It is at least conceivable that a highly organized, vocal, active, and well-financed minority could create a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.
Richard Hofstadter, The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt-1954
The quote above was the focus of my first Paranoid Politics post on September 1. Clearly the paranoid element has been part of American politics since the beginning - anti-freemasonry, anti-catholicism, anti-gold, anti-immigrant, anti-communist. But never before has the paranoid element seized control of one of the national parties, as the Tea Party has done with the GOP, bringing us to the current Shutdown impasse and possible debt default.
Ezra Klein takes this up this morning at Wonkblog, when he interviews Christopher Parker, political scientist at the University of Washington and co-author of "Change They Can't Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America". Here's Parker talking about the study that led to the book:
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.
Parker went on to say that this paranoid element clearly rises up during periods of rapid social change:
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.
And the reaction is deeply emotional, often irrational and not grounded objectively - in other words, it's nuts. Here's Parker again:
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.
Ezra asks how a group that amounts to 22% of the population could carry so much influence in deciding or obstructing policy. Parker answers:
Because they won’t compromise. You’ve got about 52 members of the Republican conference who are affiliated with the tea party in some official way. That’s a bit less than a quarter of all House Republicans. That’s enough in the House. 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.
This is no joke. This group cannot be reasoned with. They must be defeated and thrown from office. The battle we are fighting right now is an essential, most likely critical milestone on the path to turfing the GOP out of control of the House in the November 2014 mid-terms.