A lot of readers here are probably familiar with Rick Perlstein, author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, and of Nixonland: the Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. Rick’s been working on a new book about Ronald Reagan. Suffice it to say he’s presently the Left’s premiere historian of conservatism.
So I’d urge you to give a gander to his latest piece at The Nation, wherein he repeats a warning he’s been making periodically since the arrival of the Tea Party: these folks do not represent anything new, and they’re not going away. Unfortunately, they may be harder to subdue than ever before:
[T]here is in-deed little new under the wingnut sun; if studying the right full time for sixteen years has taught me anything, it is that. But the structural context for their attempts to get what they want is different from what it was in previous decades.
The reactionary percentage of the electorate in these United States has been relatively constant since McCarthy’s day; I’d estimate it as hovering around 30 percent. A minority, but one never all that enamored of the niceties of democracy—they see themselves as fighting for the survival of civilization, after all. So, generation after generation, they’ve ruthlessly exploited the many points of structural vulnerability in the not-very-democratic American political system to get their way. For McCarthy, that meant using the rules of Senate investigations—in which the accused enjoy few of the procedural protections of the courtroom—to shape the direction of the government through the sheer power of intimidation. For the Goldwaterites, that meant flooding low-turnout party caucuses at the precinct and county level to win control of the Republican nomination process. In the past, such minoritarian ploys were stymied in the end by bottlenecks. For McCarthy, it was the canons of senatorial courtesy. For the Goldwaterites, it was the necessity of actually winning general elections. Now, however, the bottlenecks against right-wing minoritarian power are weaker than ever; America’s structural democracy deficit has never been greater. And that’s the biggest difference of all.
You should read the whole thing, seriously; Rick’s analysis of the role of Citizens United in the latest incarnation of the Militant Right, and where racial resentments fit in, is well worth your time. But he also scores progressives for not taking seriously the point of view of the Tea Folk, who aren’t just whistling Dixie:
One mistake of the establishments past and present has been to fail to take seriously the apocalypticism of conservative insurgencies: They couldn’t possibly mean it, could they? So the policy wizards in the Obama White House build a Rube Goldberg healthcare law that relies on states to expand Medicaid and create healthcare exchanges, and then are utterly blindsided when red-state legislatures and governors decline. Haven’t they heard the news that conservatives don’t like it when people benefit from government? Likewise, the White House offered up cuts to government programs popular with both the left (social programs) and right (the military) in the last round of budget negotiations, confident that Republicans would never let the sequester actually come to pass—blindsided again.
I could say similar things about the progressive tendency to think movement conservatives don’t really want to ban abortions or deport immigrants or get rid of “government schools” or deflate the U.S. economy (in the guise of “cleansing” it of freeloaders and fiat money, of course). Some history reading indicates otherwise.