I know that some people do not like the terms "rightwing" and "leftwing." In some cases, such terms are imprecise and you could write a doctoral dissertation on their use and misuse. Such terms also depend on the context, for example, what we call conservative economics here in the U.S. is generally called neo-liberal economics in Europe. More generally, of course, conservatives in Europe traditionally represented those who spoke for an aristocratic and a pre-modern sensibility, and in that sense, there are no conservatives in America. And, there are huge differences between libertarian conservatives like the Pauls and social conservatives like James Dobson. True enough. Still, how else are we to discuss politics without recourse to such terms? Readers of a magazine as literate as America need to do better than rendering their impersonation of Glenn Beck who puts the "id" back into "idiot."
Last night, MSNBC had a documentary on the "New Right" that was put together by Chris Matthews. This term was used in the late 1970s to refer to groups like the Moral Majority and the National Conservative Political Action Committee, but Matthews used it to refer to the Tea Party crowd, the growing militia movements, the Oath Keepers and such groups. What these groups share, in Matthews’ view, is the use of incendiary language and paranoid fantasies about the reach and power of the federal government. If you go all the way round the ideological spectrum to the extreme left, you find different paranoid fantasies and different incendiary language. Think Oliver Stone.
Matthews was especially good in highlighting the linguistic heritage of the New Right groups, citing Father Coughlin, Joe McCarthy, the John Birch Society, and Pat Buchanan’s speech to the 1992 GOP Convention. Of course, Coughlin, McCarthy and the Birchers lived at a time when there was a very real threat to democracy in the form of communism, and they were only responding to that threat is an extreme and crazy way. It turns out that President Eisenhower and his brother were not, as the Birchers thought, secret communists and Coughlin was wrong about FDR being a slave to "the Jews." A common theme, then as now, of extremism is the need for a scapegoat and so the hatred spewed against Latinos today is different in degree but not in kind from the hatred spewed against Jews, and against Catholics, in earlier times.
Today, there is no such threat as communism to democracy. Terrorism perpetrated by radical Islamicists can cause death and destruction, but it cannot, like the Red Army, conquer half of Europe or put missiles in Cuba. The system of checks and balances on government power is working as intended, both by the Founders and by the people of Massachusetts who voted to deny the Democrats a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Federal taxes are at all-time lows in the post-World War II era as a percentage of national income. There is no Gestapo knocking at the doors in the middle of the night.
The most recent fantasy from the New Right – too new to make it onto Matthews’ documentary – was an ad for Rick Barber, a GOP candidate for Congress in Alabama. You can watch it here.
I especially like Mr. Barber’s profound understanding of the history of the American Revolution. It turns out that the American revolt was about more than a tea tax. Also, having Sam Adams at the table makes for a cute comment about the brewery, and Adams is a favorite of Glenn Beck too. But, Mr. Barber evidently is unaware of Samuel Adams’ verdict on the one instance of rebellion against a republican government, the Shays Rebellion. Adams opined that "the man who dares to rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death."
The attack on the IRS is predictable but its provenance may be opaque to non-Southern readers. Perhaps Mr. Barber truly thinks the progressive income tax is a problem, even though it is a mark of a civilized society. But, I suspect his ire has a different, coded quality. One of the principal reasons the Religious Right rose itself into a politcal frenzy in the late 70s was because the IRS challenged the tax exmept status of private Christian schools that were set up to avoid compliance with the desegregation requirements of Brown v. Board of Education.
The people who have the most interest in learning about the extremism on the far right, and denouncing it, are smart, responsible conservatives. America needs an informed, intelligent conservative voice in its political life, but the brand will be diminished if Rand Paul, Sharron Angle and Rick Barber become its poster-boys. The American government hasn’t been "taken away" from anybody. President Obama got more votes than Sen. McCain. That’s how democracy works. The common, and dangerous, theme among the New Right groups is that they confuse political opposition in a democratic republic with fighting tyranny in an oppressive, non-democratic regime. They may fancy themselves modern-day Sam Adams. They may fancy themselves as Montezuma. The fantasy is still deluded and, for the future health of conservative politics, it is dangerous. And the silence about this danger from responsible Republicans is deafening.