Birchers Yesterday, Tea Partiers Today

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I’ve had several conversations recently about the damage the tea party movement has done to political discourse, and I’ve generally taken the position that, bad as they are, we’ve seen it all before. Compared to the red-baiters of the 50s, the Birchers of the 60s, and the Clinton paranoids of the 90s, it’s just more of the same.

But I’m not entirely sure of myself on this score. Maybe they are worse. And so I’ve thought, “I should call Rick Perlstein and chat with him about this. He’d know.” But now I don’t need to, because here he is in the New York Times today:

“When was the last time you saw such a spontaneous eruption of conservative grass-roots anger, coast to coast?” asked the professional conservative L. Brent Bozell III recently. The answer, of course, is: in 1993. And 1977. And 1961. And so on.

And so yet much of the commentariat takes Bozell at his word, reading what is happening as striking and new. I’ve studied the reactionary florescence of 1961-1962 most closely (I wrote about it in “Before the Storm”), and the parallels are uncanny.

The same “spontaneous eruption” of folks never before engaged in politics. (“I just don’t have time for anything,” a housewife told a news magazine. “I’m fighting Communism three nights a week.”) The same blithely narcissistic presumption that the vast majority of Americans (or, at least, “ordinary Americans”) must already agree with them, and incredulity that anyone might not grasp the depth of the peril….The same lunatic persecution fantasies. (In Robert Welch’s 1961 it was probable internment camps for conservatives. In Glenn Beck’s 2009 it was … probable internment camps for conservatives.)

OK, I’m convinced. In fact, one of the most intriguing findings of the Times poll of tea partiers confirms Rick’s suggestion that they’re convinced that the vast majority of Americans agree with them. Take a look: a stunning 84% of tea partiers believe their views “reflect the views of most Americans.” Virtually everyone else disagrees. But why shouldn’t they believe that? If you watch Fox News all day and listen to Sarah Palin telling you that you’re just a “common sense conservative,” you’d believe it too. It’s an alternate universe out there.

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