In a recent post at the Salon website, Michael Lind asserts that the rise of the Tea Party movement is countercultural. Rather than building counter-institutions as the neoconservatives did during the high water mark of the Great Society, he suggests that Tea Partiers and their enablers at Fox News, especially Glenn Beck, are not interested in power or governance but, like the countercultural denizens of the Sixties and Seventies, are more interested in enclosing themselves in the reassuring “truths” of their radical ideology, without even trying to make any claim about what to do programmatically to advance a political cause. The counterculture of the right, like that of the left in the sixties, Lind suggests, refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the game they have lost, and finds itself in a dreamlike world. Rather than the Summer of Love, he wittily asserts, the Republican radicals find themselves engaging in the street theatre of a Winter of Hate.
As a consequence, Lind suggests, the fragile Democratic ruling coalition has been granted a reprieve, in the form of a retreat into cultural politics by their Republican opponents. After all, no one who is serious can take Beck, Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity and the like seriously. They are buffoons, Abbie Hoffmans of the new millennium.
The problem is, last I checked, Fox News was the number one cable news network, and while some may deride their claim to hegemony by pointing out that their largest audiences usually can be numbered in the hundreds of thousands as opposed to millions, it doesn’t take reading Bill Connolly on the capitalist/Christian resonance machine – though it surely doesn’t hurt – to realize how effective their politics of affect is in influencing political debate. While the Tea Party may have begun as a hollow, Astroturf movement by corporate funded right-wing institutes, it is no longer simply a product of Dick Armey’s fevered imagination. When CPAC held its annual convention last week in Washington, DC, the Tea Party was hailed by Republican members of Congress and “serious” presidential candidates. One didn’t ever see anything like that occurring in the Sixties. Indeed, the media then, as now, condemned those on the Left counterculture much more than they now condemn those on the supposedly parallel right counterculture. Moreover, back then, police brutally attacked denizens like Hoffman, shot and killed protesters, and generally suppressed them as much as they could, with the backing of Democratic establishment politicians. (Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland documents this paranoia and repression from above quite well.) We don’t see attempts to marginalize Glenn Beck on the part of the GOP. We don’t see gun-toting Tea Partiers wrestled to the ground by police outside of Presidential events. Instead, we see the politicians of the right falling all over themselves to corral the discontent of the Tea Partiers to further their corporate goals.
The problem with analyses like Lind’s is that they minimize the importance of culture. Over and over we are told that culture is less important than politics, as though the two are separate entities. A counter-establishment, not a counterculture, he suggests. But the truth throughout American history has been that the battles of cultural differences are the crucial political battles. Culture includes economics, as is becoming clearer all the time (even to economists). Precisely because it is evoking strong claims about cultural differences, the Tea Party needs to be taken seriously for what it is – a racist, know nothing, proto-fascist movement. Those who seek to dismiss it, but especially those who attempt use it, may well find themselves with a tiger by the tail.