Barack Obama's campaign promise of change did not include a pledge to transform American conservatism. But one of his presidency's major legacies may be a revolution on the American right in which older, more secular forms of politics displace religious activism. The reaction to Obama has also radicalized parts of the conservative movement, giving life to conspiracy theories long buried and strains of thinking similar to those espoused by the John Birch Society and other right-wing groups in the 1950s and '60s.
Conservatism's critics often see it as an undifferentiated mass animated by hostility to "big government," support for social traditionalism and a deep animosity toward liberalism. But conservatism is a diverse movement with many philosophical threads and tensions. Successful conservative politicians such as Ronald Reagan (and George W. Bush in his first term) kept the peace among economic, social, and big-business conservatives while moderating the movement's public rhetoric. In opposition, conservatives often manage to bury their differences. But conservatism has flown apart when its components have come into conflict or when extreme rhetoric has come to the fore.
The rise of the Tea Party movement is a throwback to an old form of libertarianism that sees most of the domestic policies that government has undertaken since the New Deal as unconstitutional. It typically perceives the most dangerous threats to freedom as the design of well-educated elitists out of touch with "American values." In its extreme antipathy to the power of the federal government, this movement may prove to be threatening to the Republicans in what should otherwise be a good year for the party.
Rep. Joe Barton's apology last week to BP for Obama's alleged "shakedown" of the company for $20 billion on behalf of those hurt by the Gulf oil spill was embarrassing precisely because it underscored how far the right's mistrust of the federal government goes. When faced with a choice between supporting a large British corporation or a federal government battling for compensation of the disaster's victims, Barton sided with Big Oil. Barton later withdrew his apology under pressure from Republican leaders, but many in the party and on the right echoed his views. The Republican Study Committee, made up of more than 115 House conservatives, had already called the escrow fund "Chicago-style shakedown politics," while Judson Phillips, the leader of Tea Party Nation, labeled it "extortion."
The language of the new antistatists, like the language of the 1950s Right, regularly harks back to the U.S. Constitution and the Founders in calling attention to perceived threats to liberty. A group called Tea Party Patriots (many Tea Party groups include the word "patriot" in their names) describes itself as "a community committed to standing together, shoulder to shoulder, to protect our country and the Constitution upon which we were founded!" Tea Party Nation says it is "a user-driven group of like-minded people who desire our God given Individual Freedoms which were written out by the Founding Fathers."
As the scrutiny of the movement has increased, its critics (most recently Chris Matthews in an MSNBC documentary and Jason Zengerle in the New Republic) have noticed how much of this is very old American stuff. One of the important groups on the right in the mid-twentieth century took the name Americans for Constitutional Action. The group, as Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab reported in their sociological classic, The Politics of Unreason, favored "progressive repeal of the socialistic laws now on our books." Attacks on a highly educated class that are a staple of conservative criticisms of Obama and his circle also have a long right-wing pedigree. "I can find you a lot more Harvard accents in Communist circles in America today than you can find me overalls," declared Robert Welch, founder of the Birch Society, in 1966.
What's remarkable is the extent to which the Tea Party movement has displaced the religious Right as the dominant voice of conservative militancy. The religious conservatives have not disappeared, and Sarah Palin, a Tea Party hero, does share their views on abortion and gay marriage. But these issues have been overshadowed by the broader antigovernment themes pushed by the New Old Right, and the "compassionate conservatism" that inspires parts of the Christian political movement has no place in the Right's current order of battle.
Thus has Obama brought back to life a venerable if disturbing style of conservative thinking. In the short run, the new movement's energy threatens him. In the long run, its extremism may be his salvation.
(c) 2010, Washington Post Writers Group
About the Author
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).