Thursday, October 28, 2010

Us vs. Them

This ad is the perfect closing argument for this election cycle, or perhaps the last year and a half of American politics.

The ad was put out by Ralph Reed's new outfit. The Faith and Freedom Coalition, as reported by Mother Jones, joined with other conservative evangelical Republican groups called the Council for National Policy to meet with Tea Party Patriots officers plan Get-Out-The-Vote operations for Tuesday's elections. They also plotted out, just to be safe, coordinated activities for the next 40 years.

While the depth of direct involvement by Religious Right figures like Reed, Phyllis Schlafly, Tony Perkins, and Richard Viguerie is an important new part of the story, the connection between the Tea Party "movement" and the old culture warriors has been probed for quite some time.

What I find interesting is the uniting of minds that would produce a message like the one above. The Culture Wars have roiled politics for so long because they have been sustained by a quasi-Calvinist elect that sees its controversies not as policy debate among reasonable people but the division between the holy and the nonbelievers. Because of its Constitutionally-mandated secularism, the Government is part of the "them" for such zealots. If Tea Partiers do not embrace this idea personally -- and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that many do -- they carry the same mindset in their Constitutional originalism and fixation on idealized Founding Fathers. While the Tea Party may steer clear of cultural issues at the present, it has erected its own version of "Us vs. Them" since last summer's health care debate.

Because political commentary so often focuses on policy outcomes and not ideology, progressives have underappreciated how intertwined the religious and political strains of the Us vs. Them narratives are. Hints of that interconnection are squirting out in strange places. Take Glenn Beck's assault, for instance, on Wilsonian progressivism and Woodrow Wilson himself, one that has some currency among Tea Partiers. As Dana Milbank, David Greenberg, and Media Matters have detailed, Beck's historical interpretation of the Wilson presidency is little more than historical ignorance borrowed from Jonah Goldberg. For Beck and like-minded conservatives, Progressivism's original sin was allowing the ideas of secularism into the Constitutional garden. Belief in the secular state's power to improve the lives of its citizens is what defined the Them. Beck is simply laboring to give that categorization a rickety historical narrative.

For many of us, this narrative seems positively bizarre. As Greenberg puts it in Slate,
it's telling that these Progressive Era reforms have enjoyed such an enduring and uncontroversial place in our sense of what government should do. Their long-reigning acceptance shows better than anything else just how deeply reactionary Beck and company are.
 But Wilson is merely a useful, if poorly utilized example of the larger critique not just of the "welfare state" but of secularism in toto. If you read or listen to Beck carefully, he is echoing an argument made by the Council for National Policy's founder Tim LaHaye. Yes, the same Tim LaHaye who wrote those Left Behind novels you are too much of an elitist to have read. Before he got into the business of commercializing one of the more troubling aspects of Christianity, LaHaye wrote political tracts decrying the pervasive influence of secular humanism in American government and intellectual life. His first book, The Battle for the Mind, came out in time for the 1980 elections, and leveled fantastic charges at the welfare state, public education, international organizations, and government agencies as being part of an interconnected atheistic conspiracy to overturn a Christian nation. He rehashed the same arguments in time for the 2000 election.

If the state represents the sinister Them against the godly Us, then what do we do with the fact that people elected that state to do those sinister things? That voters election after election, generation after generation have chosen to support fairly strong regulatory and redistributive policies? Are all of those people the Them, too, or have hundreds of millions of individual votes been the product of a grand and unholy plot? Of course not, just as Harry Reid and Barack Obama are not Them. They are not space aliens in a bad flick. They are Americans -- Us. And so are the people who voted for them and will vote for them again on Tuesday.

This sentiment is what Nancy Pelosi may have been getting at when she called those Tea Baggers who crashed Congressional Town Halls "un-American" last summer. They were un-American in their rejection of democracy. If I can channel one of my Founding Fathers here, James Madison first made the point that the minority has right to have their opinion voiced, but not the right to overturn electoral results. This kind of ad, this kind of sentiment does exactly that.

For all the hand-wringing on the Left about what the Tea Party stands for and where it came from, the Us vs. Them dynamic is the most critical to understand and counteract.


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