Longtime Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne gives readers a blast of conventional wisdom in his latest piece, on “The Right’s Disturbing New Anti-Statists.” The headline is a little misleading, since Dionne argues that the Tea Party mentality is not new at all, but a familiar blend of anti-elitism (or anti-intellectualism) and libertarianism spiced with some conspiratorial thinking. In the short term, he thinks the “energy” of this “disturbing style” is a threat to Obama, but in the long-term Dionne believes “its extremism may be his salvation.”
Anyone familiar with the evidence Dionne cites should immediately see the problem with his analysis: we have indeed witnessed various manifestations of an anti-government, populist Right over the past 60 years. But what has happened every time? The Goldwaterites turn into Nixonians. A Reagan disappoints the populist hard right. Anti-Washington sentiment puts in power a Republican Congress which then embarks upon a K Street Project. Every time the GOP has lost power in the past half-century, it has reverted to anti-statist rhetoric. And every time the party resumes power, that rhetoric proves empty. Is there any reason to think this latest iteration will be any different?
Democrats, of course, do much the same thing — they talk an antiwar, pro-civil liberties game when they’re out of office. But once a Clinton takes the White House, critics’ FBI files start getting pulled. An Obama campaigns on closing Guantanamo; once he starts governing, he keeps it open. All of this is dismaying, but there is a bright side — the American public, Republicans and Democrats alike, do put some value on anti-government rhetoric, and they recognize that Leviathan is potentially dangerous. The problem is, partisans only recognize the dangers that come from the other side. The Tea Parties would not be anywhere near as tough on a President Romney or President Jeb Bush as they are on President Obama.
At least, that’s true in the main. The variations matter, though — the 1990’s Right, for all its problems, was at least anti-nation-building and concerned about government eavesdropping, even after the GOP took control of Congress. Executive power is what turns civil libertarians into torturers. When either party holds the legislature but not the White House, there can be some real (though usually quite muted) differences of principle among its members — which provides an opportunity for pressure groups and voters to nudge politicians in a more or less statist direction. Some of the Tea Partiers are more than just anti-Obama or anti-Democrat. The question is, will they be well enough organized to have any effect on policy after November? And will they recognize that the presidency itself, regardless of whether a Clinton, Bush, or Obama occupies the Oval Office, has become the gravest threat to Americans’ liberties? I’m not optimistic, but one has to start with whatever resources are at hand.
What Dionne and other conventional commentators present as a right-wing coalition that comes together under “successful conservative politicians such as Ronald Reagan (and George W. Bush in his first term)” but threatens to fracture into extremism when out of power is actually something else: a fairly stable party elite that employs a rhetorical strategy to sell Americans on liberty when the GOP needs to assemble enough votes to reclaim power, but that once in command again doles out privileges to favored interests and conceals the growth of government behind moralistic and nationalistic bombast. The words may change, but the speaker remains the same.