Last week, as the Tea Party movement pressed forward with its eerie “we are the people” message, Sarah Palin drew a deeply troubling line in the sand. Her message for mainstream Republicans was: get on board with the Tea Party movement or you will be left behind. While many in the Republican Party have already funded and promoted the Tea Party, it would appear that those few moderate voices that remain have a choice to make. To understand what is at stake for the Republican Party in this upcoming election, I believe we need to take a close look at the recent past.
During the 1980s and ‘90s, there was a similar takeover of the Republican Party – a co-mingling of Christian Right and so-called “values” based politics. As a wing of the Republican Party, this Christian Right movement found great success in promoting its views on social issues such as: pornography, obscenity, abortion, prayer in schools, gay rights, and sex education. The movement also created powerful structures like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Hoover Foundation.
The movement spawned deeply influential religious leaders with broad political power like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and Robert Grant. An entire network of organizations and political structures evolved out of the Christian conservative movement and their ability to control the message of the Republican Party. Through this initiative, the Christian conservative movement was wildly successful in moving the country to the right by promoting their message and supporting political leaders who were willing to adopt it. Of course, they were also enabled by an ineffective and complicit Democratic Party.
It would seem that the bullying tactics being used by the Tea Party and Sarah Palin are very similar to strategies used by the Christian Right. However, what concerns me as a citizen is how wildly successful the Christian Right was in promoting legislation and enacting policies based on their worldview. Consider how many “values” based programs that have been activated today by the Christian Right: the school voucher programs, Christian prayer in public schools, restriction of biotechnology (stem-cell research), the outlawing of physician assisted suicide, and the overturning of marriage equality for same-sex partners in some states. Also, evidence of their philosophy has taken a turn towards violence as doctors who performed abortions have been murdered.
This pattern is important because it is one we can see being played out today but with a slightly different angle. The Tea Party movement presents itself as a broad based coalition of conservatives that runs the gamut of ideology. On the surface they have coalesced around limited government, free markets, and fiscal responsibility; yet, we have consistently seen evidence of the deep seated racial animosity and social agenda that lies beneath that surface. While I don’t believe the Tea Party movement is a white nationalist movement, I would say that it is a vehicle for racial hatred and is being manipulated by those with extreme positions on race and difference – many of whom have positions of leadership or are seeking to be leaders. Therefore, I worry, as a supporter of multiculturalism and a believer in the strength of diversity, where this movement is headed and if, like the Christian Right, it will create powerful structures that succeed in pulling the country to a form of the right that looks a lot like Barry Goldwater’s coalition, George Wallace’s view of America, or worse.
In a recent Imagine 2050 essay entitled, “We’re not in Boston Anymore,” author Amy Spicer cites examples of statements made by Tea Party candidates and their Republican compatriots. From these statements I believe that not only is health care in jeopardy but so are the civil rights advancements of the past 50 years. When Sharon Angle, a Nevada congressional Tea Party candidate, opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest and claims we have a “militant terrorist situation” in parts of the U.S. (like Dearborn, Michigan) that are ruled by Islamic Law. I have to wonder where were headed. When Michele Bachmann says, “(the) gay community is targeting our children.” I have to wonder where we’re headed. When South Carolina senator Jim Demint proposes a ban on openly gay schoolteachers, I have to wonder where were headed. When Christine O’Donnell, Tea Party candidate for Senate in Delaware, calls being gay an “identity disorder.” I have to wonder where we’re headed. When Tom Tancredo, former senator and keynote speaker at the first national Tea Party convention says Obama was elected because “we do not have a civics literacy test before people can vote in this country. People who could not even spell the word ‘vote,’ or say it in English, put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House.”
I have to wonder where we’re headed.
Sarah Palin’s strategy is a sound gambit rooted in the past success of the Christian Right movement. Let’s just hope that mainstream Republicans will find a way to reject this new form of far right extremism. Without a moderate voice I worry about where we are headed as a country and what the new Republican Party is going to look like.