Ezra Klein has an interview with Christopher Parker, a political scientist and the author of a new book called Change They Cant Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America. Parker says what I’ve been saying for a long time, that the Tea Party is the modern John Birch Society that fits perfectly into the paranoid style of politics that Richard Hofstadter accurately identified 50 years ago:
So I run a survey research lab at the University of Washington. In 2010, I began to see these opposing views on the tea party. You had Peggy Noonan and Juan Williams basically saying, the tea partiers are just angry Republicans, no big deal. Then I read Frank Rich, and he says no, these people are completely different. He says they’re more in line with Richard Hofstadter’s “Paranoid Style of American Politics.” And I thought, I can get real data on this! And when I looked at it empirically, I found that people who supported the tea party tended to be more racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and anti-Obama…
There’s just this empirical connection between support for the tea party and antagonistic views toward quote-unquote marginalized groups, or, if you prefer, toward quote-unquote not real Americans…
Look at who rose during this period. It’s not all about Obama. Nancy Pelosi was the first female speaker of the House. Barney Frank wielded real power. Two women, one of whom was a Latina, went to the Supreme Court. Undocumented workers have gotten a ton of attention. There’s been the rise of same-sex rights.
That’s the crux of the book. The title is ‘Change They Can’t Believe In’. This isn’t new. Whenever there’s rapid social change it triggers this kind reactionary conservatism. People see their social prestige threatened, their way of life threatened. And they react.
This is all very true, of course. We’ve seen this pattern time and time again. What Parker did was look at surveys of Tea Party supporters and also at the content of Tea Party websites compared to the content of the National Review, which represents mainstream conservatism. And he found that the content is very different:
We also have a content analysis where we look at the content of 42 tea party Web sites in 15 states, and we compare it with the content of the National Review Online. And it couldn’t be more different. If you look at core postwar conservative principles, it tends to be around the size of government, then you also have national security conservative and social conservatives. And that can be an uneasy fit between the limited government and social conservative types. What brings them together is the threat of communism.
So if you look at this postwar discourse in the National Review Online you have some content about limited government, some about social conservatism, and some about national security. That content accounts for 76 percent of that National Review online. Now if you look at the Tea Party Web sites, that only accounts for 30 percent. Then there’s this conspiratorial discourse Hofstadter talks about that says government is really trying to bring about socialism, etc. That’s only about five percent of what you find at the National Review. On tea party Web sites it’s about a third.
So it’s not just that we’re seeing results like 76 percent of tea partiers want to see Obama fail. We also ask if people think Obama is destroying the country. We asked this question of all self-identified conservatives. If you look at all conservatives, 35 percent believe that. If you look at tea party conservatives and non-tea party conservatives, only six percent of non-tea party conservatives believe that vs. 71 percent of tea party conservatives.
I think Parker is right to identify two very different strains of conservative thought, or perhaps we should say between conservative thought and reactionary thought. It’s not a coincidence that the National Review was founded by William F. Buckley, the man who got the John Birch Society essentially thrown out of the conservative movement in the 1960s. The Tea Party represents the same thing the JBS represented, which is a far right, reactionary agenda that is fueled by massive paranoia and demonization of their opponents. And that is why they refuse to compromise:
They refuse to compromise because, to them, compromise is capitulation. If you go back to Hofstadter’s work when he’s talking about when the John Birch Society rode high, he talks about how conservatives would see people who disagree as political opponents, but reactionary conservatives saw them as evil. You can’t capitulate to evil.
Exactly right. And right wing talk radio and blogs have helped bring reactionary conservatism back into prominence. Mainstream conservatives find themselves playing defense and being derided as “Washington elites” or even as enemies within, just like liberals.