Sunday, September 19, 2010

Why the Tea Party doesn't scare me (much)

Could America be the new Weimar Republic? Could a combination of bad economic times, military setbacks, and racial/ethnic paranoia fuel a desire for a strongman to restore, as
Glenn Beck puts it, our national "honor"? I'll admit that this possibility keeps me up at night. As Foreign Policy magazine reports, the unprecedented powers that have recently been vested in the office of the presidency (including steady erosion of civil liberties under both Bush and Obama) make it more likely that a Hitler-like leader could ride a wave of nativist paranoia to office and end our democracy.

It's clear that this is on a lot of other Americans' minds as well, even Tea Partiers themselves, who regularly decry Obama as a Hitler figure. But it seems blatantly obvious to me that if a Hitler does arise, his power base will be not the left, but the Tea Party right - the nation's traditionally dominant ethnic group, united around a common religion and culture and political ideology, grabbing their guns and goose-stepping into action for the first fascist strongman who promises to "give them their America back." Already, Tea Party leaders are calling for "Second Amendment remedies" to the nation's problems - i.e., armed insurrection by a disaffected and dispossessed white ethnic core. Don't fool yourself: If America has wannabe Nazis, those wannabe Nazis are called Tea Partiers.

So why am I not panicked about the rise of the Tea Party?

Simply put, it's because they're old.

Jacob Weisberg writes in Slate:
So who are these people and what do they want from us? A series of polls, as well as be-ins like Glenn Beck's Washington rally last month, have given us a picture of a movement predominated by middle-class, middle-aged white men angry about the expansion of government and hostile to societal change. But that profile could accurately describe the past several right-wing insurgencies, from the California tax revolt of the late 1970s to the Contract with America of 1994—not to mention the very Republican establishment that the Tea Party positions itself against.
Angry middle-class men may have outsized political clout, but they are not revolutionaries. To get a Hitlerian takeover, you need the Hitler Youth; you need armies of disaffected young men eager to join organizations like the Brown Shirts and the SS. And American conservatives do not have such an army. They have, in fact, been spectacularly unsuccessful in their efforts to boost white birth rates through religious revivalism and popular exhortation.

Which is not to say Tea Partiers wouldn't like to grab their guns and overthrow the Constitution. They would love nothing better. After all, it's the Constitution that's killing them, through its provision of birthright citizenship, freedom of speech and religion, and majority rule. But they won't do it, because despite the collapse of their housing prices and the steady erosion of their earning power, middle-aged middle-class white folk still live spectacularly comfortable lives. The Tea Party thus seems unlikely to generate any kind of mass organized violence.

The real danger is more mundane: another Bush, a messianic leader for the Right of the type they imagine Obama to be for the Left. Only this time, a Bush-type leader would mean business. No more "compassionate conservatism." No more placating business interests who want more immigration. No more shying away from full assumption of dictatorial powers for the presidency. In other words, a Cheney-type president. A tin-pot mini-Hitler who would smash our national institutions, but who would fall far short of starting a civil war or turning America into a totalitarian state. There are plenty of megalomaniac doofuses lining up for a crack at this job, not least among them (of course) Sarah Palin.

How do we prevent this sorry outcome? One key is to give more relative power to Congress. That requires elimination of the filibuster, the de facto supermajority requirement that has utterly paralized our legislature, and is therefore the number 1 reason that people have no confidence in Congress. A second key is to put pressure on Obama to publicly and explicitly state that the presidency will never have certain powers - arbitrary detention, warrantless surveillance, suspension of habeas corpus, etc. That would set a legal and public-opinion precedent that would help tie the hands of a President Palin.

Because if we can keep the Tea Party at bay long enough - if we can prevent this wave of tribalism from smashing our national institutions - the wave will pass. Racial intermarriage, immigrant assimilation, and demographic inevitability will quiet the Tea Party's rage to a simmering memory. We just have to wait the old geezers out.

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