Only thing new about the teabaggers is their name
J. Patrick Coolican, writing for the Las Vegas Sun, a fairly good overview of how the current teabaggers fit into a long tradition of ignorant, paranoid right wing nuttery. The John Birch Society never went away in American politics. It just morphs with the times and ascends whenever the hated enemies of the paranoid right—mainly the cosmopolitan elite and non-white people—are perceived as gaining ground in the U.S. One thing to keep in mind about the teabaggers and all previous incarnations is that their claims to populism should not let you assume they are generally working class people voting against their own interests. Voters who made under $50,000 a year voted for Obama and only when you start to get over that does it tip into McCain voters. Granted, firmly middle class people would be wiser to vote for Democrats instead of Republicans, and so you can argue that white middle class voters who mainly broke for McCain are voting their resentments over their interests. But that’s beside the point. The main point here is that the stereotype that teabaggers are somehow downscale economically simply because they squawk about the liberal elite is untrue. The struggle against the cosmopolitan elite is more of a cultural issue—the McMansion owners vs. the condo dwellers. For teabaggers, the main problem with the “liberal elite” is that they take their privileges and share them with people teabaggers deem unworthy, both by supporting liberal policies that further racial and gender equality and by living those values by allowing non-white people and women into the club, instead of moving out to the far exurbs the second that a black family moves on to the block. If you don’t understand the racist and sexist motivations of teabaggers, they really never will make sense, but if you take it as a given, most of their choices and resentments make sense, even if they’re technically still illogical. Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin epitomize the paranoid right: they’re well-off, highly privileged people who sneer at people who use the same kinds of privileges to broaden their worldview, from traveling to eating funny food to buying into the idea that American democracy is about treating all citizens as equals.
As this article shows, the paranoid right struggle to keep the boot on the necks of anyone who isn’t a Christian white man (though Christian white women who talk the talk are let into the leadership, as long as most of their focus is on scolding other women for being liberated) has always been central.
The most fitting parallel, however, may be the early 1960s, when right-wing activists believed the civil rights movement was the work of the Soviets and, as Ronald Reagan alleged, Medicare a push for socialized medicine.
On MLK day, there was the usual series of liberal bloggers trying to pre-empt outrageous conservative claims that MLK would have been with them by pointing out that King was shot in Memphis while organizing the Poor People’s Campaign. This is the sort of thing to keep in mind when observing the current batch of teabaggers. They may be paranoid, but they aren’t stupid; if you assume their goal is to maintain a highly racist, unequal society where the already-poor by and large have no chance of climbing up the ladder into the middle class, their behavior makes sense. To assume they’re a tiny minority is to ignore the explosion of the exurbs full of gated McMansions planted inside gated communities and stocked full of guns. Their desires to have what they deem a traditional society, with white Christian men on top and everyone else in service, are expressed in paranoid ways, sure, but their political choices do further their goals. They have a lot of power in some places. In Texas, they’re currently in the process of scrubbing those 60s era enemies like MLK from the history books, and replacing them with histories of conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation. Words like “heritage” need to be understood in this context—they’re yearning for a time of greater inequality, when blacks, women, and Jews knew their place. The references to the Founding Fathers may seem weird to liberals, who rightfully point out that the Founding Fathers did take a stab at creating a living democracy that trended towards justice, but if you think of “Founding Fathers” as a reference to an era when women couldn’t vote and most black people were enslaved, then their nostalgia makes more sense.
That said, their paranoia is something to behold. For the teabagger, hatred of the uppity Other is generally expressed through purity and safety fears. As this article notes, gun sales shot up dramatically after the Obama election, because the paranoid right tends to view guns as steel phalluses that will ward off the dangers of a changing society. The idea of having their worldview subverted through mind control hasn’t really gone away, which is why conservatives still to this day go on and on about Hollywood liberals, even though that paranoia is historically rooted in anti-Semiticism. Honestly, that coded language has been around so long I suspect many people who parrot it have never even considered the fact that the hysteria was started by paranoid right wingers in the past who saw Jewish Hollywood producers as trying to subvert the Christian culture. Then again, the fact that the very same people who squee about Hollywood liberals also freak out about the so-called war on Christmas, so maybe they’re more aware than I thought. In retrospect, electing a black President with a smart wife from a big city was pretty much guaranteed to awaken the sleeping giant—Obama would have to really work it to embody more categories of people they hate.
For my money, though, the contamination fears are the most perplexing paranoia. Stanley Kubrick famously parodied this tendency in the character of General Ripper in “Dr. Strangelove”, and you would think that such a famous send-up would cause people like Glenn Beck to pause for a moment before they forged ahead and made General Ripper sound relatively sane.
Look at the character of the people. John Holdren, our science czar. If there’s a population explosion, I can help you reduce the population, through sterilants in drinking water and forced abortions. Now, he’s said, “Well that — that was at a time when we thought the population explosion. That was in the 70s, and it was a time of the pop” – but he’s never said that it was a crazy idea. Never. He says the population thing didn’t happen, not that even if the population thing did happen, we shouldn’t put sterilants in drinking water.
Seriously, it makes General Ripper look sophisticated in terms of keeping the subtext subtle.
Anyway, I recommend reading the entire Sun article, since Coolican talks about how the paranoid right was actually somewhat contained in the 60s, and were still able to take over the Republican party. Now, they are given a lot more air time between Fox News/talk radio and the tendency of mainstream news channels to bring them on and interview them. It’s truly scary, as the Massachusetts election demonstrates.