problem for five years paying her federal income taxes, why her house was foreclosed and put up for a sheriff's sale, why it took 16 years for her to settle her college debt and get her diploma after she went around for years claiming she was a college graduate. . . . when it turns out she just got her degree because she had unpaid college bills that they had to sue her over.

Most people are not like Rove's political patron, George W. Bush, who was born into extreme family wealth.  O'Donnell's financial difficulties, which Rove is describing, and implicitly condemning, are far from unusual for ordinary Americans.  In 2009 alone, there were 2.8 million home foreclosures.  Contrary to what Rove is trying to imply, an inability to pay one's college tuition bills or a struggle with taxes are neither rare nor signs of moral turpitude.  Those are common problems for a country whose middle class is eroding as the rich-poor gap rapidly widens.  If the kinds of financial struggles O'Donnell has experienced are disqualifying from high political office, then we will simply have an even more intensified version of the oligarchy which our political system has become.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion, at least for me, that, claims to the contrary notwithstanding, much of the discomfort and disgust triggered by these Tea Party candidates has little to do with their ideology.  After all, are most of them radically different than the right-wing extremists Karl Rove has spent his career promoting and exploiting?  Hardly.  Much of the patronizing derision and scorn heaped on people like Christine O'Donnell have very little to do with their substantive views -- since when did right-wing extremism place one beyond the pale? -- and much more to do with the fact they're so . . . unruly and unwashed.  To members of the establishment and the ruling class (like Rove), these are the kinds of people -- who struggle with tuition bills and have their homes foreclosed -- who belong in Walmarts, community colleges, low-paying jobs, and voting booths on command, not in the august United States Senate. 

You want to know why it's so unusual for a U.S. Senate candidate to have what Rove scorned as "the checkered background" of O'Donnell, by which he means a series of financial troubles?  In his interview with me earlier this week, Sen. Russ Feingold said exactly why.  It's not because those financial difficulties are rare among Americans.  This is why:

It's not a new thing; it's been going on for a couple of decades. If you look even in the Senate, I'm one of the very few people in there who doesn't have a net worth over a million dollars; my net worth is under half a million dollars, after all these years. 

And as poor as Russ Feingold is relative to his colleagues in the Senate, he's still a Harvard Law School graduate who owns his own home and has earned in excess of $100,000 as a U.S. Senator for the last 18 years.  People with unpaid Farleigh Dickinson tuition bills and home foreclosures just aren't in the U.S. Senate.  And there are a lot of people -- those who see nothing wrong with the U.S. Senate as a millionaire's club and as an entitlement gift of dynastic succession -- who want to keep it that way.  

And this ethos is hardly confined to admission requirements for the Senate, but extends to the entire Versailles on the Potomac generally.  The Washington ruling class is embodied by the vile image of millionaire TV personality Andrea Mitchell, wife of Alan Greenspan, going on GE-owned MSNBC and announcing that it's time for ordinary Americans to "sacrifice" by giving up Social Security benefits (that she, of course, doesn't need).  All sorts of right-wing extremism is tolerated and even revered in Beltway culture provided it comes from the Right People.  A Washington political/media culture that rolls out the red carpet for every extremist Bush official is now suddenly offended by these Tea Partiers' extremist views?  Please.  What's most frowned upon is the inclusion in their circles of those Who Do Not Belong.  Hence, the noses turning upward at Christine O'Donnell's lower-middle-class struggles and ordinariness as though they disqualify her for high office.  If anything, one could make the case that those struggles are her most appealing -- perhaps her only appealing -- quality.

These socio-economic biases have been evident for many years.  Bill Clinton's arrival in Washington caused similar tongue-clucking reactions because, notwithstanding his Yale and Oxford pedigree, he was from a lower-middle-class background, raised by a single working mother, vested with a Southern drawl, and exuding all sorts of cultural signifiers perceived as uncouth.  Much of the contempt originally provoked by Sarah Palin was driven by many of the same cultural biases.  As I wrote at the time, the one (and only) attribute of Palin which I found appealing, even admirable, when she first arrived on the national scene was that she came from such a modest background and was entirely self-made (Obama's lack of family connections and self-made ascension was also, in my view, one of the very few meaningful differences between him and Hillary Clinton).  So much of the derision over Palin had nothing to do with her views or even alleged lack of intelligence -- George Bush, to use just one example, was every bit as radical and probably not as smart -- but it was because she hadn't been groomed to speak and act as a member in good standing of the elite class.  

I'm not defending Palin or O'Donnell; they both hold views, most views, which I find repellent. But it's hard not to notice the double standard which treats quite respectfully many politicians with the right lineage who espouse views every bit as radical.  This is the kind of condescension that causes Sarah Palin's anti-elitism screeds to resonate and to channel genuine resentments.

* * * * *

This is the principal reason I simply do not believe the high-minded claims that these scornful reactions to Tea Party candidates are primarily based on ideology.  On Monday, The American Prospect's Jamelle Bouie -- last seen condemning Markos Moulitsas for the crime of comparing the Iraq-War-and-torture-loving American Right to "killers and terrorists" (perish the thought!) -- absurdly lamented the Tea Party movement on the ground it is undermining the "moderating" influences in the GOP and causing a "rigid conservatism" to dominate.  I have no idea what Republican Party Bouie has been looking at for the last couple of decades, but it isn't the same one I've been looking at.  As Atrios responded -- and I couldn't agree more -- Tea Party extremism isn't an aberration from what the GOP has been; it's perfectly representative of it, just perhaps expressed in a less obfuscated and more honest form.

For as long as I can remember -- decades -- I've been hearing that the new incarnation of the GOP is far more radical and dangerous than anything that preceded it, and it tragically threatens to banish the previously Reasonable, Serious, Adult version of that party.  That was certainly said about Ronald Reagan, as he argued for the elimination of the Department of Education, brought in cabinet officials like Ed Meese and Jim Watt, catered to Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, and nominated people like Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.  That was certainly said about the Gingrich-led GOP of the 90s, with their Contract with America, obsessions with law-enforced morality, and impeachment of Bill Clinton.  And it was said over and over about the Bush/Cheney era that ushered in the Iraq War, the torture regime, broad executive lawlessness, and an endless roster of vapid, know-nothing ideologues and religious fanatics in the highest positions.

Given all that, I'd really like to hear what it is about Christine O'Donnell, or Sharron Angle, or any of these other candidates that sets them apart from decades of radical right-wing elected officials who came before them?  They seem far more similar to me than different.  When was this idealized era of GOP Adult Reasonableness?  

During the Clinton years, Jesse Helms was the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and threatened the President not to go on Southern military bases lest he be killed.  The Wall Street Journal called for a Special Prosecutor to investigate the possible "murder" of Vince Foster.  Rush Limbaugh -- along with people like James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and Bill Kristol -- have been leaders of that party for decades. Republicans spent the 1990s wallowing in Ken Starr's sex report, "Angry White Male" militias, black U.N. helicopters, Clinton's Mena drug runway and the "distinguishing spots" on his penis, Monica's semen-stained dress, Hillary's lesbianism, "wag the dog" theories, and all sorts of efforts to personally humiliate Clinton and destroy the legitimacy of his presidency using the most paranoid, reality-detached, and scurrilous attacks.  George Bush spoke routinely with people like Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham, and unleashed untold violence, destruction, corruption and lawlessness.  How is the current American Right -- and these Tea Party candidates -- any different?  Warning that the other party is More Radical Than Ever is a reliable tactic to win elections, but in the case of Republicans, they seem every bit as radical to me now as before, just a bit more pure, primitive and aggressive about it.

As Atrios also suggested, these Tea Party candidates differ not in their views but in their untrained, unsophisticated style of expressing those views.  They just haven't been groomed yet to comport themselves with Ruling Class mannerisms, which is what is causing most of the consternation.  A perfect example of this occurred during the 2008 presidential campaign, when Palin said in an interview with Charlie Rose that the U.S. should be prepared to fight a war with Russia in order to defend Georgia and other republics, such as the Ukraine.  That caused widespread outrage as Democrats everywhere rushed to condemn her as a crazed warmonger.

But as Matt Yglesias accurately pointed out in an interview I did with him, Palin's view was more or less shared by both Obama and Joe Biden, both of whom had expressed support for admitting those countries into NATO, which would obligate the U.S. to wage war to defend them.  As Yglesias explained, Palin's real offense was that she used uncouth language -- meaning language that was too honest and clear -- to describe the implications of this policy: 

Sarah Palin's real mistake in that Russia interview, was being sufficiently inexperienced and unsavvy to just state plainly what's become consensus American policy, which is that we should risk a nuclear war with Russia, that would kill billions of people, and possibly lead to the total end of human civilization, over boundary disputes about Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in Georgia. When she said it, it sounded a little bit crazy, and I think it is a little bit crazy, but Joe Biden just has a more sophisticated way of saying the same thing, and certain routine formulations about this.

I had a conversation with a progressive ally who specializes in national security issues about this, and he was talking about the desire to go after McCain-Palin on this, and I was saying, I thought it was hard because they were really wrong -- that it's Obama's position too, and he was saying to me, you know, the real problem here is that, even if your policy is that these countries should join NATO, you don't talk explicitly about the fact that that might mean you go to war.

But, I'm not really sure why we don't talk about that.  

The same thing happened when Obama caused great (and absurd) controversy among foreign policy elites with his campaign statement that he would consider escalating our bombing campaign in Pakistan if they refused or were unable to capture Al Qaeda elements:  his desire to bomb Pakistan was not (of course) controversial, but merely the fact that one does not say such things out in the open.  The Ruling Class code is that a desire to bomb is kept secret, away from the masses, talked about only among elites, and Obama deviated from this code by telling American voters of his intentions.

The Republican Party has thrived by keeping much of its real agenda and many of its tactics hidden from public view.  These unsophisticated Tea Party candidates are unpracticed in those skills of deception and thus far too harsh and declassé for our effete Guardians of Elite Political Power to bear (watch David Ignatius today long for the glory days when old, wise "centrists" like Lee Hamilton decided everything in secret, bipartisan harmony).  It's all perfectly fine to crave cultural and religious wars, to start actual wars, to despise marginalized minorities, to want to slash the safety net for an already vulnerable population, to adhere to extremist religious dogma, and to endorse lawlessness in the name of Security.  You're just not supposed to say any of this -- at least not so bluntly, without obfuscating code.  And it's especially uncouth when the person violating this code isn't an industrial billionaire like Ross Perot -- whose vast wealth entitles him to some maverick eccentricities -- but some poor, unprivileged, very ordinary Walmart shopper like Christine O'Donnell.  Nobody wants someone like her coming in and trashing David Broder and Sally Quinn's place.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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