Chip Berlet On The Tea Party
Chip Berlet, one of the country's foremost experts on rightwing populism and extremism, has an extremely important article in The Progressive. While I am far from an expert on this subject, I certainly am not ignorant about the rightwing in America. Yet I am having problems accepting many of his conclusions which I don't believe follow from the data he presents. I would be curious to get your own thoughts on this. Here are my criticisms.*
Berlet makes two basic points. (Please note that I'm rearranging and skipping around here, in order to summarize his argument; please tell me, and correct me, if you think I'm doing his ideas a disservice.)
First, Berlet provides us with a picture of what is bugging tea partiers:
It helps to recognize that much of what steams the tea bag contingent is legitimate. They see their jobs vanish in front of their eyes as Wall Street gets trillions. They see their wages stagnate. They worry that their children will be even less well off than they are. They sense that Washington doesn’t really care about them. On top of that, many are distraught about seeing their sons and daughters coming home in wheelchairs or body bags.Berlet then warns and exhorts us:
When centrist liberals toss smug and dismissive names at the current rightwing populist revolt, they make it more difficult for progressive organizers to reach out to unconvinced people who see their neighbors (and perhaps themselves) unfairly labeled as stupid or crazy.From the evidence in his article, Berlet's prescription - not to denounce and mock what we sneeringly call "tea baggers" - seems utterly impractical, if not impossible. No matter if we hold our tongues, no matter if we find common cause with them in our disgust at the Afghan war and the privileging of banksters over people who actually do substantive work for a living, progressives will never reach most tea partiers.
The only way to counter the resurgent right is to rebuild militant progressive movements and raise a ruckus.
Why? Here, for example, is some more information Berlet gives us about the mindset of teabaggers:
With no one appearing to champion their cause, they line up with the anti-Obama crowd, and they stir in some of their social worries about gay marriage and abortion, dark-skinned immigrants, and a black man in the White House.Quite simply and clearly, progressives strongly disagree with tea partiers on these issues. Berlet, like many people who make the argument that we should find ways to bring tea partiers to our cause,** never quite says how we are supposed to address issues like gay marriage, abortion, etc etc etc. when we try to tell them we are on their side.
The only solution is to assert the truth. For example we could say something roughly like this, "Whether people of the same sex marry or not is a monumentally trivial thing to worry about, unless you're gay and want to marry your partner and need the financial and social benefits your straight married neighbors enjoys. Your job, and your children's jobs, those are the important issues to focus on." But we'll get nowhere. Gay marriage is indeed a silly thing to oppose. But opposition to it is one of numerous litmus tests that the rightwing has established to identify quickly whether or not you are "one of us."
The fact is that we - or to make this personal I - am not "one of us." For a long, long time, I tried not to antagonize rightwingers and I tried to persuade them by seeking common cause. I got nowhere. Certainly, there are people around who are better than I at schmoozing with people who, to coin a phrase, drive pickups with Confederate flags on them, and I wish them all the luck in the world. The problem is that there are so few of them that Berlet can't even find any progressives who can hang with the right and persuade them to join us. If he did, he would have described them in his article. Here is as close as he comes:
Art Heitzer, a Wisconsin attorney long active in progressive struggles, attended the National Lawyers Guild convention panel in Seattle late last year where Hincapié [a progressive immigration activist] spoke about the plight of immigrants. Heitzer recognizes there are a lot of white working class people being targeted for recruitment by reactionary rightwing populist forces, but is convinced that “many of them could be our allies in holding Obama accountable to his campaign promises.” Polling over the past thirty years shows that when Democrats forcefully stress issues such as relieving poverty or seeking peace, some independents and Republican voters who oppose abortion or gay rights will vote for a Democratic Presidential candidate despite their continued allegiance to gender-based hot button issues. There are numerous problems here. This is anecdotal evidence from one sincerely committed lawyer. As for the hard data, Berlet furnishes no links to the polls he cites, nor does he quantify how many are included in "some independents and Republican voters." I'm sorry, Mr. Berlet, I honestly don't think genuine progressives can pick up enough tea partiers - not independents, but tea party members - to make a damn bit of difference. But if you have the polls that say otherwise, please show me, and I'll be happy to change my tune if I'm wrong.
Here is another problem. Berlet objects, rightly, to the trivialization and dismissal of the rightwing but I honestly don't know a single progressive who trivializes or dismisses them as a political force. Their ideas and their values, that's a very different story. The fact of the matter is that if you really have problems accepting that Barack Obama, a black man, is president of the United States, and your problem is that he is black, then I have very little in common with you. But please don't mistake my contempt for your ideas, my refusal to "engage" you in "serious" debate about whether a black man deserves to be president, my mockery of your positions, or my open disgust at your moral values for trivialization or dismissal. I am quite aware of how powerful and dangerous you are. But I know that I can't reach you. I can only defeat you.
How to do that? Well, I've just demonstrated one way. Progressives must continue to refuse to grant the screwy ideas and values of the rightwing the status worthy of serious discussion. For example, the notion of invading Iraq, a country that had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11, was a batshit insane idea. I believe that the willingness by so many people, including people who were more or less progressive, to engage in serious discussions about it added further imprimatur, helped to mute mainstream criticism, and helped propel the catastrophe forward.*** Not only must progressives become more prominent in the mainstream discourse in denouncing the right's bad ideas, they must also become better at it. Much better.
In addition, progressives most certainly need to change the subject, to things that are really important, not perverted ideas like whether it is moral to force a poor woman to use a coathanger for birth control. We need to discuss jobs and security in ways that everyone can understand. Further we need to stress that our policies and ideas actually work and provide proof of it, from Roosevelt onwards.
We also need to emphasize the failure of the rightwing to protect Americans (remember 9/11 and Katrina), the failure of the rightwing to protect jobs (the recession is Bush's fault), and the insanity of the rightwing's foreign policy (Iraq and Afghanistan are only two of hundreds of examples).
But we should be under no illusions. As much as Chip Berlet would like their votes, the ordinary people in the tea party are never (or, if you insist, no time soon) going to vote in significant numbers for liberals when some lunatic who espouses their moral values stokes the fires of their resentments. Retreat on torture, or on the social issues, is not something progressives can seriously entertain.
We can't hide where we stand and we can't compromise on core values. That doesn't mean we must be quixotic. But it does mean that, like it or not, the lily-white racist core of the tea party - which Berlet himself describes them to be in his piece, albeit "soft" racists, merely tossing epithets around with friends - provides mighty slim pickings to add to the progressive vote.
About this, however, I agree completely with Berlet, who also says it quite beautifully:
... the trivialization of rightwing populism must stop. It is toxic to democracy in a general sense. And it also results in an increasingly hostile environment for immigrants, people of color, Muslims, Arabs, reproductive rights activists, and lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered persons.Indeed. I certainly understand that the tea party organizing, which Berlet describes as being ominously already quite advanced, is very dangerous to American democracy, not just progressives. But let's never pretend that their really bad ideas deserve respect - or that they do, if they insist on asserting they are worthy of serious attention. Nor ever pretend that the casual remarks tea partiers make after a few beers with their pals which, even if I agreed with Berlet that they are relatively benign (which I don't) have any legitimate part in the wider discourse today. America is rapidly becoming/has become a country where being white and male is no longer the norm for the politically active citizenry. It's way past time for anyone who loves this country to accept that.
In fact, it's cause for celebration.
*Please understand: I like an enormous amount of the article, which I am passing over in order to keep this post at something close to reasonable length. While I do have problems with it, I fully realize there is more to what Berlet is saying than the ideas I criticize here.
**By "tea partiers," Berlet clearly does not mean the fanatical, violent extremists (or the cynical leaders). He is referring to typical members who, he makes clear, resent being lumped with crazies who gun down abortion doctors. For the purpose of argument, I'll accept his definition.
***Of course, I'm aware that there were many, many factors far more important than the liberal willingness to engage seriously the idea of an Iraq invasion that led to this awful disaster. My point is that such engagement surely helps move such nutty notions into the arena of acceptable discourse, where it clearly does not belong if nothing else than that it distracts from implementing genuinely effective policies to protect our country. Our refusal to engage such nonsense, and also - very important - loudly denounce and mock such nonsense is, I believe, a vital part of establishing a viable alternative to the right.
No, I can't prove this, mainly because most mainstream Democrats are completely unwilling to be progressive in their politics (even if they are closet liberals). They should try it sometime. They just might be surprised at how well it works...