Same Old: How the Right Harnesses White Fear (& Religious Fear) for Plutocratic Ends

David Campbell and Robert Putnam have an insightful editorial in today’s New York Times. In Crashing the Tea Party they summarize their study of national political attitudes (from interviews with a representative sample of 3,000 Americans) and shed some light onto unifying themes and motivations of members of the so-called Tea Party.

Tea Partiers are united in their love of freedom and opposition to “big government”, right?

That may be, but, according to Campbell and Putnam, the single biggest predictor of Tea Party involvement is “a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics.”

And Tea Partiers continue to hold these views: they seek “deeply religious” elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates. The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government.

This agenda is, according to the authors, far out of line with attitudes of a large majority of Americans. They argue, however, that the official stated emphasis and brand of the Tea Party is more in line with many Americans’ “anti-big-government” values (a point I will take some issue with).

Another big predictor of Tea Party participation: whiteness.

They are overwhelmingly white, but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do. [my emphasis]

There you have it. No disrespect, but the Tea Party is fueled by racism and religious bigotry. Dealing with these folks day-in-and-day-out during the health care fight, this much was abundantly clear to many of us. Now there’s some research to back up what we knew in our guts.

Many will protest this assertion. To be clear, I think that overt expressions of racism are rare in the Tea Party. Some overt expressions of racism may even incite a negative response from many Tea Party members who would not want to see themselves or be seen as overt racists.

But the cloaking of the origin of motivational fears is the strength of the Tea Party. Here’s how the game plan works:

  1. Stoke fear &#151 white fear in particular, easily exploitable with the inauguration of our first black President.
  2. Use that fear to rile up a grassroots base. Yes, the Tea Party may have their own cable news network and a lot more resources thrown at them than we’re accustomed to over here on the left, but it’s a mistake to dismiss them as 100% astroturf; there is an actual base.
  3. Frame the national narrative and national economic issues with that mobilized base as the protagonist in a story about “big government” supposedly screwing over “the little guy.”
  4. Hide actual policy goals within that grand narrative.

The so-called Tea Party was designed and branded brilliantly, as an intentionally ambiguous vehicle. It’s an emotion-laden, highly branded, intentionally ambiguous symbol &#151 designed to catalyze white closeted (or sometimes not) racists who consciously or not felt entitled to always have a white male President with an “American-sounding” name. The label “Tea Party” functions as an “empty signifier” &#151 a vague symbol that different kinds of people with disparate values can identify with. This ability to unite different swaths of people (though in this case typically united by whiteness, at least) is possible precisely because of the vagueness of the symbol; it doesn’t lose people by spelling things out too clearly. The Tea Party also acts as something of a political fetish object. Like a sexual fetish object, one latches onto an acceptable object to stand in for the thing that is forbidden. It is no longer acceptable in our society to openly admit one’s discomfort with a black President. It is more acceptable (to one’s neighbors and to one’s own conscience) to embrace the Tea Party and our “forefathers” and to lament, “I want my country back.”

This psychological need to cloak unacceptable fears into acceptable “remedial” action is how someone like Dick Armey can come along and channel all this energy into the service of an extreme economic agenda. The meme “big government” itself carries a story of an assault on values by a dangerous “other”. This vague “otherization” is key to the Tea Party strategy. It’s the cognitive thread that unites a lot of disparate themes. “Other” means threat, and there’s one big file drawer in our brains for that threat. We can throw blacks and immigrants and socialists and homosexuals all into the same file, so that our fear of the “other” is triggered whenever we encounter any of the above.

The good news: the Tea Party is increasingly unpopular. Here’s Putnam and Campbell:

Tea Party supporters have slipped to 20 percent, while their opponents have more than doubled, to 40 percent.

…the Tea Party ranks lower than any of the 23 other groups we asked about &#151 lower than both Republicans and Democrats. It is even less popular than much maligned groups like “atheists” and “Muslims.” Interestingly, one group that approaches it in unpopularity is the Christian Right.

However, it would be a mistake to measure the Tea Party’s success solely by its ability to make people like the Tea Party. Does Dick Armey really care if the Tea Party is loved by many? Is that why he and the Koch brothers and other plutocrats have put so much money and effort into this vehicle? To make people like them? Of course not. If in the process of pushing through an extremely conservative economic agenda we all come to hate the Tea Party, so what?

Putnam and Campbell mention early on in their editorial that, despite the Tea Party’s growing unpopularity, “over the last five years, Americans have moved in an economically conservative direction: they are more likely to favor smaller government, to oppose redistribution of income and to favor private charities over government to aid the poor.” It’s important to note that they qualify this assertion of right-shifting attitudes: “none of these opinions are held by a majority of Americans.” That said, if there has been a rightward shift in economic attitudes over the past five years &#151 and I would love to see their research data &#151 how much credit might the Tea Party deserve, however unpopular it is now?

I suspect a lot.

Bonding & Bridging | Populism & Hegemony pt.3

This is the third post in a series.

Strong group identity is something of a double-edged sword for social justice movements. On the one hand&#151as discussed in part one of this series&#151it is absolutely essential. There can be no serious social movement&#151the kind that challenges the powerful and privileged&#151without a correspondingly serious group identity that encourages a strong core of members to contribute an exceptional level of commitment, sacrifice and heroics over the course of prolonged struggle.

On the other hand, a group’s identity tends to grow stronger and more cohesive at a cost of becoming more distinct from other group identities. The cost is the barrier that results from the distinction of said group from other groups. While this is true of all groups to some extent, it tends to have particular consequences for political/politicized groups. Take, for example, a sports team that defines its group identity partly in distinction from rival teams. The team is likely to play all the harder against their rivals as a result of the distinction. No problem there. A group engaged in political struggle, on the other hand, has not only to foster a strong within-group identity; it also has to win allies beyond the bounds of that identity &#151 if it is to orchestrate and leverage the power it needs to accomplish its political goals. Add to this that oppositional struggle tends to trigger an oppositional psychology, which can inject “with steroids” the natural tendency of groups to differentiate themselves from outsiders.

I have called this tension (or double-bind) the Political Identity Paradox. Good leaders have to perform an extraordinary balancing act between the conflicting imperatives of building a strong within-group identity and connecting with allies and potential allies beyond the group.

In his remarkable examination of patterns of declining civic engagement in US society in the last third of the 20th Century&#151in his book, Bowling Alone&#151Robert Putnam provides some useful language for thinking about this tension. He talks in terms of bonding and bridging. Bonding involves the kind of within-group identity formation and emphasis I have discussed, which typically includes some degree of differentiation between group members and outsiders. Bridging is about connections among and between groups. Here’s Putnam:

Of all the dimensions along which forms of social capital vary, perhaps the most important is the distinction between bridging (or inclusive) and bonding (or exclusive). Some forms of social capital are, by choice or necessity, inward looking and tend to reinforce exclusive identities and homogeneous groups. Examples of bonding social capital include ethnic fraternal organizations, church-based women’s reading groups, and fashionable country clubs. Other networks are outward looking and encompass people across diverse social cleavages. Examples of bridging social capital include the civil rights movement, many youth service groups, and ecumenical religious organizations.

Bonding social capital is good for undergirding specific reciprocity and mobilizing solidarity. Dense networks in ethnic enclaves, for example, provide crucial social and psychological support for less fortunate members of the community, while furnishing start-up financing, markets, and reliable labor for local entrepreneurs. Bridging networks, by contrast, are better for linkage to external assets and for information diffusion.

I suggested in part one of this series that:

…a primary function of identity is for group members to signal belonging and commitment to the group, thereby contributing to the health and well-being of the group, while also securing one’s individual place (and therefore survival) in the group.

That, in a nutshell, is what Putnam describes as bonding. I continue:

Group members can signal this [bonding/belonging] by expressing commonality or distinction:

  • Commonality: I am like others in this group.  I share values with this group.  I belong in this group.
  • Distinction . . . from other groups: I belong in this group because I am different from members of other groups &#151 especially groups that my group views as a threat or that the group identifies itself in opposition to…

So, the “double edged sword” of group identity that I described above&#151the Political Identity Paradox&#151speaks to the need for groups engaged in political struggle to develop both strong bonding and strong bridging. Without strong bonding, group members will lack the level of commitment required for serious struggles. But without strong bridging, the group will become too insular and isolated to be able to forge the broad alliances that are even more necessary for achieving big structural changes.

We can talk in terms of within-group vs. between groups, distinction vs. commonality, differentiation vs. universality, or bonding vs. bridging. However we phrase it, what we’re talking about is the tension between the imperative for groups to cultivate internal solidarity and the imperative to connect beyond the boundaries of the group. Understanding this tension is crucial for understanding the emergence of&#151and the obstacles to&#151populist alignments.