I’ve been working toward a post on the Tea Party phenomenon but wanted to read Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort by Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons first in order to get some historical perspective.  My view is probably in line with most progressives in that I am continually frustrated by what seems to be pretty obvious–that popular resentment of elite control of the systems of power in our society have, in the case of the Tea Party, been co-opted by those very same interests and channeled toward further entrenching those interests.  (The Jane Mayer New Yorker piece on the Koch brothers has obviously received much well-deserved attention.)

My general view of the Tea Party differs from many condescending progressive and liberal critiques in that I both empathize with many middle class economic grievances related to personal income stagnation and also sympathize with frustration related to federal fiscal mismanagement. And I cannot help but think that if true liberalism, the likes of which have not been seen in recent US politics,  is to have any place of power, THE ONLY WAY TO GET THERE is to capitalize on the reality that people should be really pissed off about what the Conservative Revolution has done for their economic interests. Absent a mass-movement centered on real, concrete self-interest, the structures of US democracy are inherently opposed to working in the interests of those without wealth and privilege.

So, I’ve made it through the first couple of chapters of Right-Wing Populism in America and already have some interesting ideas to relate.  It turns out that the authors see the entire history of the US through the right-wing populist lens, with one form of elite co-optation of populist sentiment being funneled into another.  Their model is of a sort of revolving situation whereby “outsider” elements of the elite manipulate lower class popular sentiment in order to oust more prominent elite or to carve out a more elite role for themselves.

The US War for Independence is even portrayed as a “repressive populist movement”.  Berlet and Lyons maintain that the war was fought not only to end “excessive taxes and arbitrary government” but also “for greater freedom to attack American Indians and expand slavery”:

First, by equating tyranny with the British crown, the struggle for U.S. Independence promoted a form of antielite scapegoating that deflected discontent away from inequities within colonial society. Second, the drive for independence was also a drive to expand and intensify the system of White supremacy.  People of color were not simply “left out” of the Revolution–they were among its major targets…Efforts to keep African people enslaved and to crush their resistance were in fact central to the Revolutionary movement…From Georgia to Maryland, fear of British-inspired slave revolts became one of the key factors rallying Whites to the cause of independence.  In many areas, patriot militias were charged with two tasks: to fight British troops and to suppress or recapture disobedient Blacks…In addition to targeting people of color directly, the Revolutionary movement used fears of Indian and Black resistance to bolster its critique of British “tyranny”. In Common Sense, Paine–who earlier had advocated Black emancipation–denounced the British government as “that barbarous and hellish power, which hath stirred up the Indians and Negroes to destroy us.” A few months later, the Declaration of Independence, in its list of accusations against King George III, charged that “He has excited domestic Insurrections [slave revolts] amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes, and Condition.” Here is a classic example of repressive populist scapegoating.  Not only did this passage hide the colonists’ own muderous aggression and project it onto their victims, but it also treated people of color as passive beings manipulated from the outside.  Thus the founding document of the United States of America harnessed a racist stereotype to a classic conspiracist image: the plot by a power-hungry elite, controlling a primitive, violent horde, to dominate freedom-loving people. (emphasis my own)

The other major targets were American Indians and loyalist colonial elites.  Rather than addressing the inequities between the land-owning elite and the bond slaves (lower class Europeans worked alongside African slaves on land owned by the colonial elite) the War for Independence allowed for the revolutionary elite to buy off the lower class whites with promises of land from westward expansion, which was forbidden by the British [through the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Quebec Act of 1774] because of the large costs of quelling and exterminating American Indians in the process:

To an overwhelming extent, however, the Revolution deflected popular aspirations away from the possibility of radical land reform and focused on the supposedly empty land to the west. Rather than tax the rich to pay their troops, the proindependence forces offered western land as standard payment for those who enlisted in the Continental Army or state militias.  In the South, soldiers fighting for liberty from Britain were also paid in slaves captured from loyalists.

To conclude, they maintain that “the central tragedy of the American Revolution is that, with few exceptions, it deflected people’s legitimate grievances and aspirations away from a fuller examination of the oppressive structures and elite groups within colonial society.  The British monarchy provided a scapegoat for the system of elite rule.”