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Right wing populism: simple, stupid

By Amanda Marcotte
Friday, March 5, 2010 0:01 EDT
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Rachel Maddow brought Frank Rich on to talk about the teabaggers after he wrote this column. The column I found largely unobjectionable, but some of the stuff from the interview sat wrong with me.

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Upon rewatching it, I think what bothered me was that Frank Rich and Rachel Maddow are giving the teabaggers too much credit. I’m not saying that I think teabaggers are stupid people, not exactly, but I think there’s this desire for observers to pin an ideology or an intellectual consistency on them that isn’t there. Rich gets close to the truth when he suggests they latched on to Bunning temporarily, but then he doesn’t follow through, instead suggesting there’s some consistent desire on their part to eliminate the federal government, even the parts that work for them. (He states this in the column, too, but it just seems more forceful here.) The problem with that stance is that it ignores the number of teabaggers that protest because they’re afraid health care reform in an attack on their Medicare.

I know that teabaggers consider the federal government “the enemy”, but I think they think of it in the same way Christians do “the devil”—it’s effectively symbolic, even if the amount of rage they muster makes it seem literal to them, at least some of the time. What they consider the federal government and its evildoing changes minute to minute, and is based on pure emotion. There’s not a lot of intellectual consistency with people who worship the military but don’t think they should have to pay taxes. Or who organize online, for that matter. Their complaints about the federal government need to be understood in terms of right wing speak, where very few beliefs are stated straightforwardly, but usually bundled up in a bad faith argument designed to give the intended audience a belief that the person is speaking from principle instead of prejudice. In other words, they flit around from one right wing argument about the feds and spending to another, because that’s not really what’s motivating them. That’s just the cover story.

I honestly think what’s going on is a big time identity politics temper tantrum, and unlike all but the worst kinds of identity politics on the left, it’s got very little attachment to policy outside of those policies that reinforce their identity politics argument. And that argument is that they are the Real Americans®, and the rest of us need to submit. Maddow and Rich kick around this idea of libertarianism, but that’s not really what’s going on. That gay marriage wasn’t a major issue with the CPAC voters says more about priorities than beliefs, so I hardly think it’s an endorsement of gay rights, for instance. It’s just that it seems small in the grand scheme of things, which is that they feel “their” country is sliding away from them and turning into something they don’t understand, and they’re pissed. They’re either weeping or sneering, but it’s not that they’re trying to advance arguments about what’s good for the country. They’re mostly screaming, “Me first!”

There’s a couple of reasons I believe this. The first is that they’ve made the powdered wig crap their symbol. This has very little to do with the actual Founding Fathers, who advanced the sort of Enlightenment ideas that led to the current progressive movement teabaggers hate. They’re not pro-science (or anti-science—they’re just pro-science if it upholds their specific culture) or pro-democracy, like the Founding Fathers. What is exciting about the revolutionary era is that it was a time when the only legitimate Americans in the eyes of the government were property-owning white men. If there was one thing teabaggers would probably rally behind, it would be a petition stating that the original franchise was the best one, before it was expanding to non-property owners, non-white people, and even women. Interestingly, since they’re so allergic to being called out as racists and sexists, I suspect you could probably go farther suggesting that the vote should only belong to property owners. But that would probably be a bigger success than Ron Paul in a teabagger straw poll.

The other thing is that for all that Rich and Maddow are looking at the teabaggers’ resentment of certain Republicans, they’re not looking at the big picture. And it’s this: right wing populists shut up and get behind Republicans when they’re in office. They only do this shit when Democrats have power, especially if the sitting President isn’t a member of their perceived tribe. What that says to me is that even as they preen around about how they’re not loyalists to the Republican party, that is in fact what they are. And the reason is that Republicans do the work of telling the right wing populists that they’re the only real Americans. And that’s what matters to them more than anything else.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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