Days ago, FOX News suggested that President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder were more concerned about preventing hate crimes against American Muslims than combating terrorism against the United States. Alex Jones, was more direct, and seemed to be saying that Obama was the leader of Al Qaeda. Both positions are simply crazy and much more related than they first seem. It is likely that the FOX position was carefully crafted to reignite the Birther mania.
There is no infallible way to explain why all hell has broken loose lately. Since the 1950s, there was a tendency to explain political irrationalism in terms of people experiencing status and economic deprivation. Some blame low educational levels. These factors, presented in the framework of status politics, might partly explain today's outbreak of political fundamentalism. What we are observing came so rapidly and is so powerful that more explanatory tools are needed.
Everyone seems to agree that we live in times of multiple crises which generate great fear and anxiety. For several decades, the middle class has been under siege. Good paying industrial jobs were being exported. It became customary for wives to work in order to help prop up families standard of living.
Real wages for most people were largely stagnant in most years over the last three decades. . Individuals in the United States have sensed for some time that the middle class was losing ground and that the future was not looking good for their children. There was growing uneasiness, but people refused to listen to talk about growing inequality in wealth. The terrible events of 9/11 made people uneasy about their own physical safety in their homeland. There was growing uneasiness about illegal immigration, but there was still some hope that comprehensive immigration reform could do much to reduce the problem.
In 2007, there were signs of recession and some warning signals in the financial sector. In the next year the financial system was near total collapse and the nation faced a deep recession that could have become a depression. People lost large parts of their retirement savings and many mortgages went under-water; that is more was owed than the houses were worth. This is when uneasiness became panic and rage. The crisis seemed to multiply because many became aware that the United States was becoming pluralistic. They did not like it, and they wanted to take their country back. At the same time, anger against illegal immigrants and Muslims reached record highs.
Clearly, the multiple crises effected the way people reacted. As the real financial and economic crises failed to abate, many people presented irrational political behavior. Almost out of nowhere, a large far-right political movement emerged—The Tea Party. It began as a reaction against the federal government using TARP to bail out Wall Street bankers. But in almost no time, the Tea Party people were furious with Senator Scott Brown, whom they helped put in Ted Kennedy's seat, because he had voted for a bill to regulate bank speculation. They had quickly been co-opted Dick Armey, Mrs. Clarence Thomas, and others, operating through Freedom Works. This operation was funded the Koch brothers , Richard Mellon Scaife, and others with limitless resources.
The Tea Party encompassed the far right wing of the Republican Party, and it attracted many Independents, most of whom did not have much political knowledge and were inclined to be impatient when they did not get what they wanted quickly. There were antecedents of some Tea Party positions in the far right-fringe groups such as the militias, Christian Identity, the Constitutionalists, and the Alaska Independence Party, and people migrated from those fringe groups to the Tea Party. It is difficult to distinguish between Tea Baggers and others who share many of their views and have great sympathy for them. Clearly their influence far exceeds the number of people who claim that designation.
It is worth examining a model provided by the late anthropologist Anthony Wallace to gain some insight into Tea Party and the outbreak of irrationality and intensely emotional politics. Wallace offered his revitalization movement hypothesis that was based on the study of some 18th Century native American movements. He saw a societal crisis that mounted slowly and then, due to some catastrophe, assumed enormous dimensions, throwing people into fear, anger and panic. Believing their society was on the verge of a terrible fate, people cast about for a way to reinvigorate it. Similarly, the financial and economic events of 2007/2008 convinced many people that the United States was heading into deep decline. It was the beginning of a period of a “period of cultural distortion.”
It was marked by intense anxiety, disillusionment, and internal factionalism. Many people experienced economic deprivation and /or social deprivation, in which they thought they were losing social status and influence. Those, such as Duane Champagne, who have applied the Wallace hypothesis to large, structurally differentiated societies, found that great social fragmentation occurred. This certainly marks what is going on in the United States.
Wallace said that revitalization movements were “deliberate, organized efforts by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture, centered in a sacred message, and enunciated by a prophet of maximum leader, stating what is wrong now, what it should be like in the future, and how to get from now to the future.” Wallace attempted to explain how intense stress created social change and influenced group behavior. The process he described does not provide an exact fit with what seems to be happening today. For example, the Tea Baggers do not have one single charismatic leader. However, the do revere a deceased charismatic president, Ronald Wilson Reagan.
What could be the sacred scripture for the Tea Party is an archaic and inaccurate interpretation of the United States constitution. They rely upon the anti-federal government theories advanced by southern secessionists in the 19th Century. The Tea Bag political fundamentalists claim to be “conservatives,” but conservatives are expected to revere tradition. Fundamentalists are impatient with tradition.
Since 2008, polls show that most people sense that the nation is in deep trouble and is heading in the wrong direction. In a revitalization crisis, there can be various kinds of revitalization movements. Perhaps the Occupy Wall Street movement will develop into something like a liberal revitalization movement. These people clearly understand that corporate America totally dominates government and has subverted democracy. However, there is no single, simple, and comprehensive liberal master narrative that explains what has happened and what can be done to restore hope in the nation's future. At the very least, these courageous protesters could supply the central theme in the master narrative the liberals so seem to lack.
Many people are moving sharply to the right because they are seeking to restore a mythical, golden American past. In a number of Native American revitalization movements, including some not described by Wallace, the Native Americans rejected new ways and reverted to what were supposed to be purer ancient ways of living and worshiping. Some of their conduct, such as that of the Ghost Dancers of the 1890s, call to mind the irrational acts of today's Tea Baggers.
Whether or not one accepts the revitalization hypothesis, it does provide a useful framework for considering why so Americans have plunged into political madness. A second explanatory framework can be deployed at this point. When people decide that their society is in very deep trouble, there is the possibility that many of them will find solace in some kind of fundamentalism-- a return to what they think are basics. It has been most fully defined in the context of religion, but there are other fundamentalisms that share the same characteristics. And, as Jimmy Carter has observed, religious and political fundamentalism often go hand in hand.
Caroline Arnold and Jonathan Rauche defined political fundamentalism as a “war of Us v. Them” approach to politics.1 It is the very opposite of the political system that was laid out in the Constitution of the United States. Therre is such a thing as left wing political fundamentalism, but its adherents are few. This essay deals with right-wing political fundamentalism, whose adherents are very numerous and presently have the upper hand in American politics. Steve Harvey, a Denver journalist, had this to say about them.
It is right-wing political fundamentalism in America which marks the progress of the disease that has been incubating since our conception, a sort of proud anti-intellectualism that generally has privileged ignorance over knowledge, false certainty over humility, and dogma over analysis. 2
Gerry Arbuckle said fundamentalism is “a form of organized anger in reaction to the unsettling consequences of rapid social and religious change.” It can exist in a political as well as in a social and religious context. Tea Baggism and Christian Dominionism are both forms of political fundamentalism. The latter also encompasses religious fundamentalism, and there is a great deal of religious fundamentalism to be found among many Tea Baggers. Today many people seem to need both secular and religious fundamentalism because they provide certainty within totalistic, unitary, and all-explanatory frameworks.
Pundit Bill Schneider identified Tea Baggism as right-wing political fundamentalism. It emerged because there was a growing crisis for many Americans even before the economy fell apart. Americans today are very fragmented and lack shared values. Yet, many people crave the certainty that religious people enjoyed in centuries past. When crisis comes, they seek solace in the next best alternative, the conventional wisdom served up by the Right and corporate America. Unfortunately, the American left offered no simple counter narrative. If it had a convincing narrative, it is possible that a leftist “war of Us v. Them” movement might have emerged.
Faced with intense stress as they perceive their dominant cultural system crumbling, people seek above all else to maintain emotional equilibrium and attain psychic renewal. They must find ways to reduce stress levels. Wallace wrote that they do this by adjusting the mazeway of perceptions with which they perceive the outer world. In some times and places, people have scuttled old view and embraced ideas for creating a more just economic order.
That was unlikely to occur in the United States where there is no widely understood leftist narrative that convincingly explains life and events and explains how to create a more democratic social order. In the United States, people were far more likely to embrace the explanatory framework fashioned by corporate America and the Republican Party.