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Profile: Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein was a participant or observer in the following events:
Author and historian Rick Perlstein reminds Washington Post readers that the kind of conservative-based outrage against health care reform is nothing new in American history. Asking whether the protests are orchestrated or spontaneous, Perlstein says they are both. “The quiver on the lips of the man pushing the wheelchair (see August 6, 2009), the crazed risk of carrying a pistol around a president (see August 11, 2009)—too heartfelt to be an act. The lockstep strangeness of the mad lies on the protesters’ signs—too uniform to be spontaneous. They are both. If you don’t understand that any moment of genuine political change always produces both, you can’t understand America, where the crazy tree blooms in every moment of liberal ascendancy, and where elites exploit the crazy for their own narrow interests.”
Charges of Soviet-Inspired Treason - In the 1950s, Perlstein writes, Republicans referred to the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman as “20 years of treason,” and accused the two of deliberately surrendering the world to communism. Some conservatives leveled the accusation that a new Bible translation was the work of Soviet agents. Then-Vice President Richard Nixon claimed, without proof, that Republicans entering the White House at the beginning of the Eisenhower administration “found in the files a blueprint for socializing America.” When President Kennedy proposed using intercontinental ballistic missiles to form the basis of America’s nuclear defense instead of the traditional long-range bombers, and floated the idea of opening relations with Eastern Bloc nations such as Yugoslavia, conservatives accused him of trying to disarm the US in secret collusion with the USSR.
'National Indignation Convention' - In 1961, thousands of angry conservatives packed a National Indignation Convention in Dallas, where the keynote speaker shouted that he wanted to hang Chief Justice Earl Warren. A Kennedy proposal to expand mental health services included a new facility in Alaska; right-wingers claimed it was actually an internment camp for political dissidents. During the Johnson administration, conservatives claimed that the civil rights movement was conceived and orchestrated in the Soviet Union; many of them claimed that the 1964 Civil Rights Act would “enslave” white Americans.
'Uncanny' Similarities between Then and Now - Perstein notes that the similarities between the protests then and now are “uncanny,” writing: “The various elements—the liberal earnestly confused when rational dialogue won’t hold sway; the anti-liberal rage at a world self-evidently out of joint; and, most of all, their mutual incomprehension—sound as fresh as yesterday’s news. (Internment camps for conservatives? That’s the latest theory of tea party favorite Michael Savage.) The orchestration of incivility happens, too, and it is evil. Liberal power of all sorts induces an organic and crazy-making panic in a considerable number of Americans, while people with no particular susceptibility to existential terror—powerful elites—find reason to stoke and exploit that fear.”
Now, More Success at Manipulating Media, Shaping Policy - Perlstein cites examples of fake “grassroots” letters to newspaper editors written by Nixon administration aides that defended the then-president from Watergate-related charges, and how successful they were in manipulating the discussion. Now, he writes, the “Conservatives have become adept at playing the media for suckers, getting inside the heads of editors and reporters, haunting them with the thought that maybe they are out-of-touch cosmopolitans and that their duty as tribunes of the people’s voices means they should treat Obama’s creation of ‘death panels’ as just another justiciable political claim.” In the 1960s, news anchors such as Walter Cronkite didn’t bother debunking claims about internment facilities for conservative critics, he writes. “The media didn’t adjudicate the ever-present underbrush of American paranoia as a set of ‘conservative claims’ to weigh, horse-race-style, against liberal claims. Back then, a more confident media unequivocally labeled the civic outrage represented by such discourse as ‘extremist’—out of bounds. The tree of crazy is an ever-present aspect of America’s flora. Only now, it’s being watered by misguided he-said-she-said reporting and taking over the forest. Latest word is that the enlightened and mild provision in the draft legislation to help elderly people who want living wills—the one hysterics turned into the ‘death panel’ canard—is losing favor, according to the Wall Street Journal, because of ‘complaints over the provision.’ Good thing our leaders weren’t so cowardly in 1964, or we would never have passed a civil rights bill—because of complaints over the provisions in it that would enslave whites.” [Washington Post, 8/16/2009]
Author Amity Shlaes is one of 13 people interviewed by the New York Times about their perceptions of the tea party movement. [Source: National Review]The New York Times, in light of a recent poll showing American tea party supporters to be whiter, wealthier, and more conservative than average Americans (see April 14, 2010), interviews a number of prominent historians, journalists, and political analysts about their views on the tea party.
Tea Party Very Similar to Anti-Liberal Organizations of Generations Past - Rick Perlstein, the biographer of former president Richard Nixon and former Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), writes of his “frustration” at “watching the rise of the tea party movement,” calling it “ugly” and in opposition to “so many of the values I hold dear.” He notes the “overwhelming historical myopia” of the news media’s coverage of the tea party, saying that the current movement is comprised of “the same angry, ill-informed, overwhelmingly white, crypto-corporate paranoiacs that accompany every ascendancy of liberalism within US government” (see February 4-8, 2010, February 15, 2010, September 2010, and August 17, 2011). Perlstein quotes conservative activist Brent Bozell asking, “When was the last time you saw such a spontaneous eruption of conservative grass-roots anger, coast to coast?” and responds: “The answer, of course, is: in 1993. And 1977. And 1961. And so on. And so yet much of the commentariat takes Bozell at his word, reading what is happening as striking and new.” Perlstein writes that the parallels between the current tea party movement and the previous movements opposing the Roosevelt, Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton administrations “are uncanny.… The only thing that changes is the name of the enemy within.” In 1963, accusations flew that President Kennedy was “in bed” with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro to bring socialism to America; today, the accusations are that the “Muslim terrorist” President Obama wants to bring socialism to America, perhaps with the aid of Islamist terror groups. Perlstein says that in years past, the media was far more unflinching at labeling the reactionaries as “fringe” elements. “[B]ack then, they covered the story with much more moral courage and civic wisdom.” Now, Perlstein writes, the media fawns over tea party leaders and the right-wing commentators who promote them (see August 11, 2009).
'Sullen, Defensive Mobilization' of Wealthier Americans who Fear the Poor - Author Michael Lind, the policy director of the centrist New America Foundation, advises Republicans and Democrats both to “ignore this faux populist base of the GOP and focus instead on the genuine swing voters.” Tea partiers, Lind writes, are not “[p]itchfork-wielding populists,” but are closer to “the affluent members of the Liberty League who vilified President Roosevelt in the 1930s (see August 23, 1934 and After)—a sullen, defensive mobilization of the Have-Somes who dread the Have-Nots. The tea partiers put the ‘petty’ in petty bourgeoisie. They are disgruntled conservative Fox Republicans.”
Tea Parties Focusing on Constitutional Issues - Author Steven F. Hayward, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, lauds the tea parties as primarily focused on economic and constitutional issues (see May 2010), and more supportive of gay rights, abortion rights, and limited gun restrictions than the media may admit. Hayward writes that he is surprised that most tea partiers are “more economically secure than the general population” and better-educated than the average American: “[T]he narrative that the tea partiers are a bunch of pitchfork populist rubes becomes harder to maintain.” Racism does not permeate the tea parties, Hayward argues (see February 27, 2009, April 2009, July 2009, August 4, 2009, August 4, 2009, August 11, 2009, September 2009, September 14, 2009, October 15, 2009 and After, January 14, 2010, February 2010, March 20, 2010, March 25, 2010, March 26, 2010, May 14, 2010, July 13, 2010, July 14, 2010, July 15, 2010, July 17-18, 2010, August 6, 2010, August 24, 2010, August 24, 2010, September 11, 2010, September 12, 2010, October 10, 2010, October 19, 2010, April 15, 2011, April 16, 2011, May 5, 2011, July 29, 2011 and After, August 22-30, 2011, and December 10, 2011), “though there is some evidence of polarization that is a problem for the tea party as a movement.” Hayward opines that such racism that can be documented in tea party members “is likely an aspect of party politics today.” He also states that tea party supporters do not believe the “birther” conspiracy theory that Obama is not an American citizen any more than the average American, a statement at odds with many other analyses of tea party ideologies (see October 2008, January 8, 2009, June 4, 2009, February 4-8, 2010, February 15, 2010, September 2010, April 13-15, 2011, and July 1-2, 2011), even though the poll shows that only 41 percent of the tea party supporters believe that Obama is a “natural-born citizen.” The driving factor behind so many Americans with no previous history of political involvement is, he writes, the fact that most tea party members “are moderates who are simply shocked by Obama’s great leap forward in the size of government,” and he compares the tea parties to the third-party backers of presidential candidate H. Ross Perot in 1992. He concludes, “The real promise of the tea party movement is that it may lead to a reinvigoration of the idea of constitutional limits on government—an idea liberals may find quaint if not hopelessly obsolete.”
Long-Discredited 'Radical Right' Views Propelling Tea Parties - Author and university professor Alan Wolfe, a self-described liberal, derides the tea parties as little more than a repackaged version of the “radical right” which has long been a part of America’s body politic. The tea party movement, Wolfe writes, has given “American intellectuals whose views have been out of fashion for some time” a new platform with which to express their ideas. The same ideas that drove the McCarthyite “Red scare” of the 1950s are driving the tea parties today, Wolfe writes, and points to the increasing involvement of organizations such as the John Birch Society (JBS—see March 10, 1961) in the tea party movement (see July 22, 2007, August 4, 2008, October 10, 2008, April 13, 2009, April 19, 2010, and August 24, 2010). Like the people who support the JBS both now and in the 1950s, tea partiers are driven “not so much to their economic circumstances as to their status anxieties.” They fear the changing, increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan society around them, and dislike, or sometimes even hate, the seeming “encroachment” of minorities and lower-class Americans on their lives. Wolfe says that the idea that tea party members do not embrace racist values any more than other Americans is specious; their poll responses can be explained, he writes, by noting that “people who respond to them have learned to hide their true feelings.” He concludes: “At the risk of sounding condescending, these people have lost all perspective. They know how to kvetch. They know nothing about what makes their country great. Instead of watching Glenn Beck, I would urge them to learn more about their country’s history—or to go and see a shrink.”
Using Coded Appeals to Race - Law professor Paul Butler writes that while most tea partiers are “more uber-Republicans than Klansmen,” the organizations are very good at using racist “code words” to appeal to racist whites while maintaining plausible deniability about their inherent appeal to racist politics. “The tea party is smart enough not to frame its agenda around white supremacy, but the code words are there,” he writes “[T]he most virulent anti-Obama force in the country is smart enough not to frame its agenda around white supremacy—at least not explicitly.” While most tea partiers were clever enough not to indicate that they were bluntly racist in the poll results, the fact that a strong majority of them “believe that too much has been made of the problems that African-Americans face, and that the administration favors blacks over whites,” is quite telling, Butler writes. “Overwhelmingly they believe that Barack Obama doesn’t share the needs and problems of people like them, or the values of ‘most Americans.’ These code words have been around long enough, everybody gets them.”
Poll Does Not Support Idea that Tea Partiers Embrace Bigotry - Author and columnist Amity Shlaes writes that the poll numbers do not support the “media stereotype” that tea party supporters “are racist or intolerant. The media depicts tea partiers as bigots who look down on minorities, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.” Similarly, she argues, the poll results do not support the idea that tea party supporters believe Obama is a Muslim any more than average Americans do. As the tea party organizers claim, the movement is largely about economics, Shales writes.
Fear of Loss of Control - History professor and author Alan Brinkley calls the tea party “the party of me,” and compares its members demographically to the Americans who supported the McCarthyite “Red scare” inquisitions and the Clinton-era Whitewater investigations—predominantly white males, significantly wealthier than the average American, far more conservative than the mainstream, and fearful of the prospect that conservative white males might not continue to exert control over American society. “[W]hat seems to motivate them the most is a fear of a reduction in their own status—economically and socially,” Brinkley writes. As for their economic worries, he writes, “[T]heir concern is not the state of the economy as a whole, but their own economic conditions.” Brinkley concludes: “The real issue, I believe, is a sense among white males that they are somehow being displaced, that the country is no longer ‘theirs,’ that minorities and immigrants are becoming more and more powerful within society. And, of course, they are right about that. They just fear it more than many other Americans.”
Unrealistic Belief that Government Can Exist without Taxation - Author and former political science professor Lorenzo Morris writes that the tea party’s position on taxes is extremist: “The tea party supporters seem to think that government can exist without taxes.” The American experiment with the Articles of Confederation, which provided no real tax income at all, proves that idea to be wrong, Morris writes, but “[w]ith enough time and historical romanticism, however, bad ideas come back around.” He writes that the current appearance of the tea parties has become less “vitriolic and menacing” than their image from the summer of 2009, when their vociferous and sometimes-violent protesting of health care reform painted them as frightening and bigoted (see July 23, 2009, July 24, 2009, July 27, 2009, July 27, 2009, July 28, 2009, August 1, 2009, August 1, 2009, August 2, 2009, August 2, 2009, August 3, 2009, August 3, 2009, August 3, 2009, August 3, 2009, August 3, 2009, August 4, 2009, August 4, 2009, August 4, 2009, August 4, 2009, August 5, 2009, August 5, 2009, August 5, 2009, August 5, 2009, August 5, 2009, August 6, 2009, August 6, 2009, August 6, 2009, August 6-7, 2009, August 6-8, 2009, August 7, 2009, August 8, 2009, August 8, 2009, August 8, 2009, August 8, 2009, August 10, 2009, August 10, 2009, and August 11, 2009). The tea parties have begun to win the approval of right-wing Republican figures, including many of those who intend a presidential run in 2012. But, he concludes, their rigid disapproval of taxes as a concept, and taxation as a reality, means that they will inevitably “repeat the folly of those early Americans who thought there could be government with no taxes.”
Anger without Willingness to Make Real Change - Law professor Susan Estrich notes that the poll indicates a large reservoir of approval for former Governor Sarah Palin (R-AK), the 2008 vice-presidential nominee for the Republican Party, but a strong doubt that she is competent to lead the nation. “Tea party types may be mad,” Estrich writes, “but they aren’t buying President Palin. And if they aren’t, who would?” Estrich goes on to note that tea party supporters, “like most of us… want to have it both ways: they want their Social Security and smaller government, want major cuts but not in Medicare, which is a little like having your cake and eating it, too. If you want to really reduce the size of government, that means cutting defense and entitlements. If you’re not willing to do that, what you get is big talk and no action, which is ultimately a recipe for anger.” She concludes by calling the racial element “lurking in the polls” “troubling.”
Motivated by Racial Concerns - Author and Democratic activist Bob Moser writes of his familiarity with tea parties in Texas, “where the movement has flared up hotter than just about anywhere else,” and his lack of surprise at the demographics: white, conservative, male, and relatively affluent. The concern about the nation’s economic tribulations, and the anger directed at Obama, is understandable, he writes. However, “[w]hat strikes me is how often America’s great and terrible obsession, race, slithers around the poll numbers.” The poll numbers may not directly bear out the racism and bigotry that exists in the ranks of the tea partiers, Moser writes, “[b]ut it’s impossible to shrug off the collective impressions left by the data. Why, exactly, do 73 percent of tea partiers say that the president does not understand ‘the needs and problems of people like yourself’?” The movement works hard to marginalize Americans who disagree with them, particularly Obama, as un-American, not a member of “we the people.” Moser notes that almost three-quarters of the tea party supporters “say that black and white people have an ‘equal’ chance of ‘getting ahead in today’s society.’ If that’s not colorblindness, it’s certainly some kind of blindness.” Moser concludes by writing that the tea party movement is achieving both goals set by “its corporate Republican conjurers,” both “becoming the political expression of a white-resistance movement being spurred by anxieties over the economy, the black ‘socialist’ president, and the coming end of majority-white America… [and] leaning, at least in 2010, strongly Republican in attitude.”
Healthy Expression of Populism - Political analyst David Gergen writes that the perception of the tea parties as angry, bitter, and divisive is untrue. He describes the latest rally he attended as “festive and friendly.” While many protest higher taxes and bigger government, Gergen writes, their claims that opposing Obama does not entail a racist viewpoint are true. “[M]any feel stung by what they see as misrepresentations in the press,” he writes. Gergen compares the 2010 tea partiers to the Ross Perot voters of 1992: “Those who supported Mr. Perot were mostly white, a little better educated than the general population and much more concerned about government deficits than government peeking into bedrooms. They were also more from the West and South but had pockets of support scattered around the country.” He notes that 18 percent of Americans identify themselves as tea party supporters; in 1992, 19 percent of voters cast their votes for Perot. He calls them a healthy expression of American populism and concludes: “Many of these tea partiers are fearful of how the country is changing. Some circles look down upon them; it would be far wiser to listen, understand and find ways to heal.”
Heralding GOP Success for 2010, Problems Farther On - Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Research Center and a political polls expert, says the poll numbers “augur well for the Republicans in November’s midterm elections: the politically energized supra conservatives—the 1 in 5 who are universally disaffected with national conditions, and with Barack Obama and with his policies—are likely to be a strong advantage in the midterms, where typically fewer than 4 of 10 eligible citizens vote.” The Republicans’ biggest challenge is to keep the tea party supporters’ votes while simultaneously attracting independents and moderates. And a move by the GOP to the right, to further embrace the tea partiers, “may not bode well for the party in the longer run, given the new primacy of independent voters, a power that was on full display in 2008.” Moreover, the tea parties may well co-opt the GOP, going from “the tail that wags the dog” to becoming “the dog itself.” Kohut writes: “Looking ahead, our polling suggests that the Republican party needs unifying themes and leadership. A tea party-led GOP may not be the prescription for that.”
Economic Concerns Drive Tea Party Success - Political consultant Douglas Schoen says the fact that almost 1 in 5 Americans support the tea party “extraordinary, given that the movement is not active in half of America and that its name recognition is not universal.” Schoen gives no credence to “what appear to be the class-based or race-based attitudes of the tea party movement,” and writes that the movement is instead propelled by economic concerns. Schoen says that statistics aside, he believes the tea party movement to be far more diverse than the polls indicate (see September 2010). Almost half its supporters identify themselves as non-Republicans, and a quarter of them claim to have voted for Obama in 2008, he says. [New York Times, 4/15/2010]
Entity Tags: Bob Moser, Barack Obama, Amity Shlaes, Alan Wolfe, Alan Brinkley, Susan Estrich, Andrew Kohut, Steven F. Hayward, Paul Butler, Michael Lind, Douglas Schoen, Lorenzo Morris, Brent Bozell, David Gergen, Rick Perlstein, New York Times
Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda
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