Berkeley Takes On the Tea Party

Radical professors create a center to monitor grassroots conservatives.

In 2009, the University of California at Berkeley established the Center for the Comparative Study of Right-Wing Movements (CCSRWM) "to encourage and nurture comparative scholarship on right-wing movements in the United States, Europe, Asia, Latin America, and other regions of the world over the past hundred years." They also initiated a Tea Party Working Group to study a movement "espousing fierce antipathy toward American liberalism in the name of 'tradition American values' while claiming as well dissatisfaction with the direction of the Republican Party." In June of 2010, the progressive advocacy group, People for the American Waydonated its "vast and unique" collection of studies on the American Right to the center. A CCSRWM conference -- more accurately described as a bash-fest -- took place on October 22, 2010. Entitled “Fractures, Alliances, and Mobilizations: Emerging Analyses of the Tea Party Movement,” it included a cast of characters dedicated to one over-riding idea: the Tea Party movement is a seething cauldron of hatred, racism and paranoia, legitimizing the worst elements of right-wing excess.

CCSRWM founder Lawrence Rosenthal, author of "America's Insurgent Right," which compares American conservatism since the '80s to radical right-wing movements in Europe (presumably Fascism and Nazism), opened the conference. He contended much of the Tea Party's appeal stemmed from the idea that both the elections of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were "deemed illegitimate by much of the right." That's a rather curious assertion, considering the only modern election which gained national prominence as being "illegitimate" was the left's insistence (to this day) that George W. Bush "stole" the presidency in 2000.

Rosenthal also claimed the Tea Party movement did not spring up from the usual sources, i.e. churches, civil movements, or unions, but that it grew "in collaboration with a television network," that is, Fox News. (If Rosenthal is searching for collaboration between the media and a political movement, perhaps he should study the Journolist scandal, an effort by left-wing media members and political operatives to "coordinate" their talking points during the 2008 election.) Rosenthal concluded his remarks with a theme that was one of the evening's recurring motifs: the Tea Party movement was energized by a "sense of dispossession--that something that belonged to them, call it America, is being taken away."

Next up was Rick Perlstein. For Perlstein, the Tea Party arose as a "Yang" backlash to the "Yin" of the '60s civil rights movement. He contended that the "tree of crazy" (read: conservatism), is "an ever-present aspect of America's flora." The Tea Party's rise is largely attributable to "media devolution" (read: Fox News and talk radio) which occurred as a result of "anxiety about appearing liberal and not understanding the heartland." A heartland which remains susceptible to "rage, scapegoating, demagoguery and the idea that they are being dispossessed" due to "the psychoanalytic trauma that comes from being dependent on government when being dependent on government is shameful."

That the same "angry" heartland less than two years earlier helped elect America's first non-white president and a solid Democrat majority in Congress, is apparently lost on Mr. Perlstein. He seemingly believes that their subsequent rejection of progressivism is based on irrationality--as opposed to their first-hand experience with "hope and change."

Moderator Jack Citrin then introduced the speakers and read their biographies. The rest of the conference was divided into three panels, followed by question and answer segments. (Q&A was omitted from this column, but can be accessed, along with every detail of the conference, using the hyperlink in the first paragraph.)

Panel One was entitled, "New Forms of Activism on the Right."

Christopher Parker explained he was working on a theory about the Tea Party that is "not ready for prime time." Most of Parker's focus was on Tea Party polling data, which unsurprisingly revealed a movement centered around an "ideology, conformity, and Eurocentrism" that promotes racism, xenophobia, anger, fear and anxiety.

Apparently Mr. Parker's Tea Party theory is still not ready for prime time. In June 2011, he once again contended that the "more racially resentful you are, the more likely you are to support the Tea Party."

Ruth Rosen opined that women might be drawn to the Tea Party and its "incoherent" ideology due to the conservative Christian feminism publicized by Sarah Palin, a prophet of the movement. Rosen went on to reiterate much of the evening's prevailing themes through the lens of feminism, contending that without its grassroot female supporters "the Tea Party would have far less appeal to voters who are frightened by economic insecurity, threats to moral purity and the gradual disappearance of a national white Christian culture."

Perhaps Ms. Rosen may not have noticed, but such threats have a substantial basis in fact. Economics aside, America now has a culture in which the out-of-wedlock birth rate is now 40 percent nationally and 72 percent among black Americans. And that's when black babies are carried to term. In New York City, 60 percent of black pregnancies ended in abortion in 2009. The wholesale destruction of the nuclear family is a direct outgrowth of progressive ideology, not conservatism.

Clarence Lo, co-author of “Recent Developments in Marxist Theories of the Capitalist State” saw the Tea party as a "program of economic conservatism that primarily benefits the wealthy, supported by a relatively broad section of the population." Once again social conservatism equals "opposition to civil rights" and economic conservatism equals "supply side economics." He views the movement through conflicting hypotheses: it is either "an artificial grassroots movement directly controlled, funded, etc. by elite, national groups," (he cites the Koch brothers), or a "genuine social movement that is broadly based[.]"

Mr. Lo fails to mention that Democrats have also been well-funded by elite national groups, most notably Wall Street, who contributed more to Democrats than Republicans in 2010, the year this conference took place.

Debra Saunders provided the most enlightening moment of the conference when she opened with a question “How many people here are Tea Party members or supporters?" One or two people reportedly raised their hands. Saunders, ostensibly a conservative, contended that the Tea Party is "talked about in a condescending way." Yet she also described Tea Partiers as "unsophisticated," reiterating the tiresome elitist meme that many ordinary Americans are stupid.

Dave Weigel, contended the Tea Party has a "closed-loop silo of information about why things are the way they are," much of which is "inchoate anger," adding that they "haven’t quite figured out how government works, but they’re for whatever side is loudest." He also blamed a lack of trust in the media for the success of conservatism in general. Ironically, Weigel was fired as the Washington Post's conservative blogger "after leaked online emails showed him disparaging some Republicans and commentators in highly personal terms." So much for cultivating trust in the media.

Panel Two was entitled, "The Tea Party and the Right."

Marty Cohen contended that the Tea Party is the third wave of conservatives to enter the Republican party since the '70s, noting they resemble "first wave of the Religious Right" and are driven in part by the idea that "the country is going in the wrong direction morally" which "arises out of a reaction to threats to various forms of status." He then cited the "racial status posed by an African American president, ethnic status posed by a majority-minority future, and economic status fueled by the current crisis."

Alan Abramowitz noted that Republican activism substantially increased since the '50s, and that the principal spark for the Tea Party and a Republican Party, which are both getting more and more conservative (and the Democratic Party isn't becoming more leftists?), was "the election of Barack Obama." He concluded by saying the "Tea Partiers will not fade as long as Obama is in the White House," and that the "danger" they pose for a Republican presidential candidate in 2012 will making it "more difficult for the eventual nominee to appeal to moderate swing voters."

Once again, both Cohen and Abramowitz allow progressive ideology to taint their thinking. Neither man seems able to imagine that the Obama administration's disastrous policies, coupled with its determination to carry them out absent congressional approval, gave rise to a political movement determined to rein the administration in.

Peter Montgomery sounded the alarm regarding the Christian Right and the Tea Party movement "overlap," which viewed the election of Obama in "apocalyptic terms" (read: fundamentalism combined with racism). Tea Partiers believe in American exceptionalism "as defined by Glenn Beck and [historian] David Barton:" a divinely inspired Constitution made using the colonial preachers’ ideas of individual salvation, which were "cribbed" by the Founding Fathers. The beauty of this is that if you say Obama has this liberation theology inspired view of big government and collectivism, they will say big government is not only un-American, it is un-Christian."

Leaving aside the reality of a Declaration of Independence in which our "unalienable rights" are "endowed by a Creator," it is revealing that Mr. Montgomery can seemingly ignore the fact that the president spent twenty years attending the church of "liberation theologian" Jeremiah Wright, whose own un-American, un-Christian, as well as racist and anti-Semitic diatribes are well-documented.

Panel Three was entitled "Tapping into Fear, Anger and Resentment: The Tea Party and the Climate of Threat."

Charles Postel who wrote a column claiming the "radical right has often had a soft spot for bigots," noted that the "spectrum of political phenomena described as populist these days runs the gamut from social democratic to white nationalist," and that the Tea Party "truly tests the limits of the term." He further contended that Tea Partiers view the election of 2008 as "stolen" by ignorant and/or illegal black and immigrant voters and racialists, adding that they have launched a flurry of legislation "to constrain voting rights through the expansion of felony disqualification and the elimination of motor voter laws."

Mr. Postel may wish to ignore instances of vote fraud convictions documented here and here, a Supreme Court ruling upholding photo ID voting requirements progressives consider a "disenfranchisement" of minorities voters, or a poll revealing that 75 percent of Americans support photo IDs. But they are realities nonetheless.

Lisa Disch reiterated the fear, anger, resentment and racist tropes that dominated the evening, adding that Tea Partiers are members of an American "precariat" which simultaneously disdains big government even as they "do not recognize" that they did not earn their own middle class status, but were lifted into the middle class, like my family, by [government] programs." The Tea Party's concerns must be viewed through the "analytic of whiteness" by which they identify with the "forgotten man scenario" of racist resentment.

One can only imagine what Disch thought of a Tea Party movement willing to go stake their political future on the refusal to go along with a "clean" debt ceiling increase, or their determination to get a Balanced Budget Amendment through Congress. Perhaps they are more concerned with the "forgotten children" of subsequent generations who may be denied middle class status due to the crushing fiscal burden of the very programs Disch champions.

Devin Burghart claimed the Tea Party ranks are increasingly permeated with people focused on race and nationalism," and that "the notion that the first Black American president is not a real American is prominent throughout the movement..." He further contended that their relationship "with hard-core white nationalists has become a two way street." He explained there are "three rings" and "six factions" of the Tea Party movement, which include "Glenn Beck listeners," "birthers," "Christian leaders," "nativists" and those "who seek to repeal the 17th Amendment and the direct election of U.S. senators." The movement also "disregards those it considers insufficiently American." He went on to contend that "Islamophobia emerges as the new, cutting edge, wedge issue" for Tea Party supporters, and in conclusion contended that the "unstated racism in this movement is vocal and unmistakable."

With all due respect to Mr. Burghart, a "phobia" is defined by an "exaggerated fear." Nine days from now, America will be taking part in the 10th remembrance of a "phobia" that toppled the world Trade Center and killed nearly 3000 Americans.

The conference closed with a brief summary: "First, the research presented today suggests that the Tea Party supporters are part of a very active, very conservative wing of the Republican Party, and, to the extent that they are able to frame their message in ways that appeal to a larger and more moderate segment of the American public, they are likely to wield significant influence within the Republican Party and move it further to the right. Second, to the extent that they succeed in mobilizing a significant segment of the American public and start winning elections, those on the left will need to take seriously the challenge that Tea Party activists pose to progressive politics and figure out how best to respond."

What's been the progressive response to the Tea Party since then? More of the same old same old. Within the last month, the vice president referred to them as terrorists and three members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) have referred to them as "the real enemy" (Frederica Wilson, D-FL), said they "can go straight to Hell" (Maxine Waters D-CA), and told an audience of CBC members "this tea party movement would love to see you and me...hanging on a tree" (Andre Carson, D-IN).

Such reactions are totally unsurprising. If there is one thing that was illuminated by the Berkeley conference, it is all-encompassing myopia animated by a progressive political ideology so self-stifling that its practitioners failed to grasp a breathtaking irony: a symposium dedicated to understanding the Tea Party movement failed to present even a single member of the Tea Party at their meeting. That myopia, which now borders on angry paranoia in Democratic Party circles, has carried through to the present.

Such emotionalism engenders an equally large measure of hypocrisy. It is a hypocrisy evidenced by a conference in which America's self-purported champions of tolerance and diversity managed to make sweeping generalizations about an entire political movement, virtually every one of which came down on the negative side of the ledger. In the real world, that's called "prejudice."

At the Center for the Comparative Study of Right-Wing Movements, it's apparently considered "scholarship."