Among left-leaning urbanites, the Tea Party is usually spoken of with a mystified shake of the head — it really seems as though approximately half the country has lost its damn mind. A moderately reformist, business-friendly Democratic president whose compromises and tactics are so often met with derision from the left is considered a sinister Kenyan anti-colonial socialist by many Republicans. The healthcare reform law he champions is a bizarre jury-rigged contraption that builds on the current system but does not replace or dramatically alter it. And yet this law, which conservatives advocated six years ago, is now denounced thunderously as a murderous assault on the free-enterprise system. The scent of madness is in the air. But why is this happening?

Two recently released books provide fascinating insight into the general current of the conservative mindset and its present American iteration. The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism by Harvard professors Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson is a socio-political examination of everyone’s favorite hard-right social movement. Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin is a collection of essays loosely framed around the opening chapter that outlines a unifying theory of conservatism as “the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.”

Robin’s main contention is that conservatism, in all its varied forms, shares a unifying mission, a driving passion that animates everything from the French Counter-Revolution to the antebellum South, fascism, Nixon and his silent majority, and the Tea Party. Robin dismisses the hoary dichotomy whereby the left stands for equality and the right stands for freedom. The conservative’s notion of freedom is limited to those who already enjoy it: the privileged. “Historically, the conservative has favored liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders,” he writes in The Reactionary Mind’s opening essay. “What the conservative sees and dislikes in equality, in other words, is not a threat to freedom but its extension.”

There are two other important aspects of Robin’s thesis. First, conservatism is usually a reaction against social movements and political actors on the left, both reformist and radical. The religious right did not rise to postwar political prominence until the gay liberation and feminist movements challenged heterosexual male power and privilege in the 1970s; the fascist parties were a direct counterpoint to Bolshevism. Second, conservatives are usually willing to cede the public sphere to democracy, but the private sphere is another matter. The fiercest battles are waged in the home and workplace — as the recent wave of anti-union and anti-reproductive freedom Tea Party legislation on the state level demonstrate. The conservative will not surrender the private sphere to democracy, equality, or freedom.

This thesis won Robin a degree of notoriety rarely enjoyed by left-wing academics. The audacious contention that the sophisticated intellectual rightism of figures from Edmund Burke to William F. Buckley shares much of anything with proudly non-analytic demagogues like Sarah Palin (let alone monsters like Hitler) disturbs and angers many. “I feel sure that if trapped on a desert island with the man, I should soon commit suicide,” notes John Derbyshire, who was recently fired from The National Review for writing what Gawker‘s Louis Peitzman referred to as the “most racist article possible” in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder.

Denigrated from the left, right (of course), and center, The Reactionary Mind has been considered an oversimplification, and Robin a bit of an intellectual bomb-thrower. It’s clearly a thesis that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. But despite the alleged lack of finer-grained analysis in the book, Robin’s chief contention makes a good deal of sense, particularly in the light of recent events.

Consider the Tea Partiers scrutinized in The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism — as friendly a bunch of rock-ribbed conservatives as you’re ever likely to meet. Skocpol and Williamson’s portrait of the movement flies in the face of those who would dismiss the Tea Party as ignorant rednecks and tri-corner-hatted weirdos, or those who would hold it up as a populist alternative to the Republican Party. The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism reveals a conservative movement that fits neatly with Robin’s analysis: a reaction to the left, obsessed with maintaining privilege, and intent upon restricting democratic expression.

Skocpol and Williamson find Tea Partiers to be “overwhelmingly older white citizens, relatively well educated and economically comfortable compared to Americans in general. Almost all are Republicans or conservatives to the right of the GOP.” Many Tea Partiers volunteered for the Goldwater campaign in 1964 and swelled the ranks of the John Birch society. The gray-haired ranks at Tea Party events synch neatly with the fact that “average age of Fox viewer is over 65, while conservative talk radio listeners average 67.”

These reactionary news sources reinforce their belief in Obama’s innate evil. Almost all of the people interviewed in the book felt an intense, unwavering antagonism toward the president. One woman notes that her husband and she were never political until Obama “got in,” a note struck by several other interviewees (although many Tea Partiers, at least two-fifths, had been previously involved in politics). Defeating Obama, the Democrats, and their moderately reformist agenda — recast as a socialistic takeover — is the driving force behind the movement. “We do Tea Party stuff to take the country back to where we think it should be,” one interviewee proclaims. For the Tea Party, “reform is revolution, improvement is insurrection,” to use Robin’s neat description of many reactionary movements.

Interestingly, grassroots Tea Partiers express very strong levels of support for popular safety net programs, like Medicare and Social Security. In one poll cited in the book, 62 percent of Tea Partiers believe the two programs (which make up about one-third of the federal government’s budget) are “worth the cost . . . for taxpayers.” Other polls have found similar levels of support. Two-thirds support extending the payroll tax, which does not apply to annual wages above $110,100, to ensure Social Security’s stability. Contrary to the popular “Get Government Out of My Medicare” anecdote, Tea Partiers are well aware that their favored social programs are funded by tax dollars and run by the federal government (veteran benefits are popular too). They feel that the social welfare programs that they benefit from have been “earned,” in sharp contrast to other public support programs that they believe are shot through with fraud and abuse, “placing a burden on hard-working taxpayers to make payments to freeloaders who have not earned public support.”

The groups most often named as “freeloaders” are immigrants, the poor, and the young. Skocpol and Williamson find “an almost total lack of empathy for fellow Americans beyond the group” among Tea Partiers. Despite the interviewees’ generally sweet demeanors and friendly attitudes towards Skocpol and Williamson, they can be “downright cruel” when discussing those they consider parasitic. The general privilege of the Tea Partiers is highlighted by the fact that they rarely express a fear that immigrants will take jobs (because most of the activists are retired or happily employed), instead emphasizing the idea that immigrants are illegitimately dipping into the public purse. In fact, most immigrants are excluded from the social safety net, even though their payroll taxes contribute to Social Security and Medicare.

At first blush, these attitudes seem hypocritical, but Robin argues that it is cases just like these that allow for a mass-based conservatism. Unlike the old feudal orders, whereby the elites jealously horded their privilege, conservatism must operate within a democratic framework. The elites secure the support of their followers “by making privilege democratic and democracy aristocratic.” Right-wing parties must build a mass base in order to get elected and rule, therefore they must provide genuine power and benefits for their supporters, who are framed as “deserving” or “earning” government support, unlike whichever flavor of “other” is (un)popular at the time.

Robin has been accused of promoting a variation of the old Marxist “false consciousness” theory: that grassroots right-wingers, like the Tea Partiers, are simply tricked into giving the elites their support, bedazzled by the distraction of “cultural” issues (Thomas Frank’s problematic What’s The Matter With Kansas? is a famous recent example of this line of thought). Occasionally he seems to fall prey to this simplistic analysis, as in this flippant line from one of The Reactionary Mind’s later essays: “characteristic of all great counterrevolutionary theories, in which the people become actors without roles, an audience that believes itself on stage.”

But in the book’s opening essay, Robin utilizes a more nuanced analysis. The conservative elites provide something tangible to their allies and offer them real power in a hierarchical order in the home, workplace, and (at least symbolically) over ardently stigmatized groups. In the case of the Tea Party, they also offer material benefits. Even Paul Ryan’s viciously austere budget proposals preserve Medicare for those who currently receive it, or will in the near future. They also provide a defense against unionism at work and reproductive freedom at home. Immigrants and young people, clamoring for a seat at the table, are a threat to that control, to the privilege they have eked out. They are afraid of losing “their” America, the nation as it used to be.

“That is the task of right-wing populism: to appeal to the mass without disrupting the power of elites or, more precisely, to harness the energy of the mass in order to reinforce or restore the power of elites,” Robin writes. And sure enough Skocpol and Williamson find that reports of the Tea Party’s supposed antipathy towards big business and Wall Street are greatly exaggerated. Instead, “they never blamed business or the superrich for America’s troubles.” No, Tea Partiers are frightened by the Democratic Party, which they conceive of as a rabble of welfare recipients, immigrants, and public union members, groups they believe are going to steal away their hard-earned gains.

This powerful animus and the grassroots fervor it inspired after the sweeping Democratic victory of 2008 is used to further the influence of elite conservative organizations, mostly based in D.C. and staffed by lobbyists and former politicians. Newer “astroturf” D.C. organizations include the Tea Party Express, an organization that supports massive and immediate cuts, but equivocates when asked about specifics.

Freedom Works, along with Ryan and his acolytes, plan to dismantle Social Security and Medicare as we know them, shifting many costs to the elderly, while completely shredding the rest of the social safety net. This is one instance where the “false consciousness” accusation rings true. “There is no evidence that ordinary American citizens who sympathize with the Tea Party were clamoring for the elimination of Medicare,” write Skocpol and Williamson. But the Tea Party only has eyes for Obama: “If an organization seems to be against Obama and liberals, Tea Partiers are trusting to the point of gullibility.”

Bolstered by conservative media, political, and economic elites, Tea Partiers believe that their America is fundamentally threatened. For them, the mild-mannered reforms offered by the Obama administration are the thin-edge of the wedge, the beginning of a path that could lead to revolution or even worse, socialism. They cannot be compromised with or brought into a bipartisan huddle. To preserve their privilege, the envisioned threat must be throttled, and the 2012 general election is their golden opportunity.


Join our mailing list to receive news from Full Stop:

You can also help by donating.