Some observers were shocked and surprised by the behavior of the Tea Party Republicans and their supporters during the primary debates. Others have complainedthat CNN's surrender of air-time to the Tea Party is a compromise of journalistic ethics. I would suggest to the latter that CNN performed a public service by providing a window into the Tea Party Republican soul. And to the former, there should be no surprise here: in the age of Obama, contemporary conservatism has surrendered to a virulent, dystopian and pathologically hyper-individualist state of nature, "all against many," type of populist right-wing ideology.
From the proclamationsof Republican officials that the unemployed are poor because they lack spirit and drive, an Orwellian political vocabulary of "job creators" and "non-productive citizens," opines that poor people in America have it relatively easy (thus austerity politics ought not to be that painful), and a belief that the social safety net (basic programs such as Social Security and unemployment insurance) has destroyed the United States and made people "lazy,"contemporary conservatism has fully embraced a politics that are utterly and totally bereft of human empathy.
My claim that the Republican Party is a death cult is a strong one that demands explication and transparency. "Cult" is a signal to the narrow thinking and state of epistemic closure that has come to dominate conservative, right-wing political thought. As I have suggested elsewhere, populist conservatism is also colored by an unflappable instinct that faith should be the guiding principle in political decision making--what is a belief in the unprovable--that fuels a theocratic vision of public policy under the umbrella of Christian Nationalism and Dominionism. Because the Tea Party GOP's foot soldiers, as well as the Bachmanns, Palins, Perrys, and Cains believe a thing to be true--often in the face of all available evidence and data on the subject--it must in turn be as they imagine. Reality must always bend to their will: the anti-intellectualism of populist conservatism demands that the facts are to be damned; empirical reality is to be discounted as some type of plot by the mainstream media, "liberals," or "elites."
The cultish behavior of the Republican Party is manifest by a rigid orthodoxy of ideology. Those who do not pray at the mantle (and in the approved position) are labeled heretics. Any conservative who challenges the far-right agenda or believes in pragmatism and normal politics, i.e. working with President Obama and the Democrats in the interest of the common good, is called a traitor.
Likewise, those who dare to suggest that taxes should be increased on the wealthiest Americans to increase revenue, or that the government has a role to play in providing some relief during the worst economy since the Great Depression, are cast out of the tribe for daring to utter words and hold ideas that are verboten to the high acolyte "true believers" in the Republican Party.
The "death" in my use of the phrase "death cult" is both literal and symbolic. The symbolic aspect works in a number of ways. First, it is present in the Right's support for rampant militarism abroad and how the Right has skillfully used the "national security" narrative, the mass public's fear of terrorism, and an almost pornographic appeal to the tragedy of 9/11 to seduce low-information conservative voters and Independents into supporting their political agenda.
Second, "compassionate" conservatives (a label that is the very definition of double-speak) are against extending basic income supports and humanitarian assistance to the neediest Americans. As recent data suggests, poverty leads to deathand a diminished lifespan. When the Tea Party Republicans stand against food stamps, unemployment insurance, Medicaid, and other programs for those displaced by the Great Recession, through actions both direct and indirect, they are in fact killing people.
The literal embrace of death by the Tea Party Republicans works as follows. When supporters of the Republican Party howl that they "want to take their America back" they are signaling to an America that is dead and gone. Their halcyon Leave it to Beaver dreams of a country where whiteness was unchallenged and central in all things, and where "those people" stayed out of the way (or were either invisible or fully subservient to the whims of white folks), is gone.
With immigration, the "browning of America," and a black president, the white racial frame is upset, the cognitive map of the Tea Party Republican faithful is forced to deal with the unthinkable, that in some impossible way they could be marginalized in "their own" country. Of course, this is untrue. But the fear is real and palpable. The death of American Empire is a close cousin to the death of the Tea Party Republicans' memory of a country that never really was.
America is facing unprecedented challenges from China. We rank increasingly low on educational attainment, class mobility, health care, and other measures. Where we are exceptional, in our debt and military spending on a bloated imperial project, the United States looks more like the British at the turn of the 20th century, a country in decline and struggling to manage how to fall with grace as opposed to a hellish crash.
The Tea Party base is also quite literally dying. Although the fancy social science phrase is "generational replacement," the reality is that the Tea Party GOP is comprised of white Americans who are much older than the general public. As America changes, the political values and beliefs which are a product of a political moment long past will quite likely become less of a force in American politics. Death for the Tea Party Republicans is a fact that lives in the present.
Ultimately, the sum effect of death's role in the political ideology of the Tea Party Republicans is akin to that of the five stages of grief. They are stuck in the anger stage of the process: the Tea Party has not yet moved on to the step that is "acceptance." Tea Party Republicans are brought to a frothing rage and madness by fictions such as Birtherism and a belief that whites are oppressed because a black man is president. They rage about "class warfare" but look at unions, the working class, and the poor as the causes of America's economic calamity as opposed to the kleptocrats and the rich who have benefited from one of the most maldistributive economies in the Western world. In their eyes, government is the problem and never the solution. The State is to be torn down by secession and revolt.
The Tea Party GOP is angry about everything, but they do not know how to transform that energy into productive behavior and good governance. There is an additional metaphor at work in my suggestion that the Tea Party GOP is a death cult. Despite claims to the contrary, the Tea Party is not a grassroots movement. They are funded by corporate interests such as the Koch brothers. These conservative corporate elites who drive the faux populism of the New Right are acting as the hand on the Ouija board, a group of necromancers who play with death as channeled through the Republican Tea Party. In their Thanatos game, the corporate Right has unleashed a force that the mainstream of the Republican Party is not able to fully control. The Tea Party is extremely unpopular and their lack of acceptance by the American people is damaging the future electoral fortunes of the Republican Party as a whole.
Or stated differently, the Tea Party is the poltergeist of American politics. It is angry and destructive. The Tea Party poltergeist was summoned up by a crisis of faith, a decline in America's standing in the world, and a system shock brought about by the combination of the Great Recession, failed misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and poor political leadership at home. Some have suggested that American politics is sick, and that it is suffering from an autoimmune disease: the Republican Party's abandonment of normal politics is a symptom of this illness.
I do my best to avoid eliminationist rhetoric. Unlike populist conservatives, I try not to call my political foes a "sickness" or a "virus" to be destroyed. Nor do I suggest that conservatives are possessed of a mental illness that ought to be cured. However, I do think that Americans in this political moment are witness to a crisis in spirit and an existential malaise. We are a country in pain. We as a people are angst-ridden. The Ayn Randian dream of the Tea Party GOP, the death cult that they are, is not a solution to the challenges America faces in the 21st century.
The goal of Republicans and populist conservatives in the present is a victory at all costs, one that is Pyrrhic and couched in the language of a glorious struggle or a political holy war, right-wing jihad, and free-market austerity crusade. Consequently, an exorcism is the only viable solution to this abhorrent type of abnormal politics by the Tea Party GOP, one brought about by their fixation on the politics of death. The Tea Party Republicans will cheer death, just as they did during the last two debates. And the Tea Party will bring the roof down upon us all as their poltergeist-like politics works to destroy the common good.
The challenge for liberals, progressives, pragmatists, and reasonable conservatives is how to reclaim life, and by doing so America's future, from the jaws of the death cult that is the populist-infused Republican Party.