This week William Kristol wrote that Glenn Beck is “marginalizing himself.” Was it a William Buckley moment? Can one happen? (More)

Blowing Smoke, Part III – William Buckley and William Kristol

This week Morning Feature explores Michael Wolraich’s Blowing Smoke: Why the Right Keeps Serving Up Whack-Job Fantasies about the Plot to Euthanize Grandma, Outlaw Christmas, and Turn Junior into a Raging Homosexual. Thursday we considered the history of persecution politics. Yesterday we looked at why persecution narratives are so attractive and persecution politics so successful. Today we discuss Wolraich’s proposed solutions.

Note: On behalf of the faculty, staff, and student body, I’d like to welcome Michael Wolraich to the BPI Campus. He began blogging at TPM Café before opening dagblog two years ago, and is a regular contributor at CNN. Mr. Wolraich will join us for this week’s discussion, and we hope he enjoys his visit enough to stay and pursue one of our many degrees.

Tempest, Movement, or Conspiracy?

In the final chapter of Blowing Smoke, Michael Wolraich disagrees with those who dismiss the Tea Party movement as a passing political tempest fueled by the current recession and whose influence hurts more than helps the Republican Party:

While right-wing conservatives have subjugated the party of Lincoln, their victory has not transformed it into a fringe party doomed to perpetual minority status. Instead, the growth of persecution politics has brought the fringe ideas into the mainstream and turned far-right crackpots into electable candidates.

Wolriach quickly emphasizes that he does not believe Glenn Beck and other right-wing pundits are part of a vast conspiracy created and led by “a secret club of omnipotent puppet masters.” He writes:

The various right-wing leaders have their own agendas and motivations, and their specific political philosophies often differ. But taken together, their ideas constitute a more or less coherent movement – what I have been calling persecution politics. As with any movement, this one incorporates substantial cross-germination of ideas and frequent alliances, but it is nonetheless a loosely interconnected movement, not an organized conspiracy.

Wolraich doesn’t mention David and Charles Koch, founding members of The Cato Institute and Citizens for a Sound Economy, which later became FreedomWorks and bankrolled Tea Party events. Their father was a founding member of the John Birch Society, whose influence on the development of persecution politics is documented in Wolraich’s book. Others do see the Koch brothers as the puppet masters; Jane Mayer’s 2010 New Yorker article on them was titled “Covert Operations,” and the Los Angeles Times this week headlined them as “at heart of GOP power.”

A New Class-Consciousness

While I recognize the Koch brothers’ influence, I agree with Wolraich’s conclusion. It’s easy to draw hypothetical organizational charts based on contributions; conservatives do that regularly to paint George Soros as the puppet master of the progressive movement. But as we saw last year in reviewing Will Bunch’s Backlash, much of the Tea Party energy comes from grassroots groups whose members feel left behind in a changing society. Those grassroots groups seem less led than enthralled by Glenn Beck and others who tell them what they want to hear: that they are the “Real Americans” whose nation is being undermined from within by sinister, shadowy forces.

As Wolraich writes:

[C]onservatives have sought to unify white Christian heterosexual blue-collar gun owners under the rubric of “conservatives,” “traditionalists,” and “real Americans.” Their primary instrument for fusing what are really disparate socioeconomic classes is the persecution narrative. A Pentecostal farmer from South Carolina may not have much in common with a Mormon plumber from Colorado, but according to right-wing mythology they are united in suffering deprivation inflicted by the liberal elites, black radicals, and so on. You could call them brothers-in-oppression.

As Wolraich notes, the suffering of oppressed groups often does shape their cultural identities, and often provides the glue that enables individuals to unite in a battle for equality. But as he writes:

[W]hen a dominant majority fabricates persecution and projects hostility onto a vulnerable minority it’s an entirely different story. In that case, the fantasies of persecution become rationalizations for discrimination or worse….

When a large portion of the population forms a class identity around perceived persecution by political opponents, it cuts a jagged gash in the nation’s social fabric. Conservatives who are committed to the notion that liberals represent the interests of an alien class of people who hate and oppress “real Americans” tend to be averse to any kind of political compromise. Distrusting the intentions of their opponents, they assume that liberal policies are not well-intentioned proposals to help the country but merely schemes to disenfranchise and persecute white Christian conservatives[.]

A Few Good Men

Wolraich considers a range of solutions to persecution politics, including structural changes in election laws, media boycotts, public criticism of paranoid conspiracies, and President Obama taking a more active role in calling out the right-wing. But he concludes:

[T]he only individuals who truly have the power to wean the right from its regular diet of persecution politics are conservatives. For liberals, criticizing right-wing paranoia is painless and pragmatic, but for those on the right, challenging the demagogues bears a heavy cost.

He then documents those who were forced to apologize after criticizing Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and other extremists: Michael Steele, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), and Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC), who lost his seat in 2010. Wolraich then tells the stories of David Frum, the speechwriter for former President George Bush who was shunned after he criticized Republicans’ refusal to compromise on health care, and of Charles Johnson, the founder of Little Green Footballs who announced: “The American right has gone off the rails, into the bushes, and off the cliff. I won’t be going over the cliff with them.” Perhaps William Kristol will soon be joining that cadre, after his criticism of Glenn Beck this week.

Wolraich argues that conservatives need voices like these to take up the mantle of William F. Buckley, who in 1962 worked with Senator Barry Goldwater and other conservative insiders to push the John Birch Society out of the Republican dialogue. I agree that conservative voices calling out persecution politics are welcome, but we progressives cannot rely only on dissent within the conservative movement. We can and must do more ourselves.

A More Perfect Union

As I noted yesterday, conservative persecution politics rely on a progressive frame: fighting injustice and oppression. The days when conservatives can simply declare that blacks, women, and other Others are inherently inferior and must be held down “for their own good” are gone. Recognizing that, conservatives flipped the script of oppression, claiming a conspiracy of Others is pushing us down a slippery slope toward the persecution of white, straight, Christian males. In that conservative epic fantasy, our once great society is decaying and our only salvation lies in returning to our glorious past.

It’s a compelling fantasy, but it is a fantasy. We progressives have our own epic narrative, and ours has the advantage of being true. The title is of our epic is A More Perfect Union.

In Act I of our epic, we realized we’d made a horrible mistake on slavery, and had to work on correcting that mistake to become A More Perfect Union.

In Act II, we realized we’d made horrible mistake about women and wealth and still hadn’t really fixed slavery, and had to work on correcting those to become A More Perfect Union.

Now we’re into Act III, still on our quest. Turns out we made mistakes about taking care of the earth, and we haven’t always been a good citizen in the world community. We also made mistakes about our Native peoples, and we still haven’t completely fixed slavery and women and wealth. And it seems like the more mistakes we try to fix, the more mistakes we find that need fixing: LGBT rights, for example.

That sounds like it could be a depressing story, but we’ve made progress over the past 240 years. It’s been uneven, incomplete, two-steps-forward-one-step-back progress … and we spent the last 40 or so years taking that one-step-back in our most recent Conservative Autumn and Winter, after the two-steps-forward of our last 40-year Progressive Spring and Summer.

We’re emerging into another Progressive Spring now, and it’s our and our children’s and grandchildren’s turn to take two-steps-forward. What will we and they have accomplished and what else will we have found to do by the end of this Progressive Summer? What will we and they work to correct, to help us become A More Perfect Union?

Our progressive epic has Heroes like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and Matthew Shepard. And countless others. None of our Heroes was perfect, and that’s a good thing because we’re not perfect either. Each of our imperfect Heroes helped awaken our moral senses and find the courage to take that next step forward toward A More Perfect Union … or at least resist the next step back.

Who will emerge as the Heroes of this Progressive Spring and Summer? Al Gore, Barack Obama, and Nancy Pelosi perhaps – imperfect as each is – but the imperfect Heroes who help us become A More Perfect Union could also be any of We the People.

And that’s the best part about our progressive epic. It’s about Us – all of Us – learning and growing together, imperfectly, toward A More Perfect Union.

That’s an epic we can tell Fred, our archetypal median voter. Fred believes in that story already, and he wants to believe our best days are still ahead of us. President Obama tells that story often, and perhaps that’s why his approval ratings remain strong despite the political challenges. We are a people who have always believed we can become better, and that belief is the soul of our progressive epic.

When we tell that story, hope trumps fear.

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Happy Saturday!