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.

Lessons from Tea Party Tweets

What I learned from spending 5 minutes looking at a Tea Party twitter feed.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the activist filter bubble, the reverberating echo-chamber of insular social media and political networks that keeps progressives marginal and talking to ourselves. Recently, I've had several different Tea Party twitter accounts follow me (at least four this week alone) and began talking to friends about whether or not this means they are 1) building lists of progressive activists for potential future smear-campaigns; 2) following their opposition so they can Retweet things out of context to scare/outrage their base; or 3) genuinely interested in hearing perspectives outside their own echo-chamber. Whatever their purposes, it reminded me that we can learn a lot from the way our opposition presents itself through social media forums (of course there is a lot of deception and other missteps that we don't want to emulate, but there are some transferrable best practices mixed in too – here's some of both).

A few minutes ago I got an email notice that @TheTeaParty_net is following me.

1) Their twitter profile (which I see in the notification email) succinctly states the values they profess to hold: "Limited federal government • Individual freedoms • Personal responsibility • Free markets • Returning political power to the states and the people" I already know what they stand for and I haven't even looked at their twitter feed yet. In fact, their statement of values is likely the thing that will make me choose to look or not look.

And here's what I notice from literally 5 minutes of browsing their twitter feed:

2) Constant creation of an "us vs. them" narrative, inviting people to identify as part of their group ("us") and asking people to take a small action (retweeting) to signal their insiderness. A kinestetic action simple as pressing a button helps solidify the choice that was made by the tweeter. It asks them to take a stand, pick a side, and then reinforces that choice with a physical action that their peers can see. They ask their tweeps to do this on a regular basis.

3) Affirmations. Following their followers, retweeting their followers' invitations to pick a side, constantly reinforcing that they're on the same team.

4) Online to offline: responding to inquiries and connecting tweeps to on-the-ground groups. Even if these groups are astroturf or don't exist, it creates the appearance of a genuine social movement and reinforces Tea Party mythology about being "grassroots".

5) More on the appearance of grassroots decentralized organizing: there isn't a centralized Tea Party twitter account. There are hundreds of them, each with a few hundred to a few thousand followers. They are constantly retweeting each other and referencing one another. From a 20 second glance at their feed I find: @GreaterBostonTP, @anchTeaParty, @wacoteaparty, @teapartyprotest, @teapartypodcast, @TPPatriots (there are many many more).  

6) A right flank. Lots of posts attacking Republican politicians from the Right, pushing the "center" further and further to the right, forcing Republicans to take more and more extreme positions.

7) More inside/outside strategy. While pushing Republicans from the far-Right, they simultaneously identify their tweeps with the GOP, but as an insurgent force within the GOP. That means building voter allegiance to the party, but not allowing their politicians to compromise on their behalf.

8) Victim complex. Reinforcing the perception of being unfairly maligned to embolden their base to see themselves as activist agents-of-change instead of keepers of the status quo. The victim complex, like a cult, builds unity, cohesion, and side-steps critique.

…This post wasn't based on expansive research, or even a particularly deep or thoughtful analysis. It was based on a cursory look at one twitter feed – and that's the point. Within a quick glance, the Tea Party clearly communicates its values, articulates a worldview, asks people to pick sides, reinforces that decision, offers (at least the illusion of) real-life action opportunities, and offers a range of messages that reinforce those objectives. This is worth paying attention to and learning from. And not because the Tea Party are brilliant organizers or anything – most of their "movement" is smoke and mirrors reinforced by large media-megaphones, dominant narratives, and Fox News. But its clear that they know how to communicate an idea, and that's powerful.

Understanding Anti-Immigrant America: Mobilizing the Tea Party

A little more than a week ago, The New York Times published an article about John Tanton, the modern architect of the anti-immigrant movement in the US. Highly concerned with the environmental degradation that he was seeing around him, Tanton eventually pegged the problem on immigration. The Times writes,

From the resort town of Petoskey, Mich., Dr. Tanton helped start all three major national groups fighting to reduce immigration, legal and illegal, and molded one of the most powerful grass-roots forces in politics. The immigration-control movement surged to new influence in last fall’s elections and now holds near veto power over efforts to legalize any of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.

The article goes on to document power and influence of the Tanton Network.  

One group that Dr. Tanton nurtured, Numbers USA, doomed President George W. Bush’s legalization plan four years ago by overwhelming Congress with protest calls. Another, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, helped draft the Arizona law last year to give the police new power to identify and detain illegal immigrants.

A third organization, the Center for Immigration Studies, joined the others in December in defeating the Dream Act, which sought to legalize some people brought to the United States illegally as children.

Collectively, these organizations are today known as the Tanton Network. Both

Southern Poverty Law Center and the Center for New Community have done extensive research revealing the racist and eugenicist foundations of Tanton’s ideas and goals. Moreover, CNC has shown the broad reach of the Tanton Network by mapping out all its various organizations (some of which misleadingly portray themselves as independent and neutral), its sources of financial support and the various institutions with which it partners.

The Tanton Network constitutes a web of organizations in civil society. Moreover, for the purposes of this essay, I will make the claim that they are the organic intellectuals of the capitalist class. Gramsci argued that advanced capitalism spawned intra-class specialization-a division of labor between “mental” and “manual” tasks. The contemporary capitalist class is composed not just of people directly involved in profit making, but also their organic intellectuals, whose function it is to organize the ideas of the class and represent them as in the interest of the general public. In so doing, the capitalist class can build popular support for their class-specific cause, and attract others to their hegemonic project, including other classes’ organic intellectuals.  

This of course begs the following question: why should we assume that this anti-immigrant network constitutes a section of the organic intellectuals of the capitalist class? After all, isn’t their ultimate aim to turn off the spigot of cheap labor by stopping undocumented immigration, deporting undocumented individuals who are already here, and in fact, returning legal immigration rates to the pre-1965 levels? Aren’t these goals in fact against the interests of capital because they reduce the supply of cheap labor?

I will argue that the Tanton Network, despite its racist goal to stop immigration and return to an imagined “Europeanized” past, is ultimately engaged in a project of criminalizing im/migrant workers. Criminalization of im/migrant workers, in the last instance, does serve the interests of capital. In other words, the Network’s “success” should not be judged on the basis of whether or not they ultimately create a US cleansed of brown people. This scenario is both economically unsustainable and politically unrealistic.

Rather the Network’s “success” should be measured by the extent to which they do their job building the ideological buffer around the capitalist class. For example, how widespread is the idea that im/migrants are undeserving and morally suspect? Or, how often does the tacit assumption about the acceptability of the movement of capital across borders and the unacceptability of a similar movement of labor appear in the media, in policy debates highest levels of government and in everyday conversations at the dinner table? These types of commonsensical ideas are the ideological basis for the continued criminalization of im/migrant workers. Those ideas serve as the justification of heightened immigration enforcement both at the border and, more importantly, within the US. How this criminalization of im/migrant workers ultimately serves capitalist interests is the subject of a future post. For the purposes of the current argument, what matters, then, is that we think of the Tanton Network as constituting a section of the organic intellectuals of the capitalist class.

What has the Tanton Network done?

Many on the political left have vigilantly documented the intentional efforts of the John Tanton Network to solicit the support of liberal groups for anti-immigrant causes. Whether it was by “the greening of hate”–exemplified by FAIR’s report that immigration is responsible for the environmental degradation of the Chesapeake Bay–or the promotion of a black-brown divide–by blaming structural poverty and unemployment in black communities to job competition created by immigrants–the Tanton Network is trying to build a wider coalition that includes groups historically associated with the left. But what the left tends to overlook is how the organized anti-immigrant movement is pursuing similar hegemonic projects with the political right–particularly among tea partiers.

This is not surprising. A 2010 New York Times poll showed that tea party supporters were more likely than other Americans to find undocumented immigration “a very serious threat.”  Images of tea party supporters waving signs supporting SB1070 dotted the news media last summer. In the minds of most leftists, the tea party movement was automatically associated with the various agenda items that define the exclusionary politics of the right, including support for anti-immigrant causes.  

However, receptivity to these ideas is not the same as actively mobilizing on behalf of these ideas. Given finite resources and capacity, local tea party organizations (just like progressive groups) have to choose from an array of topics on which to focus their energies. Indeed, in a climate where “Obamacare” has received a lot of the attention from tea partiers, why would “illegal immigration” and “the out-of-control border” solicit any organized anxiety?  

The answer to that question lies with the Tanton Network. (For the purposes of this article, the Tantonites also include local politicians who regularly draw on resources from the Network.) The signing of SB 1070 was a signal to the rest of the nation that Arizona was potential recruiting grounds for a revitalized anti-immigrant movement. But this was going to be a process. The Tea Party Patriots provide a case in point.

The Tea Party Patriots (TPP) is arguably the most grassroots of the six national factions that compose the tea party movement.  While the National Leadership Council of the TPP voted to have members wave signs supporting SB 1070, cofounder Jenny Beth Martin maintained that the organization does not take any official stances on the issue of immigration and the border.

But it was symbolically significant that the annual conference was held in Phoenix, AZ this year. And while the conference was dedicated to many other issues outside of immigration, it did provide a testing ground for ways in which the issue of immigration could be turned into a “tea party issue.”

A Musical Performance at Tea Party Conference, February 2011

Using commonplace tea party rhetoric, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer thanked the conference attendees for choosing Phoenix to host their event: “You didn’t have to choose our home, you could have gone somewhere else…I know you are here because we share a common cause in taking back our country. We want our borders secured. We want the federal government out of our daily lives. We want liberty returned to the people, to the states…”

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s Welcome Message, February 2011

Joe Arpaio, Maricopa’s infamous sheriff and State Senator Russell Pearce, a sponsor of SB1070, were the conference’s first speakers. Both cast themselves as upholding the law and their oaths to office. For them, DC was a different story. Pearce, feigning to speak to the Obama Administration, exclaimed

You wanna remove that disdain that we have, maybe you oughta keep your oath of office[…] Maybe you oughta secure the border. Maybe when you say you’re going to enforce the law, you enforce it. […]It’s all about cheap labor, cheap votes, while they invade and damage this country. I for one do not apologize for defending the principles of this Republic.

State Senator Russell Pearce Speaking at a Conference Session, February 2011

Speakers aligned popular tea party images and concepts-such as constitutionality, lawfulness, and American exceptionalism-with a nativist framing of immigration and the border. Thus, ICE-police collaboration was construed as simply enforcing the existing laws in service of protecting “the greatest country in the world.” Participants also had opportunities to articulate similar conceptual alignments in other parts of the summit.  During a panel entitled Immigration and Border Security, a middle aged man from Scottsdale, AZ put it very concisely: “1070, like Obamacare, is really a states’ rights battle more than anything else. We apparently don’t have a right to protect citizens of the state of Arizona.” Immigration was also a tea party issue, because it too involved the federal government’s encroachment on state’s rights.

Later, I overheard him telling a woman seated next to him that NumbersUSA was a trustworthy resource if she wanted to learn more.

But this was not an uncontested process. While Pearce spoke, energetic Ron Paul supporters distributed leaflets arguing against SB1070 and measures changing birthright citizenship.

Ron Paul speaking, Feburary 2011

“Internal enforcement is suboptimal and creates costs and regulatory burden for American citizens…contrary to ‘Reagan Republicanism’ which intended to REDUCE government costs and burdens.”  The rest of the leaflet enumerated how the measures would expand intrusion of the Department of Homeland Security, a federal agency, into people’s lives. “Real conservatives don’t yield state powers and put them into the hands of the federal executive.” In a conversation with a representative from the Ayn Rand Institute, I was told that “free markets require that there are no borders.” Later, while waiting in line to purchase a mid-afternoon coffee, a well-dressed man from New York standing next to me confided his discomfort with Pearce’s heavy presence at the conference. For him, scapegoating immigrants was “stupid.” “I wish they’d just focus on the economic issues,” he concluded.  

Chip Berlet asked the left to “[take] the tea partiers seriously.” “With no one appearing to champion their cause, they line up with the anti-Obama crowd, and they stir in some of their social worries about gay marriage and abortion, dark-skinned immigrants, and a black man in the White House.”  The Tantonites are indeed drawing the battle lines. But we have to remember that the pursuit of hegemony is a contested, multivalent process–both on the left and the right.

Tune into future posts that continue to explore the Tantonites, the Tea Party, and hegemonic projects. (This is part three of a series. You can read part one here, and part two here.)

The Stakes in this Election: Incredibly High | Mike Lux discusses “The Progressive Revolution”

originally published on October 20, 2010

Welcome to the second interview in our series.  This week we feature progressive organizer, strategist, blogger, and author Mike Lux.  Mike is the CEO of Progressive Strategies, the Co-founder of Open Left, and he has been active for thirty years on many progressive issues.

Mike is the “outsider’s insider.”  He has one foot in the door (having worked on five presidential campaigns, and having served in the Clinton White House health care reform war room), and he has the other foot on the outside (having worked on many issue advocacy campaigns and on building independent progressive infrastructure).

Mike wrote a book called The Progressive Revolution which looks at the threads of conservative and progressive thought and action in the United States since the Declaration of Independence.

Listen to the full interview with Mike Lux here:

Read the full interview here:

BTC: Why don’t we start by you introducing yourself – a little bit about yourself and your work.

Mike Lux: I’m Mike Lux.  I have been involved in politics full-time for 30 years now.  This is my 30-year anniversary, actually.  I have done a lot of different things in progressive politics: community organizer, state-wide consumer group, labor organizer and leader. I’ve worked on a lot of different campaigns. I’ve worked inside of five different presidential campaigns.  And I’ve also done a lot of projects outside of campaigns to affect those campaigns.  I worked in the Clinton White House.  I’ve done consulting work with a wide range of progressive organizations.  I cofounded a blog called Open Left about… I think it was three years ago now.  And I am now working with MoveOn on some major projects, and with Daily Kos on some major projects, and writing for Huffington Post quite a bit.  So, I’m in the middle of a lot of different things.

BTC: Thanks for taking a little bit of time out in the middle of it.  Really appreciate it.  You wrote a book called The Progressive Revolution.  What is it?  And why did you write it?

Mike Lux: The reason that I wrote it is that I’ve always been a lover of history.  And I would be out working on campaigns or working on issue fights in my day job, and I would come home and catch a few minutes of reading a good history book.  And what I kept finding over the course of the years was that the arguments echoed each other; that in fact, you can trace back all the way back to 1776 consistent lines of arguments from progressive- and conservative-minded political leaders and activists and newspaper columnists – all the way back.  And you can find them arguing with each other, sometimes using more blatant language about certain things.  And of course the issues have changed over the years in some areas, not in others.  But the sort of basic argument about what kind of society that we have has gone on.  And so basically I decided to write a book tracing that argument, talking about how I thought of progressives and conservatives over time, viewing the world, and how those arguments have played out in American history.

BTC: Great.  And the political parties associated with that framework of progressive and conservative have not always been the same…

Mike Lux: No.  In fact, that has sort of shifted and morphed over the years.  I mean, we haven’t had the same set of political parties for one thing.  In our first century the parties were sort of changing more often.  But even after the Republicans and Democrats both got firmly established, there was a period where the Republicans were actually more the party of reform, in their early days.  They were the party that was pressing for a fuller equality for blacks; a fuller equality for immigrants; progressive income tax; the Homestead Act; the land-grant university system.  All of those things were pushed by the Republicans in the early years.  But sadly, they became very much captured by big business, as the 1800s progressed.  And eventually what happened is that that reform spirit got taken up by populists and progressives in the 1890s, 1900s, and they ended up kind of merging into the Democratic Party.  And the Democratic Party went from being a more conservative, southern-based party, in the middle of the 1800s, to being a much more progressive party – although obviously not entirely that way, as we know.

BTC: Yes, and we’ll discuss the Democratic Party a little more later.  Now, this is kind of a big question, but if you could kind of reduce to a couple of paragraphs, what is your “theory of change?”  How does social change happen?  How does political change happen?  How do we make it happen?

Mike Lux: My theory of change is that there has to be an outside progressive movement pushing on the inside, but there also… I don’t think change happens unless you have insiders who also want to make change.  And I think it has to be a combination.  It can’t… at least in American history-and I’ve not studied how change happens in other regions of the world-but if you look back on American history, and look at every major change that has happened-progressive change at least-it has always come when there were people in office, presidency and congress both, who were interested in change, open to it, not necessarily pushing it themselves, not necessarily bold, courageous in every instance, but at least open to the idea of change, at least interested in new ideas.  But that’s not enough by itself.  Cause there have been people like that and nothing’s gotten done.  The magic is when there’s an outside movement that is strong, innovative, pushing hard, that figures out how to work constructively with folks on the inside.  I think it takes that combination.  One by itself doesn’t do it.  No matter how strong the outside movement is, the change doesn’t happen until you’ve got both.

BTC: You’ve been described as a “progressive insider.”  Is that a label you identify with?

Mike Lux: Yeah, it is.  I have a foot both inside and outside the sort of traditional establishment.  I have spent most of my life, you know, in the labor movement, community organizations, the blogosphere, the outside groups sector.  So in many ways I’m an outsider.  On the other hand, I’ve lived in Washington for close to two decades.  I’ve worked in the White House.  I’ve worked in presidential campaigns in senior levels.  So I kind of know what the inside looks like, and still have a lot of friends on the inside.  I still talk to people and email with people at the White House and in Congress on a regular basis.  I guess I have both aspects to my biography.  And I also, I think it’s kind of reflected, I’ve always sort of seen myself-because I knew both sides and could talk to both sides, I’ve always kind of felt like I’m a bit of a bridge between the two.

BTC: And I’ll bet you get a lot of crap from both sides at times too!

Mike Lux: Oh, absolutely!  I get enormous crap from pretty much all my friends.  That sort of comes with this role.  The insiders are always like, “Your friends in the blogosphere are insane!”  And the outsiders are like, “Your friends on the inside are all sellouts!”  So, yeah, I get a lot of grief from both sides.  I had a colleague in the White House who once introduced me to somebody and said, “This is Mike Lux.  His job is to have his friends yell at him.”

BTC: I would imagine you can’t be too thin-skinned in your line of work.  At the same time-I read your posts at Open Left, and your book-and you seem to intentionally cultivate a very compassionate attitude toward all sides, including your political opponents…  The theme of is, well, going beyond the choir, and recognizing that to accomplish the kinds of change we imagine we need to go past the usual suspects and build a very big movement for change.  What do you see as key ways of doing that?  Or, alternatively, what are some things that prevent us from doing that well?

Mike Lux: I think part of it is… I think sometimes when people sort of land in a certain culture they have trouble seeing their way out of it.  They start to talk like, think like, react to everything from their own perspective.  And their friends become people who have the same perspective.  Their political allies are people who have the same perspective.  I think that is part of what limits us.

I also think, I mean, honestly, there are real differences in point of view about how you solve some of the big issues in this country – and I think very legitimate fights.  People sometimes complain about all the bickering in politics.  To me the bickering in politics is frequently quite healthy, because it means people are wrestling with, you know, do we save the economy by saving the banks, or do we save the economy by investing in regular people?  So I think that’s a second thing.

A third thing that I would say is I think that people have different sort of views about the nature of change and the nature of history.  And some people get very focused on a specific thing, like, within a bill for example.  And then if that’s not there then it’s not real change or it’s not progress.  So I think there get to be a lot of debates about how much you compromise, whether you should compromise.  And I think this is particularly the area I think where insiders and outsiders don’t understand each other.  I think insiders understand how hard it is to get change, because they sort of deal with it every day.  They fight these battles every day.  And so when they see an opening to get something done, they want to grab it.  Whereas folks on the outside are like, “Well, that’s not the right approach.  If it doesn’t have X, Y and Z in it, we’re going to fail.”  And they get very frustrated with some of the shorter term compromises.  So I think that difference in perspective and difference in how you view things is a lot of why people in politics fight with each other.

BTC: You discuss in your book how, coming out of the dramatic upheavals in the 1960s and early 1970s, the right-conservatives-dug in to build long-term infrastructure, and succeeded in constructing remarkable echo chambers that saturate the country with their messages and narrative.  And then you contrast that with progressives, saying that, “The movement quite literally allowed itself to fall to pieces by focusing on identity politics and single-issue causes.”  Will you say a little more about that?

Mike Lux: Yeah, I think that the theory that I kind of lay out in my book is that back in the 1960s-and I think this lasted a while-Democrats and progressives had been doing pretty well for about 30 to 40 years, in politics.  And they kind of felt like they were the natural majority.  And so I think their… ideologically they kind of grew flabby.  And they started focusing on, okay, “We’ve got all these good progressive things that we’ve passed.  Maybe now we should just focus on this little area or that little area.” We got too sort of narrow-focused on specific bills, specific policies, specific programs.

Whereas the right knew that it was a minority.  They knew that they’d lost-been losing-elections for a while.  They were on the verge of being marginalized.  And so they used their corporate connections. There were some business people who had a lot of money, and they were able to say, “Look, let’s make long-term investments.  Let’s think about what kind of power centers we need to build up over time that are not just about this issue, that issue-we’ll fight them too-but how do we create a narrative?  How do we create a frame?  And how do we create a movement that’s much broader than this issue or that issue?”  And so I think that’s how things developed.  I think that reached its peak actually in the 90s, where on our side single issue groups were so bad at working with each other that they couldn’t figure out how to help Clinton pass anything big – the health care issue being the flaming example.  And on the Republican side, all their work on infrastructure over the years kind of came to fruition with the Gingerich Speakership and all the things that happened there.  And when Bush was able to become president, they were able to keep building that.

I think now progressives and Democrats have seen that they need to be more, think more long-term.  And I think the country reaped the negatives of having the Republicans in power.  So I think we’re still, over the long haul-even though we’re having a rough year this year-we can still project a more progressive movement and ideas over time.  But we’ve had a rough time since the 60s and 70s.

BTC: So much so.  It was interesting for me reading the book, being somewhat next generation in this, and [you] talking about how progressives assumed they were the majority.  When I came of age, there was kind of an assumption that there was hardly anyone progressive…

Mike Lux: Right.

BTC: That we were up against the culture.  You talk in your book… you quote Newt Gingerich’s categorization of progressives as “the enemy of normal Americans.”

Mike Lux: One of my all-time favorite quotes.

BTC: Does it ever feel to you that some on the left actually internalized this, as if we’re inherently up against the culture?

Mike Lux: Oh I don’t think there’s any doubt that folks on the left internalize it.  I think that, if I were going to have one message for a lot of my progressive and liberal friends, I would say, “Stop watching Fox News so much.”  I think that people get all worked up and they start seeing Republicans and conservatives as the majority.  And they get frustrated about that.

I think that it’s really important for folks on our side to take the long view; to, number one, understand the incredible financial odds that we’re up against.  I mean the other side just has so much more money than we do – it’s crazy how much more money than we do.  So I think we need to understand that from a resource point of view.  But we also need to understand… it’s not like we have lost election after election.  It’s not like we fail at everything.  You look back over the last 20 years.  You just go through the list.  We gained seats in the 1990 congressional election.  We won the presidency and both houses of Congress in 1992.  We had a very bad year in ’94.  ’96 we came back; we gained seats in Congress, we won the presidency.  In ’98 we gained seats in Congress.  In 2000 we gained seats in Congress and won the majority vote in the election.  Then we had a couple of bad years.  Then in 2006 and 2008 we swept everything in front of us.  So it’s not like Democrats… I think there’s this myth that Democrats are always losers, and the Republicans have the edge.  But I don’t think that’s really true.

BTC: It’s interesting.  You say “we” and you’re saying Democrats.  In your book you seem pretty careful to not equate progressives and Democrats.  You’re intentional about your terms.  And I’m sure some of the people listening to this identify as progressive, but not as Democrats.  It seems particularly pronounced in the past year and a half… where progressives are fed up with and feel no particular loyalty to the Democratic Party.  Would you make the case for why and how such folks should engage the Democratic Party – maybe specifically addressing the upcoming mid-term elections?  Why is it important, in your opinion, to engage the Democratic Party, as progressives?  And within that, how do you go about doing that?

Mike Lux: I don’t think we have any choice, first of all.  I think that people talk about, “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a third party?” or, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had parliamentary elections?” or wouldn’t it be great if we had X, Y, Z?  Yeah.  It would.  But the fact is, we don’t.  And I’m not one-having been in politics a long time, and having studied the history of it-I’m not one who thinks any of that stuff is going to happen anytime soon.  You don’t tend to win process arguments in this country.  They’re very hard to do.  And people have tried, and they’re just very hard to do.  You might be able to get something – some nice process change in San Francisco or Cambridge, Massachusetts.  But getting it nationwide is a different story.

So I think the situation we have now, as progressives now-when I was speaking earlier I was talking about Democrats because we were talking about elections and who was winning elections-but as progressives, we have to understand that, number one, the Republicans have been taken over by complete extremists.  Republicans can no longer run in elections as moderates and win in primaries.  And all of the people who ever had a moderate thought in their life are scared of looking like they’re ever going to cooperate or compromise with Democrats on anything.  So the notion of working with the Republicans is just out the door.

On the Democratic side, we need to do everything in our power to run primaries against conservative Democrats.  I think we need to do everything in our power to do issue campaigns and broader sort of narrative campaigns that move the country’s dialogue to the left.  I think it’s incredibly important that we build our own media centers, through the blogosphere and through other new media ways of doing things.  We need to do all of those things to build infrastructure, and understand that progressives and Democrats are not the same thing, but that progressives have a big stake, a big toehold, in the Democratic Party.  We don’t own it.  We’re not identical.  You know, the progressives and Democrats are not identical.  But the fact is, that’s the party that we have; we have to fight our battles in, and try to make them as progressive as possible.

And so I am all for engagement on every level with the Democratics. We need to beat conservative Democrats in primaries, but we also need to figure out how do we work with conservative Democrats to free up the politics for them to be able to vote for us in some things.  Cause some of these folks are genuinely personally conservative.  Some of them are just scared of the districts they’re in.  So I think figuring that dynamic out is another thing we have to think about as well.

BTC: This kind of builds on the last question.  In your book you say that conservatives, “have always viewed government as best used as an instrument to benefit business and wealthy elites.”  I know a lot of progressives who would agree that this is the primary historical purpose of government.  But you treat government as a contested space.  You contrast the conservative vision with FDR’s description of “modern society acting through its government,” and Truman’s contention that, “It is the business of government to see that the little fellow gets a square deal.”  Why is it important to view government as contested space?

Mike Lux: Well, again, I go back to my answer on your earlier question.  I don’t think we have a choice.  In democratic society, government is a reflection of the society’s values.  And government is how many of the things in society get done.  So I don’t think we have any choice at all but to view it as contested space.

I think we need to understand very clearly though that it’s not all good.  One of the things that actually I don’t like about some progressive messaging is the defensiveness about government.  I get into arguments with people because I sometimes talk about all the waste in government – cause there is waste in government.  Government contractors are ripping off government agencies for hundreds of billions of dollars a year.  Defense contractors are wasting money like it was going out of business.  There’s waste all over in government; corporate subsidies for agribusiness – government subsidies for agribusiness, I mean.  I don’t think we should, as progressives, be defensive about government.  I don’t think we should be reflexively for government in all situations.

I think government is an important tool and we have to try to make it be so that it’s on the side of working people and poor people.  That’s our job.  In government you have to pick beneficiaries and you have to pick people who get nicked a little bit.  That’s the nature of government.  We should be fighting to make sure it’s on the side of the right people.  But that doesn’t mean that we’re for government in every situation, or that it never wastes money, or that there’s never been a program that shouldn’t be eliminated.  We should be for government that fights for regular people, and that should be the definition of progressivism.

BTC: And one of those specific fights in the past year and a half, that’s been the most prominent fight, is the health care fight.  I know you’ve done a lot of work before this round-I think it’s probably been one of the biggest issues of your lifetime-on health care.  As a strategist, as an organizer, as a Clinton White House staffer… what was your role there?

Mike Lux: I was in the Clinton war room on health care.  I was one of the earliest staffers assigned to work with Hillary on the task force.  So I was in that fight from the very beginning.

BTC: And how are you feeling about the outcome?

Mike Lux: Well, you know, mixed, of course.  I think that the health care bill could have been a lot better, with a little bit different focus and strategy from the White House.  I wish very much that they had pushed harder and fought harder for certain things.

BTC: Such as?

Mike Lux: Such as the public option, to be obvious.  That’s something we all-the entire progressive movement-fought hard for and we didn’t get.  I didn’t like the deal with the drug industry that was cut early on.  There’s a whole bunch of things in the health care bill that I didn’t like.  But what the health care bill did do was establish the idea, for the first time ever in America, that everyone ought to be covered; that health care was a right, not a privilege; that the system should be a federal system; and that people had rights against insurance companies; that insurance companies should be regulated in a new, more comprehensive way.

So I think the health care bill was an important step forward.  I wish it would have been a stronger bill.  But I also know, again… you know, change is a motherfucker!  I mean, change is really hard.  And I think sometimes people get frustrated, but they kind of forget, I mean, we’ve been trying to do this for a hundred years.  And some very talented politicians have tried to make it happen.  FDR, for all of his successes, didn’t get it done.  LBJ, for all of his successes, didn’t get it done.  And we managed to get it done.

And now we’re going to have to do the hard work of trying to get it improved.  There is no battle in politics that is ever over.  I think that’s one of the things people need to understand.  You fight these battles over and over again.  And if you get a toehold, you build on the toehold.  You try to get higher and better the next year, the next fight.  And that’s the nature of politics.  Even if you get something done, that doesn’t mean it can’t be taken away.  And we see that every day too.  So I think rather than be discouraged, I think we see health care as a step forward.  And now we try to make it better.

BTC: Do you have any reflections on the process and the struggle – particularly the past year and a half?  Any big insights that came out that you would like to share?

Mike Lux: I have a lot of impressions.  And I may write about that someday more at length.  I think… I’m trying to think if there’s anything in particular from that struggle…

BTC: Do you have a favorite moment from the struggle?

Mike Lux: My favorite moment was passing the damn thing!  I was very happy when that finally happened!  Getting the votes – when we knew, finally, that we had the votes, that was my favorite moment.  You can’t beat that.

BTC: A lot of folks treat the parties as monolithic.  There’s the Republican Party and the Democratic Party.  From what I hear you saying in your book, that’s a bit more true of the Republican Party these days than it is of the Democratic Party.  In the health care fight in particular, it seemed that there were a handful of people that you could count on one or two hands-in the Democratic Party-who were the primary problem.  What do we do about that?

Mike Lux: I think it is increasingly true.  In my political lifetime, we have gone from a Republican Party that really was quite a bit more diverse… you know, when I first started getting interested in politics, when I was in junior high, high school, you had these people like Ed Brooke and Matt Mathias, Jacob Javits, Nelson Rockefeller, who were pro-business conservatives on some things, but mostly they were very, very progressive guys. That has evaporated over the years to where, now, the only moderates left are just scared of the right-wing shadow; scared of right-wing primaries; don’t want to take too many chances.  And so the party has become much more lockstep.

I think for us, with the conservative Democrats, we absolutely need to make sure that those big problems get primaries.  So that’s one thing.

I think the second thing is, there are some places-my home state of Nebraska is an example of this-where you could primary Ben Nelson.  You could probably beat him if you primaried him.  I don’t know – it’d be a close call, but you’d certainly have the potential to beat him.  But then you’d have almost no chance in a general election.

One of the things I think progressives have failed at over the years is putting more progressive infrastructure in some of these small, more conservative states.  And I am a complete believer that if we did do that, we could be successful.  You look at a state like South Dakota, that elected people like George McGovern and Jim Abourezk, who was a great progressive senator, and Tom Daschle – all these folks who came up in South Dakota, because they built that kind of political organization.  You look at a state today like Montana, you know, a Republican state in many ways, but you got this crazy populist governor, Brian Schweitzer, two Democratic senators-one of whom is not very good, the other of whom is decent-you’ve got real sort of play in that state.  I think we need to do a much better job in the small, especially the western states…

BTC: That’s a lot of what the 50-State Strategy was about – Howard Dean’s strategy…

Mike Lux: Absolutely.  Yeah, absolutely.  Getting into some of those states, creating more infrastructure – I guarantee you, if there were more progressive infrastructure, stronger progressive infrastructure in the state of Nebraska, Ben Nelson wouldn’t have been so hard to get his vote on health care or on any range of other issues.  You would force him to move, whether he wanted to or not.  In Ben’s case, he actually wanted to on some things, but he was just scared of Nebraska voters.

BTC: The “Make me do it” dynamic?

Mike Lux: Yeah.  Yeah.  Now, Ben’s a pretty conservative guy.  And I’m not saying that he would suddenly become Ted Kennedy or anything.  But I just think that it makes a huge difference when you have more progressive infrastructure in those states.  And that’s something, frankly, that we’ve failed at on our side.  I think we should have invested far more in those states than we have.

BTC: Your book was written before the emergence of the Tea Party.  You do, however, discuss in your book the John Birch Society.  You say, “The Birch approach was McCarthyism on steroids.  But despite, or maybe because of, the craziness, the movement spread quickly and gained power.  And some politicians began to align themselves with the Birchers.”  And then, speaking of Barry Goldwater, who embraced the Birchers, you say that, “Although he was slaughtered by LBJ in 1964, in winning the nomination fight Goldwater fundamentally reshaped the Republican Party.”  How does that political moment, and the John Birch Society, compare to our present political moment, with the Tea Party?

Mike Lux: Well, I want to kid you about the way you started that question, where you said I wrote the book before the emergence of the Tea Party.  In fact, the Tea Party emerged long before I wrote the book.  The Tea Party is 200-some years old.  And I don’t mean in the sense of the Revolutionary Founders who were actually pretty radical folks.  I mean, there has been this extremely conservative, violent many times, angry always, racist most of the time, nativist most of the time, movement in American politics that just keeps reoccurring.  And every time there is hope for progressive change, every time there is a moderately progressive, even slightly left-of-center president, you’re going to have that kind of thing emerge.

I can tell you from the Clinton years.  The only thing that kept it at a lower pitch in the Clinton years was the Oklahoma City bombing, which I think freaked people out so much that they kind of backed down from some of the worst of the rhetoric.  But, you know, you look at those years.  You had Rush Limbaugh spewing racist stuff every other day.  You had people like Jerry Falwell peddling tapes about how Clinton had murdered people in Arkansas.  These folks were not moderates.  There was no moderation to their rhetoric.

I think the only difference that I see between the Tea Party, what was going on in the ’90s, the Birchers in the ’60s, is that because we now have a black president with a foreign-sounding name, I think that has leant a certain edge and spike to the right-wing.  It has ginned them up in a new and different kind of way, and made them more radical in their own approach.

I have a friend who’s actually tracked quite a bit the different segments of the Tea Party – cause it’s not, you know, monolithic itself.  And he’s basically identified several different elements.  One is this kind of Dick Armey economic libertarian element.  There’s the Koch brothers and everything they’re doing, and they’re kind of aligned with Armey.  But, in his view, three of the five major elements feeding into the Tea Party demonstrations and the Tea Party movement come out of militias and right-wing movements – like far right-wing movements of various kinds; scary, racist right-wing movements.  So I think that element has become energized in American politics in a way we haven’t seen.  I think if Bill Clinton or LBJ had been a different color, we would have seen more of this.  I think that’s a lot of what’s going on.

BTC: You do talk a lot in your book about fear.  You also talk a lot about race.  How is fear being used as a political tool?  You identify it as a primary message and tool of conservatives.  And you talk about hope as the essential strength of progressives.  What does fear do to people?  How does it work as a political tool?  And what can we do about it?

Mike Lux: Progressives want change.  Change can be painted as very scary.  And conservatives’ fundamental argument has always been to fear change because we don’t know the unintended consequences; we don’t want the rabble to get too much power; we don’t people who don’t know what they’re doing to have control of government.  Their basic argument is tradition trumps justice; that the people who’ve been in control for a long time ought to stay in control because they know what they’re doing.  Those are their basic arguments.

So you’ve got this sort of-as Sarah Palin calls it-the changy, hopey thing.  And it’s very easy to paint a fearful picture of that because, when you’re changing something, you don’t exactly know what it’s going to mean.  The fear rhetoric has been used on every major issue, every major reform in American life.  It was used on the abolition of slavery.  It was used on women getting the vote; the rhetoric around the destruction of families and the end of the world as we know it.  Social Security was described as the first step in the door for the totalitarian state.

So you’ve got this very, very strong rhetoric.  I mean, in 1993 the Clinton economic package was described as utterly catastrophic, like it will destroy the American economy.  The kind of crazy rhetoric that these guys use – that’s a very traditional tactic of the right, and it fits their over all messages.  Because their over all message is, you know, the people with power and money who have control… we ought to let those guys keep control, cause otherwise we don’t know what’s going to happen.

BTC: And when that’s internalized it becomes what you call the “culture of caution?”

Mike Lux: Well, the culture of caution is a… I don’t think that’s so much a progressive/conservative thing.  I think it’s the biggest single detriment to the Democrats and the Democratic Party.  I think what happens is that fear drives the conservative message.  And Democrats’ reaction to that, rather than to push back, rather than to get bolder about change and response, the reaction has been, oh, well let’s be careful, let’s go slow, let’s be cautious.  And the problem with that is that’s not very inspiring.  It doesn’t build movement.  It doesn’t create real change.  It keeps the system as it is in place.

I think I said in my book, I talked about how the Republicans’ big problem in building a majority is that their policies don’t work, and they overreach.  They do crazy, extreme stuff.  The Democrats’ big problem in building a majority is that they get into power and then they get cautious.  They get scared about doing too much.  And as a result nobody ever sees change happen.  It’s a reflection of what’s going on in this country right now in this election.  Barack Obama promised change.  And people haven’t seen that much change.  And they’re wondering, like, “What the fuck?  Where’s the change?  I thought our lives were going to get better.  I thought the economy was going to get better.  I thought things were going to be more about helping the middle class.”  And they don’t see it yet.  And I think it’s because we’ve moved too slow and been too cautious.

BTC: Thanks.  We’re at time.  I want to respect your time, but last question, do you want to say anything about what’s at stake with this election – that’s coming up in a matter of days?

Mike Lux: Well, every election everything is at stake.  Every single election everybody talks about, “Oh, this is the most important election of our lifetime.”  I think every election is the most important election, because every single election you’re fighting out who is going to run things.  Are we going to do things for regular folks, or are we going to do things for the elites?  Are we going in a worse or a better direction?  In a democracy, you can’t get any more important that that.

So the stakes in this election: incredibly high.  We just passed health care reform, financial reform, and already the banks and insurance companies are trying to retrench and take stuff away.  And if the Republicans get in, they will.  They’ll have a lot more power to do that, even with Obama still in office.  So it’s incredibly important.  Just like it’s going to be in 2012, just like it was last time.  So people need to take their politics seriously and not take vacations in October during an election year.

BTC: Maybe that’s aimed at me!  Thanks, Mike, for talking.  Where can folks find your book and more of your writing?

Mike Lux: We do have a website.  Go to  It is the website for the book.  All of my writing is on Open Left.  So if you want to go back and read blog posts, my various rantings and ravings over the years, people are welcome to do that.

BTC: Great.  Thanks a lot, Mike.