Four years ago, reading the agenda of the 2009 Values Voters Summit, I hypothesized a connection between the agenda of the Republican Party base and the values of one of America's four founding subcultures, the northern English and Scots-Irish "Borderers" who settled the Appalachian "backcountry" and highland South, as described by the historical anthropologist David Hackett Fischer in Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. I wrote about this theory in a Daily Kos diary titled "Yo, Pundits! Here's What's Up With the Republicans."
"The more we study the Borderers' folkways in Britain and in America," I wrote, "the more we see how thoroughly the Republican Party has adopted this culture's worldview and purged itself of incompatible elements."
The Republican Party is the party of the South, in culture if not in literal geography. It represents the descendants of the Borderers and the Cavaliers -- but the only vestige of Cavalier influence is the whiff of aristocracy surrounding the party's coddling of the financial industry. . . . In other respects, the Borderers are running the show, and they won't yield an inch to anyone, even their own allies.
That was in the first year of President Barack Obama's administration. Four years later, it's become even more apparent -- as has the party's monomaniacal hostility toward the president.
I suspect that too many people continue to believe either that Republican opposition to Obama is either a simple ideological difference or rooted in straightforward racism. These explanations tell only a sliver of the story.
Obama is viewed a threat by Borderer Republicans because his ways are antithetical to theirs on so many levels: He advocates cooperative partnership and brotherhood, brushes off insults, proclaims a desire to sit down with enemies and talk rather than fight, and projects tolerance and trust. He's highly educated and sophisticated in his speech and has never been in the military. He's in a partnership of equals with a strong, professional wife. His Christianity is of the inner-light variety. And his ambiguous ethnicity can only be a source of frustration to anyone accustomed to seeing the world divided into neat opposites: he looks black, but he's only half-black, and he doesn't sound black or act stereotypically black, and he's also financially successful. Yet looking black, in America, has always been enough to mark one as black -- besides which, his father was Kenyan, which makes him not only black but foreign. Yet he was born in Hawai'i, which is American, but sort of foreign at the same time . . .
The point is, the opposition to Obama doesn't come from just one thing. Even if he were straightforwardly, obviously white, the other aspects of his personality would be more than enough to generate intense hostility among Borderers. (Recall the right's hostility toward Bill Clinton, who had the same cool temper and intellect, the same preference for cooperation, and a similar marriage of equals with a strong, professional wife -- despite being a Borderer himself.) It's the fact that Obama is all these things that elevates Borderer Republicans' antipathy to apocalyptic fear -- and that has led to the emergence of the Tea Party as an opposing force.
It's now four years later. We're in the midst of a government shutdown precipitated by Tea Party Republicans seeking a showdown with the man they've inflated into a towering nemesis of Führeresque proportions, and we're coming up on yet another Values Voters Summit. What can these things tell us about the size, force and nature of the Tea Party bloc and where America can go from here?
Obama, the Borderers and the Tea Party
I should probably begin with a refresher on why I see the Tea Party and Borderer folkways as being so intimately connected. It began with this map from the New York Times:
The map highlights the 22 percent of U.S. counties
that voted more Republican in 2008 than in 2004, when George W. Bush was challenged by John Kerry. It was paired with this two-color map that highlighted how the rest of the country voted more Democratic in 2008 than in 2004:
Interpreting these maps requires knowing the candidates and how they relate to the stereotypical Borderer character. It also requires some knowledge of sociolinguistic geography.
This is a map of American English dialects. See how the Southern Appalachian and South Midland bands parallel the red counties in the top map? This is the path of Borderer migration. Where they went, they took their way of speaking with them, and so we can trace the path of their influence. The counties that voted more Republican in 2008 than in 2004 closely track the settlement patterns of Borderers from Appalachia across the highland South and beyond.
In Albion's Seed, Fischer identified four waves of migration from Britain that combined to form the American character. Two were rooted in the North: the Puritans of New England (communitarian, relatively egalitarian and highly literate, with a strong work ethic) and the Quakers of the Delaware Valley (anti-hierarchical, anti-doctrinal, gentle, tolerant and respectful of conscience). Two were rooted in the South: the Cavaliers of the coastal South (hierarchical, traditionalist and highly authoritarian, with a great love of wealth and sharply divided sex roles) and the Borderers of the highland South (belligerent, clan-centric, deferential to its own leaders but never toward outsiders, evangelical in its religion and suspicious of book-learning). Pre–Civil War, U.S. politics played out on a Puritan–Cavalier axis, but post–Civil War, the Quakers and Borderers -- who already had a seething rivalry -- moved front and center. Today, they form the cultural and moral cores of the Democratic and Republican parties.
Historically, Borderer voters have rarely dominated national politics but have often played kingmaker: their entry into the Revolutionary War turned the tide against the British and their Cavalier Loyalists, and they've been part of the winning coalition in every presidential election from 1932 to 2004. The presidency has been held more often by Borderers (including Truman, Johnson, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and adopted son G.W. Bush) than by descendants of any of the other four British traditions, yet in living memory, only with the election of George W. Bush has the federal government, and by extension the nation, projected a distinctly Borderer image to the world.
Despite his New England roots, Bush's administration was heavily Borderer-flavored, and John McCain's candidacy promised an extension of the same. McCain, in fact, was an ideal Borderer candidate. According to Fischer, the most esteemed individual in Borderer society was the aged warlord, because in a society accustomed to constant fighting, being an old fighter means that one is a skilled survivor -- strong and shrewd. McCain was not only an old warrior, he came from a family of old warriors. Like the stereotypical Borderer, McCain was quick-tempered and sensitive to insult, academically undistinguished (near the bottom of his Naval Academy graduating class), and ready and willing to take on all comers. Also stereotypically, he had a track record of valuing loyalty above competence. And his vaunted "maverick" character (which we still see occasional sparks of today, though much less than before 2008) was reflective of the characteristic Borderer "Nobody tells me what to do!" assertion of autonomy and disdain for rank.
Meanwhile, Obama, as described above, was essentially the anti-Borderer.
Let's take another look at the electoral maps. Most of the country, I hypothesize, was tired of the Borderer style of leadership and wanted a change. But the highland South liked that style of leadership, liked having a warlord president, and wanted more, more, more. To them, an Obama presidency would be sheer calamity. They turned out in force for McCain. It wasn't enough to win.
Not winning doesn't go over well with Borderers. A lost battle means the war isn't over yet . . . it's just starting.
And that's where the Tea Party comes in. The Tea Party is the Borderer party. The highland South is its cradle. And if Obama is the anti-Borderer president, then the Tea Party is the Borderers' anti-Obama answer.
Geography Is Not Destiny
Looking at maps of Tea Party–held districts today, however, doesn't show any pattern as neat as the maps above do. Tea Party–identified representatives are scattered all over the country, including across the North and in California. The roots may be in the highland South, but the branches reach all over.
I believe there are a couple of reasons for this. One is Borderers' willingness to migrate wherever opportunity presents itself. My own maternal ancestors were Borderer descendants who migrated from Arkansas and Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression. One study, in 2010, found that Tea Party affiliation was strongest in boom counties. Early Borderers came to America less for religious freedom than for "material benefit," according to Fischer. "In the early 18th century, many surveys of their motives found the same pattern of concern about high rents, low wages, heavy taxes and short leases" that we see echoes of in Tea Party antitax protests. The other reason is that people are drawn to movements that appear to be ascending in power and will catch a ride on them in the hope of advancing their own related agendas.
Tea Party politics is woven from three strands that are found together in Borderer culture but that also exist on their own outside that culture: libertarian conservatism, evangelical Christianity and right-wing authoritarianism. It's important to note here that not all Borderers are libertarians, not all are evangelicals, and not all are authoritarian followers, and some are none of the three. Historically, however, all three have been at the heart of Borderer culture to some extent.
I created this diagram to illustrate how they come together in the Tea Party:
The maps up above show where the Tea Party was born, but this diagram is a map of what it's grown into: a confluence of libertarians, evangelicals and authoritarian followers from across the nation, coming together to thwart President Barack Obama and his army of socialist zombies by any means necessary. Tribal affiliations have superseded physical geography: you don't have to be a highland Southerner to get on the bus. (Although, as Michael Lind points out in Salon
, it doesn't hurt.)
A few notes about the diagram:
First and most important, the RWA conception of hegemonic freedom does not originate with the Borderers, but rather with the Cavaliers, and is actually more neoconservative than Tea Party. I've included it in the chart anyway because right-wing authoritarianism is a significant and increasing ingredient in the Tea Party recipe, and because the RWA conception of freedom overtly reserves it to some and would deny it to others, a pattern we can observe in Republicans' state-level voter suppression efforts. A purely Borderer Tea Party would comprise just a dash of RWA compared with large portions of libertarian conservatism and evangelical Christianity. The full three-ingredient mix is what we get when propaganda organs like Fox News, demagogues like Rush Limbaugh, clandestine manipulators like the American Legislative Exchange Council, and opportunistic backers like FreedomWorks and the Koch brothers attach themselves to the movement.
Second, I use the phrase "libertarian conservatism" because its meaning is widely understood, but I believe it's at least partially a misnomer. Modern libertarianism exists along a spectrum from the authentically conservative "don't mess with what's working fine on its own" attitude to a radical "tear it all down" mentality. If "conservative" means the desire to preserve and maintain existing institutions and ways of life, and "radical" (fr. L. radix "root") means the desire to uproot and replace existing institutions and ways of life, then it's primarily Democrats (along with some holdout moderate Republicans) who are the true conservatives now. Those who would uproot more than a century of progress by dismantling successful government programs, reversing regulatory protections, and seizing back hard-won civil rights and liberties are not conservatives but radicals. Tea Party libertarianism is much more of the radical (and juvenile) "tear it all down" variety than it is akin to simple Jeffersonian self-sufficiency.
Third, you may already have seen a contradiction between the libertarian concept of freedom (freedom from interference/control) and the evangelical concept of freedom (freedom to evangelize and legislate doctrine). To someone who's already an evangelical Christian, like much of today's Tea Party, it's not a contradiction: no one is making her do what she wouldn't choose to do herself. Similarly, there's no contradiction between the libertarian concept of freedom and the RWA concept of freedom (freedom to dominate others, not to be dominated) for one who has attained a position of authority -- and according to Lind, in another Salon article, many self-identified Tea Partiers fit this description too. But both non-evangelical libertarians and non-libertarian evangelicals exist within the movement, as do non-authoritarian libertarians and non-libertarian authoritarians, and this is the source of one of the tensions within it (more on this below).
The Borderers' mentality was forged by literally a thousand years of violent oppression. They had damn good reasons to turn out the way they did. Their trust-no-one, survival-at-any-cost warrior ethic surely served them well in unpredictable, dangerous times. But the culture that evolved in response to the oppression and insecurity they faced is maladapted to modern values and living conditions. Unfortunately, its psychology acts as a sort of immune response against any sort of change, as nonconformists and dissenters are "hated out" and any outside influence or contradictory information is met with fear and suspicion. They perceive themselves to be perpetually under siege, even as they themselves lay siege to the U.S. system of government.
Circus of Values
In my diary of four years ago, I cited a list of presentation topics from the 2009 Values Voters Summit that read like "a litany of Borderer preoccupations":
SPEECHLESS - SILENCING THE CHRISTIANS
What's on the agenda this year?
THUGOCRACY - FIGHTING THE VAST LEFT WING CONSPIRACY
DEFUNDING PLANNED PARENTHOOD
ACTIVISM AND CONSERVATISM: FIT TO A TEA (PARTY)
THE THREAT OF ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION
OBAMACARE: RATIONING YOUR LIFE AWAY
MARRIAGE: WHY IT'S WORTH DEFENDING AND HOW REDEFINING IT THREATENS RELIGIOUS LIBERTY
THE NEW MASCULINITY
WAIT NO MORE: FINDING FAMILIES FOR WAITING KIDS
TURNING THE TIDE IN YOUR GENERATION
It's not all that different, but a few things stand out:
The Erosion of Religious Liberties in the Public Square
The Erosion of Religious Liberties in the Military
Responding to the Tough Questions on Marriage, Religious Liberty and More
The Hispanic Community: Messaging and Mobilizing
Values and Obamacare: The Threat to Religious Freedom, Life and the Family
Standing Up to the Assaults on Our Faith
Is It Too Late to Reclaim America
The War on Football: Saving America's Game
Common Enemies: Given the Foes We Face, Why America Must Stand With Israel
War of the Worldviews: Understanding and Responding to Belief Systems That Compete for the Soul of Our Nation
Where Do We Go From Here? Challenging Tyranny
From Bible Banners to Public Prayers: Defending Religious Liberty Rights in Churches, Schools and the Public Arena
The People Chasm: How Demographic Decline Endangers the Future of Freedom
No fewer than four -- possibly five -- sessions donated specifically to the idea that the freedom to worship (really, the freedom to evangelize and legislate doctrine) is threatened. "Is It Too Late to Reclaim America," which implies that America is now in the possession of someone other than the convention attendees and must be seized back. "Where Do We Go From Here? Challenging Tyranny," whose implicit premise, objectively false, is that America is governed by a single ruler vested with absolute power, wielded harshly and arbitrarily. (That is the definition of "tyranny." Were Obama actually a tyrant, the current shutdown could not occur; he could simply declare it over. The fact that it is occurring disproves the premise of tyranny.)
Two sessions suggest that not everything on the agenda is the fruit of paranoid delusions of persecution. "The Hispanic Community: Messaging and Mobilizing" and "The People Chasm: How Demographic Decline Endangers the Future of Freedom" reveal a recognition that the Tea Party Republican agenda does not have the support of a majority of Americans and that the Republican Party will have to overcome its demographic disadvantage to remain a political force.
Lind touches on this topic in "Tea Party radicalism is misunderstood: meet the 'Newest Right'":
From the 1970s to the 2000s, white working-class voters alienated from the Democratic Party by civil rights and cultural liberalism made possible Republican presidential dominance from Reagan to George W. Bush and Republican dominance of Congress from 1994 to 2008. Because their politicians dominated the federal government much of the time, the conservative notables were less threatened by federal power, and some of them, like the second Bush, could even imagine a "governing conservatism" which, I have argued, sought to "Southernize" the entire U.S.
But then, by the 2000s, demography destroyed the temporary Nixon-to-Bush conservative majority (although conceivably it could enjoy an illusory Indian summer if Republicans pick up the Senate and retain the House in 2016). Absent ever-growing shares of the white vote, in the long run the Republican Party cannot win without attracting more black and Latino support.
That may well happen, in the long run. But right now most conservative white local notables in the South and elsewhere in the country don't want black and Latino support. They would rather disenfranchise blacks and Latinos than compete for their votes. And they would rather dismantle the federal government than surrender their local power and privilege.
Demographic decline doesn't endanger "the future of freedom," as the Values Voters Summit session suggests -- it endangers the future of the Tea Party–driven Republican Party. But it's noteworthy that the conference planners are no longer trusting in skewed polls that show them to have solid majority support. They know
the numbers are against them. It's not that they themselves are threatened, or that their freedom to worship is threatened. Their power to dictate
is threatened. And as they know they would use whatever power they had to persecute those who fail to conform to their values, they naturally assume, and fear, that anyone else with power would wield it to persecute them.
Consequently, political victory is not just the opportunity to implement an agenda. It's also a matter of survival. They can't take any chances; they have to win.
(I can't help but giggle at "The War on Football: Saving America's Game." Football, which was adapted from English rugby, is arguably less American than basketball, which was invented from scratch in New England. I think what the conference planners see as uniquely "American" about it is the way it rewards size and strength and carries the risk of debilitating injury, two things that Borderers have always relished in their sport.)
The Tea Party vs. Obama
Isn't it kind of incredible to hear Republican leaders complain that President Obama is unwilling to negotiate over the budget during the federal government shutdown when they themselves rejected 19 previous invitations to negotiate? Isn't it amazing to hear them complain that Democrats are unwilling to compromise when they themselves have not yielded on a single point of their agenda since they won a majority in the House of Representatives in 2010?
"When an intelligent man expresses a view which seems to us obviously absurd, we should not attempt to prove that it is somehow true, but we should try to understand how it ever came to seem true," Bertrand Russell wrote in A History of Western Philosophy. In that spirit, I conjecture that the Republicans' complaints are logical within a system of thought that's constrained by binary thinking -- a system without differences in degree, in which everything must be one of two opposites. This is an exceedingly easy mode for the Tea Party to slip into with respect to Obama, since he is their opposite in so many ways. (But not in every way: To us, for example, Obama's rejection of absolute laissez-faire capitalism makes him simply a more moderate capitalist. To the Tea Party, which considers itself capitalist, he must by definition be anti-capitalist, therefore socialist or communist. He cannot be a Christian, because the Tea Party is Christian; ipso facto, he must be a Muslim. This is also how a mainstream conservative Republican yesterday, by publicly disagreeing with the rest of his party, becomes a hated "liberal" today.)
The Borderer culture out of which the Tea Party springs is a fighting culture, preoccupied with victory and defeat. In a binary mentality, there can be no such thing as a partial victory or a partial defeat. The survival imperative does not allow the possibility of defeat, especially not permanent defeat: one cannot give up fighting and expect to survive.
Compromise, which is not victory, must therefore be a form of defeat. And since to compromise is to yield willingly on one or more points of contention, it must be willing defeat -- in other words, surrender. So when Democrats seek compromise from Tea Party Republicans, they naturally refuse, because to do so would be a form of surrender. They'll take whatever the Democrats are offering, because giving things up is what cheese-eating surrender monkeys do, but however much they're given, they won't give anything back in return. Only one side can win, and if someone wins then someone else must lose, and the Tea Party will not accept losing; therefore, it's the Democrats who must surrender. The Tea Partiers will keep fighting until they win it all.
But now, suddenly, the cheese-eating surrender monkeys aren't giving up anymore, and the Tea Party Republicans find themselves at an impasse. They call on Democrats to "compromise," the polite word for "surrender," but the Democrats say they're done with that, and weirdly, they're sticking together this time and not budging, so the usual pressure tactics no longer work.
The Tea Party's authoritarian impulse dictates that the way to get the desired response from the Democrats is to increase the pressure. And so the government comes to a halt, and soon the debt limit will be reached, and surely the Democrats will have to cave if they care about those things.
It's important that we take stock of the implications of this psychology and the pattern of political behavior it creates. The Tea Party Republicans will not yield. Their values and their way of thinking will not allow it. I can see this situation going one of only two ways: Either some other element in the Republican Party detaches itself from the Tea Party and helps Democrats break the impasse, probably at the cost of the Republicans' electoral future; or this crisis will continue to escalate until we find ourselves embroiled in a second civil war or a Shock Doctrine–style putsch.
It pains me to contemplate it, but we need to be prepared for either of those eventualities.
After the Party
The ramifications of a civil war or a putsch are too numerous and complicated to consider. It's much easier to imagine the fracturing of the Republican Party, even though such a thing has happened only rarely in American politics. It seems to me that the two most likely fault lines are between libertarians and evangelicals and between conservatives and radicals. Both of these are "God vs. Mammon" splits, but in the former case, I think God ends up with more of the power in the resulting equilibrium, whereas in the latter, the lion's share goes to Mammon. Whichever side loses will probably end up shut out of politics for a while. Proportional power isn't feasible in a winner-take-all electoral system.
Let's suppose the Republican Party does fracture along conservative vs. radical lines, and the current logjam is broken up in Democrats' favor -- from our point of view, probably the best-case scenario. Even if this happens, it's crucial to keep in mind that the people who make up the Tea Party base will not go away, and they will not change. They will still seek outlets by which to express their political will, which will still have been shaped by Borderer psychology, demagoguery and right-wing propaganda. And they are Americans -- this is their inalienable right. We cannot write them off as nobodies.
But can the U.S. constitutional system withstand the inclusion of a regressive, revanchist element that constitutes 20 to 25 percent of its population and is determined to thwart the will of the majority when it differs? Can any representative democracy withstand that, let alone one as diverse as ours?
America was conceived as a pluralistic society, was born as a pluralistic society, flourished and prospered as a pluralistic society, and came nearest to the brink of death when its pluralism was violently rejected by a geographical faction determined to have its way over all others' objections. The problem is, we're facing another rejection of pluralism right now: the Tea Party refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of its opponents' victories.
The motto on the seal of the United States, E pluribus unum, "one out of many," expresses what unites us: the consensus belief that we are united. Without this consensus, what's left to unite us? What is "America" then? Not its people -- not if we can't agree on who's American and who isn't, not if some people are designated "real Americans" and others, despite being full, legal citizens, are not. Not its government -- not when a segment of the nation blithely rejects the results of legitimate democratic processes and uses manipulation and sabotage to subvert them.
It ought to be, more than anything else, the concept of pluralism itself -- the idea that people with different traits and different values can and should live together under one system that respects the dignity and rights of all of them and gives every one of them a voice. That's what our Founders envisioned, to the extent that the logic of their times would allow. That's what lured generations of immigrants away from repressive monarchies. That's what inspired dissidents living behind the Iron Curtain and enticed many of them to defect. That's what African Americans marched and often died for during the Civil Rights Era. That's what still draws political refugees seeking asylum. If we can't reestablish a consensus behind pluralism now, America as we know it, understand it and revere it is, for all intents and purposes, over.
The Tea Party, I think, is deeply worried that if it loses its grip on power, its dignity, rights and voice will be ripped away. I am deeply worried that if we can't reestablish a pluralist consensus, the tension between the Tea Party and the rest of the nation will cause the political bands that have connected us with each other to snap. I don't consider either of these scenarios acceptable. But keeping these scenarios from coming to pass will be a nearly miraculous accomplishment. I hope we're up to it.