Tea Party's fringe isolation: How a conspiracist mind-set poses long-term electoral danger

From economics to immigration, fear of mythical evil characterizes the loony right -- and now they'll pay the price

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published February 13, 2014 12:43PM (EST)

Tea Party activists rally in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, June 19, 2013.                    (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Tea Party activists rally in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, June 19, 2013. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

The week before Obama's State of the Union, the Washington Post's Greg Sargent wrote a piece “The Tea Party and the Hammock Theory of Poverty" in which he noted: “Here’s a striking finding: The ideas and assumptions underlying the GOP economic and poverty agenda are far and away more reflective of the preoccupations of Tea Party Republicans. Meanwhile, non-Tea Party Republicans are much more in line with the rest of the public on these matters.”

In the speech itself, Obama characteristically steered away from finger-pointing at GOP obstructionists, but his broad themes clearly struck a chord with the American people, above all his call to raise the minimum wage — a call that he cannily directed to all levels of government as well as to private businesses. The title, and core argument of Brian Beutler's postmortem captured it well — “The Right’s Agenda Is Reviled: The Lesson From Obama’s Confident State of the Union.” The fragmented, four-part GOP “response” may have blurred the picture somewhat, but Sargent's earlier analysis is a potent reminder that the Tea Party's ideological isolation lies right at the core of the GOP's problem. Their economic agenda is key to how they've defined themselves, but it reflects a similar, quite visible isolation on immigration and women's issues as well. In all these areas, a conspiracist mind-set can be observed: The problem is a morally suspect out-group, being coddled and encouraged by big bad government, which is trying to destroy America, because of Evil.

Obviously, not everyone who agrees with those specific positions subscribes to the full-blown conspiracy mind-set. But the more vehemently they reject contrary evidence and arguments, the less open to honest discussion and dialogue they appear, the more powerful the evidence is that a close-minded conspiracist outlook is at work, with a chillingly narrow predetermined cast of heroes and villains. Hence, if ideologically purity is what's wanted — as many on the right repeatedly say — it's hard to see how that doesn't include this conspiracist mind-set as well. It's no accident that Glenn Beck did so much to help launch their movement.

In all three issue areas, the GOP as a whole faces real, long-term electoral dangers if the underlying logic of their actual positions becomes too clear to everyone outside their base. You can't get people to vote for you if they know you despise them on some level. At the same time, GOP politicians individually need to make sure those positions are clear to those in their base.  Their base won't passionately support them otherwise. It's a delicate balancing act, which Republicans are quite accustomed to in some areas — particularly when it comes to racial politics, for example. But what happens when too many people start catching on — as seems to have happened with women and Hispanic voters in 2012, for example? And now a further complication: What happens when a whole new category of people gets added — the poor/working poor/near poor who have become increasingly indistinguishable from the middle class since the financial crisis?

In his piece, Sargent looked at items from two different polls — one from Pew, one from CBS — that were about government  action to reduce the income inequality gap, extend unemployment benefits and raise the minimum wage, along with Paul Ryan’s hammock theory of poverty – that government aid is a cause of poverty.  CBS polled specifically on unemployment making people less motivated to look for a job, while Pew asked if government aid to the poor does more harm than good by making people dependent on government. The “hammock theory” is a striking image, but not to be taken too seriously, given its close connection with opposing a higher minimum wage — a straightforward example of government clearly encouraging people to work.  No one who seriously accepts the hammock theory of poverty ought to oppose a higher minimum wage, not unless there's something else, something deeper going on: some form of animus toward the poor.  Still, it's a convenient cover story for selling the 1 percent's selfish interests to the conservative masses — epitomized by the Koch brothers' long-term funding of the Tea Party movement — and conservative politicians invoke it repeatedly as if it were simple common sense.

On all the questions Sargent looked at, Tea Party and non-Tea Party Republicans differed by 20 points or more. More strikingly, on most of them, pluralities or majorities of each group are on opposite sides. For example, Pew found that Tea Party Republicans oppose doing something to reduce the income inequality gap, 66-28, while non-Tea Party Republicans support doing something, 60-35.  Those are the kinds of figures you expect to see between the two parties, not within them.  Likewise, on raising the minimum wage, Pew found the Tea Partyers opposed, 65-33, while the non-Tea Partyers supported it by the exact same margin.

The roots of these intra-party divisions that Sargent highlights are not new. The 1 percent's economic agenda has long been supported in theory by strong majorities of conservatives — and solidly opposed by them in practice. (The same division exists in the broader public as well, though the contradiction is less acute.) What's new is how these attitudes have morphed in the aftermath of the catastrophic economic failure of 2008. But to understand what's new, we need to begin with what is not.

In 1964, two pioneers of public opinion research, Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril, conducted an exhaustive survey of American public opinion, the results of which they published three years later in "The Political Beliefs of Americans." Probably their most important finding was a profound disjunction between what they called "operational" liberalism (based on support for specific spending programs) and ideological conservatism (based on agreement with a set of five questions about “government interference” versus individual initiative). A sharper edge can be drawn by noting that ideological conservatism is congruent with the “free market” economics that led to the Great Depression, while operational liberalism is congruent with the New Deal and subsequent programs that not only ended the Great Depression, but were the foundations of America's broad post-WWII prosperity, very much in evidence in 1964. They found that 50 percent of all Americans qualified as ideological conservatives by their definition — but that 65 percent qualified as operational liberals, meaning that 23 percent qualified as both — a number that doubled in the Deep South states that Goldwater carried that year.

There are multiple ways one might understand this disconnect, all of which could be partially true. Most charitably, it could be seen as reflecting the power of pragmatism (spending money on what works) over abstract idealism (what a wonderful world, if only the market magically made everything work out fine). Less charitably, it could just show how confused people are. But it could also reflect a lack of readily accessible, well-articulated alternatives.  In the final section of the final chapter of their book, titled "The Need for a Restatement of American Ideology," Free and Cantril wrote:

"The paradox of a large majority of Americans qualifying as operational liberals while at the same time a majority hold to a conservative ideology has been repeatedly emphasized in this study. We have described this state of affairs as mildly schizoid, with people believing in one set of principles abstractly while acting according to another set of principles in their political behavior. But the principles according to which the majority of Americans actually behave politically have not yet been adequately formulated in modern terms.

"There is little doubt that the time has come for a restatement of American ideology to bring it in line with what the great majority of people want and approve. Such a statement, with the right symbols incorporated, would focus people's wants, hopes, and beliefs, and provide a guide and platform to enable the American people to implement their political desires in a more intelligent, direct, and consistent manner."

Such a restatement — conceiving of government as promoting the general welfare, and of the economy as an organic whole, not simply reducible to individual actors — lay at the heart of Johnson's War on Poverty and Great Society programs, and was explicit in Martin Luther King's economic agenda as well, as seen in his 1967 speech "Where Do We Go From Here?:

John Kenneth Galbraith said that a guaranteed annual income could be done for about $20 billion a year. And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend $35 billion a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and $20 billion to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God's children on their own two feet right here on earth.

But even though Johnson tried to stress class rather than racial concerns, his efforts were effectively stymied by racism, as it morphed into its modern form of so-called principled conservatism under the guidance of George Wallace, as civil rights historian Taylor Branch recently summarized, on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington:

By the end of 1963, with segregation losing its stable respectability, he [Wallace] dropped the word altogether from a fresh stump speech denouncing "big government" by "pointy-headed bureaucrats," tyrannical judges, and "tax, tax, spend, spend" legislators. He spurned racial discourse, calling it favouritism, and insisted with aplomb that he had never denigrated any person or group in his fight for local control. Wallace, though still weighted by a hateful reputation, mounted the first of three strong presidential campaigns.

For most of the five decades from 1964 to today, racialized rhetoric has dominated campaigning, and stymied the emergence of a restated American ideology that Free and Cantril envisioned. Yet, it has not altered the most basic of attitudes, or economic realities: where and when the market fails badly enough, the American people expect their government to act.

This can be seen in four decades of polling by the General Social Survey, the gold standard of public opinion research in the United States. For decades, its questions have included a set of spending priority questions — are we spending too much, too little or about the right amount on Social Security, national defense, protecting the environment, etc. And for decades — just as Free and Cantril could have told us — the majority of self-identified conservatives have said we're spending too little or about the right amount on almost every item they are asked about.

Even in the peak Tea Party year of 2010, for example, Republicans said we were spending too little on Social Security, rather than too much, by a lopsided 52-12  margin. The same year, self-identified conservatives said we were spending too little on "improving and protecting the nation's health," rather than too much, by a 2-to-1 margin: 48-24. Combining the two categories and the two spending questions, and we find that conservative Republicans think we're spending too little, rather than too much, on one or both of these, by 51.4 to 28.7 percent.

This pattern isn't limited to these two issues, however. If we combine six questions in 2010 -- adding education, mass transit, highways and bridges, and urban problems to Social Security and healthcare -- then only a minuscule 0.4 percent of conservative Republicans said we were spending too much on all of them, while two-thirds (66.5 percent) said we are spending too little on at least one of them. This is exactly what Free and Cantril were talking about, and it's a similar point that Blake Zeff made in two different stories in January. The American people are profoundly liberal in terms of economic policy, so much so that,  as a whole, self-identified conservatives are to the left of the “bipartisan center” in Washington, D.C.

The big-picture way things have generally worked for decades now has been relatively simple, with two main components. The first is the variation in terms of who is seen to benefit. The second is variation in terms of perceived legitimate need — a reflection of economic hard times, or their absence. The former category includes spending on poor people and blacks, for example.  Combine them together, and liberal Democrats say we're spending too little rather than too much by a ratio of 200-to-1 (40.8 percent to 0.2 percent) in 2010, while for conservative Republicans it's more than 2-to-1 in the other direction (6.4 percent to 13.8 percent). What this shows is that the one way to get conservative Republicans to be operationally conservative is to talk about poor people and blacks, the so-called undeserving poor, to put things in 19th century terms. But the focus has to be very tight.

As for the second component, this was best illuminated by Martin Gilens in his 1999 book "Why Americans Hate Welfare." Reviewing his book for the Denver Post, I explained:

“Using a study of major news weeklies, he shows that when the issue is welfare and its many failings, white faces grow extremely rare; when times are hard and coverage grows more sympathetic - the mid-'70s and early '80s recessions - white faces grow more plentiful.”

In short, when times get hard enough, the public realizes that people are victims of a system they cannot control. The victims they are shown look just like them, so it's an easy connection to make. Along similar lines, the 2001 paper “Why Doesn’t the US Have a European-Style Welfare State?” by Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser and Bruce Sacerdote, cites multiple reasons, but race is arguably the most prominent of them. The authors present two charts showing that social spending levels go down as the level of racial and ethnic diversity goes up. The first is a comparison of country-level spending, the second compares state-level spending in the U.S. Thus, what Gilens showed was a consistent pattern: When times get hard, we tend to see ourselves less as two nations, and more as one, more willing to share a common burden, even a majority of self-described conservatives.

But after 2008, something fundamentally changed. Instead of pulling together, and turning to government programs to counter the damage the Great Recession had done, as even Reagan and Bush had done during past recessions, the broad political consensus of more than 50 years' standing was shattered, led by a sharp right-wing refusal to pull together as one nation. That pattern seen in the GSS questions still held up — though at a low ebb — but its expression in the public realm was completely stifled. Nothing shows this more clearly than the willingness to default on the national debt — except, perhaps, the delusional notion that doing so was a supreme act of fiscal responsibility. One obvious factor was the president's race, reinforced by Republicans' persistent otherization and demonization of him. Forget the question of what people in need looked like, just look at who's asking on their behalf!

But three other interrelated factors played a role as well. First was the sheer magnitude of the financial crisis; nothing like it had been seen since the Great Depression, and seemingly no one was intellectually, morally or politically prepared for it. Second was the convergence of elite opinion and outlook, which contributed enormously to that lack of preparedness, and rebelled instinctively against the sort of bold, dramatic action that was called for by the scope of the catastrophe. Third was the total ideological failure of conservatism underscored by the crisis. The first two factors effectively stifled the sort of sweeping political response that was needed to match the scope of the crisis and its aftermath — the kind of response that mobilized tens of millions during the Great Depression, and helped the Democrats prosper politically even when business turned sharply against them. The third factor energized the right into an unbounded frenzy of self-deceptive reinvention, in which all the old balancing of pragmatism vs. zeal went out the window. It was as if a European center-right Christian Democrat party had dramatically transformed itself into a xenophobic neo-fascist National Front party in the space of just a few short months.

Let's not forget, under George W. Bush, conservatives controlled all three branches of government for the first time since the 1920s, and the result was catastrophic failure — even before the financial crisis exploded in September 2008. Bush's polling average had fallen below 40 percent in early 2006, and dropped below 30 percent two years later, well before the economic collapse. Even conservatives had begun to abandon him. By the time of Obama's election, conservatism itself was in crisis. It responded as it invariably does, by disavowing all its failures, claiming that conservatism itself had not failed, but that conservatives had not been true enough to it!  All of the sudden, George W. Bush was not a conservative at all! Problem solved!

In the real world, it was a very different story. Republicans had only been allowed back in power after the Great Depression once they admitted that they had been terribly wrong. Eisenhower declared an end to their all-out war against the New Deal, and began their tradition of trying to reshape it, both to gain popular support, and to serve their own larger political goals, just as European conservatives had done, starting with Otto von Bismarck's creation of the German welfare state in the 1880s. Reflecting a similar realism, in a 1954 letter to his brother Edgar, Ike wrote:

“Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

However much they may have differed from one another over the next 60 years, Republican leaders all shared Eisenhower's basic acceptance of the New Deal, even as they worked to reshape it here and there. Whether it was Bob Dole co-sponsoring the law that established food stamps as a universal program, and other key anti-hunger legislation, or Ronald Reagan striking a deal to preserve Social Security's solvency, or expanding the earned income tax credit, or George W. Bush adding the Medicare drug benefit, the pattern was broadly the same — making peace with history, and the inescapable shortcomings of a pure free market capitalist system, regardless of what they might say in speeches to rile up their base.  That was the actual record of American conservatism in power prior to 2008. That was what the Tea Party conservatives abandoned and denounced.

What was left for conservatives to hold onto was what they once tried to abandon, or at least suppress: their deeply id-directed drive toward conspiracism. In the very same time frame when William F. Buckley had written approvingly in defense of Southern segregation, he acted forcefully to try to cleanse conservatism of anti-Semitism, and of the broader tendency toward conspiracism embodied in the John Birch Society.  It was never a very successful effort on Buckley's part, as conspiracist classics like John Stormer's "None Dare Call It Treason" and Phyllis Schlafly's "A Choice, Not an Echo" sold millions of copies, spectacular sales figures that Buckley himself could only dream of. Stormer's book described "the communist-socialist conspiracy to enslave America," while Schlafly's promoted the conspiracy theory that the Republican Party was secretly controlled by members of the Bilderberger banking conference in cahoots with global communism. Her book title became a leading slogan of Goldwater's 1964 campaign, just when Buckley was making a big deal out of symbolically expelling the John Birch Society from the conservative movement, in order to make it mainstream.

So, in short: Welcome to the return of the repressed.

Of course, the return didn't just come out of the blue. What had been repressed in terms of P.R. had never really gone anywhere but ever-so-slightly underground. In fact, it had been carefully nurtured, cultivated and dispersed via decades of conservative movement building, with billlions of dollars pumped into the effort. But it was badly in need of a new articulation in the post-Bush era. Most important, it needed an updated array of conspiracist narratives holding the evildoers at bay.

In terms of the Tea Party proper, the initial spark was provided in early 2009 by an on-air rant from CNBC's Rick Santelli, which then flowered in a full-time nurturing media environment provided by Fox News. As economist Dean Baker noted at the time,  “Santelli apparently hit a chord among those who want to blame deadbeat homeowners for the country's economic woes,” but Santelli was “firing at the wrong target” since “The big gainers from the latest plan to help homeowners are not 'loser' homeowners, but rather banks and investors, who will earn far more on their loser loans than would otherwise have been possible.”

Of course, “firing at the wrong target” was the whole point: redirecting anger from a wealthy, powerful, criminally irresponsible elite toward the most precarious of latecomers struggling to get a toehold on the American dream. It was the perfect embodiment of the conspiracist mind-set  referred to above: The problem is a morally suspect out-group, being coddled and encouraged by big bad government, which is trying to destroy America, because #evil.

Santelli wasn't the first to make that move.  The McCain/Palin campaign tried a similar tactic in the closing days of the 2008 campaign, trying to lay blame for the housing crisis on the advocacy group ACORN — a group that John McCain himself had once appeared with as an ally. On Oct. 10, 2008, they released an ad claiming, "ACORN forced banks to issue risky home loans, the same types of loans that caused the financial crisis we're in today." Some version of this story would be told over and over again on the right in the months and years that followed. But ACORN refuted it almost immediately with a devastating in-depth report, which I wrote about at the time. ACORN showed that its record was the exact opposite of what McCain had claimed: It was on the forefront of fighting against the reckless spread of subprime lending, and there were local press stories covering its efforts as far back as 1999, when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, “Acorn Blasts Number of Sub-Par Loans Being Made in St. Louis Area: One Homebuyer Says She Is Stuck With a 30-Year Mortgage at a 12 Percent Rate.”

The right typically never let the facts get in the way, and within a few years it managed to destroy ACORN, with considerable help from herd-minded Democrats in Congress, based on a series of profoundly dishonest videos, for which videographer James O'Keefe was successfully sued for $100,000.  ACORN was likewise falsely portrayed as perpetrating massive voter fraud — an entirely mythical phenomenon used to justify massive voter suppression efforts. The narratives quickly expanded beyond ACORN, and spilled over into other areas as well, but the Tea Party's anti-ACORN animus was clearly a key formative factor, particularly since ACORN was a multiracial, multiethnic, multi-issue low-income advocacy organization — the very embodiment of the sort of threat that Tea Partyers saw represented in President Obama. That anti-ACORN animus remains clearly visible in the figures Sargent cited, opposing any sort of government action to assist those most in need — even though a majority of those in need are white, just like the vast majority of Tea Party Republicans.

The very timidity of Obama's actual response paved the way for the Tea Party's initial success.  This, in turn, reflects back onto two of the four factors mentioned above, along with his race and the catastrophic failure of conservatism: First was the sheer magnitude of the financial crisis, which seemingly no one was prepared for. Second was the convergence of elite opinion and outlook, which united them in opposition to precisely the sort of bold, dramatic action that was needed, following the example of FDR in response to the Great Depression.

As Paul Krugman warned, starting even before Obama took office, Obama's embrace of a too-small stimulus package — roughly half the size of what was needed — was deeply problematic. A too-small stimulus made it impossible to get significantly more later, and it promoted the false impression that the stimulus had failed completely. Moreover, even before he took office, Obama was already talking about embracing de facto austerity economics, pledging to convene a deficit-reduction summit in February, with cutting Medicare and Medicaid explicitly on the agenda. This was not what Obama's broad base of supporters thought they were voting for -- deficit reduction appeared nowhere on a list of top 10 campaign priorities that Gallup/USA Today polled about, just before Obama took office — but it was very much in line with what his Wall Street donors might want, as can be seen in a more recent study of policy attitudes among the wealthy from Northwestern University. They alone placed deficit reduction far ahead of any other concern: 87 percent said it was “very important,” while 32 percent separately named it as the “most important” problem facing the nation, compared to just 7 percent among the general public in a similar poll taken at the same time.

Obama's too-cautious approach — made worse by trying to be nice when Republicans turned vicious toward him — depressed his base, and failed to deliver the sort of vigorous action his campaign had promised.  When the Tea Party-fueled GOP swept to power in the House and state legislatures in the 2010 election as a result, Obama's continued blind fealty to the failed bipartisan elite consensus opened the door for yet another round of policy disaster, as he negotiated with House Republicans under the threat of an unprecedented debt default.

In the midst of this time frame, in April 2011, Sargent wrote another significant piece, drawing attention to what he called “the Beltway deficit feedback loop," the process by which official Washington eventually brainwashed the public on deficits:

For the longest time, polls indicated that the deficit ranked low on the list of voter concerns, showing public opinion to be strikingly out of sync with official Washington's prioritising of the deficit over job creation.

But this morning brings a new poll from the Washington Post and Pew Research that finds a whopping 81 per cent now think the deficit is a major problem that should be dealt with now, rather than when the economy improves. Tellingly, that number has jumped even among Democrats.

When you have leading officials in both parties - starting with all Republicans and a handful of moderate Dems - acting as if reining in the deficit is so urgent that it requires more attention than creating jobs, people start to tell pollsters they agree. This helps create a climate in which Dems lose any incentive to make the case for more government spending to prime the recovery, which begins to vanish from the conversation.

That was a dynamic that took years to create, and Democratic passivity was key in creating it. But the deficit has plummeted since then, while the economy continues to struggle, unemployment remains high, and 95 percent of recent income gains go exclusively to the top 1 percent. This is the new reality reflected in Sargent's more recent analysis, the reality in which everyone except the Tea Party expects government action to revive the economy, enhance opportunity and reduce the gap between rich and poor.

The effects of gerrymandering and the continued threat of Tea Party primaries from the right make it highly unlikely that Republicans will notice, in the near term. But the country as a whole has shifted significantly, in part repulsed by Romney's embrace of this same Tea Party view in his 47 percent remarks, and this creates a real potential problem for them, especially if it develops synergy with the other major problems they've already acknowledged (immigration) or semi-acknowledged (women), which also tie into portraying major voting blocs as undesirables. At one level, Republicans do sense they have a problem. We can see that in their various attempts to seem to care about the poor. But what they don't get is just how isolated their views are from those of most Americans, just as they are isolated on women's issues and immigration.

This has been obscured by the horse-race-minded media's facile praise for feeble gestures like Marco Rubio's or Ryan's, but Obama and other Democrats have challenged the Tea Party's view more and more openly of late. Obama remains cautious and muted in manner, as seen in his backing off of any focus on inequality in his State of the Union. Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 alone won't do much to impact income inequality overall.  But it's a starting point — and one that's hugely popular, as has been proven by past experience every time the minimum wage has been put on the ballot, most recently winning by 60-40 in New Jersey, circumventing a Chris Christie veto.  By stressing how people can take action at multiples levels — states, cities, even individual companies — Obama is wisely turning congressional GOP intransigence into a strategic advantage, while identifying with an already booming broad-based movement.

This immediately pushes the GOP back on the defense again. How can folks like Rubio and Ryan continue their charades of “caring” about poverty, if they won't support raising the minimum wage? How can they even pretend to honor the value of hard work? And yet, there stand the Tea Party Republicans, in their splendid isolation, opposed to raising the minimum wage by 65-33, while non-Tea Party Republicans support raising it by the exact same landslide margin.

The Tea Party may stand in isolation, but the minimum wage issue does not. A recent poll conducted for the Center for American Progress found that 86 percent of Americans believe that government has a responsibility to use its resources to fight poverty, while seven in 10 support setting a national goal to cut poverty in the United States in half within 10 years.  There is clearly a potential to build a much more comprehensive anti-poverty agenda as the minimum wage struggle intensifies and spreads. The only real question is, will the Democrats take advantage of this enormous opportunity to open up yet another front on which the GOP base is deeply at odds with the vast majority of the American people?  The political advantage seems obvious -- except for the role of donors, the majority of whose money comes from the 1 percent. As with women and with undocumented immigrants, large public majorities are not enough. Activists themselves will have to make the Democrats do right. But at least there is a clear opening for them to go on offense now.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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Economics Gop Immigration Marco Rubio Paul Ryan Poverty Tea Party The Right U.s. Economy