Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Tea Party and Fascism

This was an old obsession of mine, comparing various American political movements to fascism to see if they fit (invariable answer: No).  So I might as well apply it to the Tea Party.  Some people have accused the Tea Party of having a fascist tone.  Is there anything to it?

In this case, I will not go by my own amateurish definitions of what fascism might be, but by what serious scholars have seen as its traits.

Stanley Payne, in Fascism: Comparison and Definition (1980) offered three main clusters of traits. Let us see how well they apply.

A. The Fascist Negations: 

-- Anticommunism.  Communism is not exactly an issue these days.  Still, if you substitute for anti-Communism, anti-radicals seeking to overturn the social order, it clearly applies to the Tea Party.  I should add that I think the Tea Party seriously overestimates the radicalism of the current administration and its threat to the social order.  But so what?  Classical German fascists came to power largely because German conservatives seriously overestimated the radicalism of the Social Democrats, and underestimated the radicalism of the Nazis.

-- Antiliberalism.  That means having to define what it is to be liberal.  On the one hand, there is no doubt that the Tea Party crowd uses "liberal" as a curse word.  On the other hand, many might say that they are the true liberals, the classical liberals who favor old-fashioned liberal values like free markets and minimal government.  But I would say fascists are above all else anti-liberal in the sense that I have defined liberalism -- placing universalism ahead of in-group loyalty.  Tea Parties are also anti-liberal in that sense.  And, unfortunately, they have taken a strong sense of in-group loyalty into partisan politics, in the form of being unwilling to accept elective government not controlled by their (political) in-group.

-- Anticonservatism, (though with the understanding that fascist groups were willing to undertake temporary alliances with groups from any other sector, most commonly with the right).  No, the Tea Party is clearly not anti-conservative.  It is better characterized as somewhere between conservative and reactionary.  

Tea Party members fear radicals threatening the social order because significant parts of the social order really are being threatened.  Homosexuality is becoming ever more accepted.  Gay marriage is gaining traction.  Global warming is threatening the fossil fuel industry and may force changes that can hardly be imagined.  Our population is becoming increasingly Hispanic, especially in the younger generation, weakening our cultural cohesion.  As our population ages, programs for the elderly are becoming strained and will become increasingly more strained.  Furthermore, all these trends are independent of partisan politics and will continue regardless of who is elected.  Most Tea Partiers, I think, know this.  To this extend, Tea Partiers are the sort of conservative who stands athwart history, shouting stop!

Then again, the Tea Party is proving quite successful in other areas.  It has for all practical purposes repealed Roe vs. Wade and re-outlawed abortion in many states.  Its drive to deregulate the economy, cut taxes at the top, shred the social safety net, and (in some states) kill the public schools in favor of a voucher system are proving highly successful.  Whether these, too, prove to be inevitable trends or whether Democrats have some power to derail them remains to be seen. But in any event, these are all conservative or reactionary goals, and definitely not anti-conservative.

B. Ideology and Goals: 

-- Creation of a new nationalist authoritarian state based not merely on traditional principles or models.  I see no evidence of this.  The Tea Party goal appears to be a massive reduction in government, at least in its mommy functions, and at least for people under 65.

-- Organization of some new kind of regulated,multiclass, integrated national economic structure, whether called national corporatist, national socialist, or national syndicalist.  I see no evidence whatever that the Tea Party favors anything of the kind.  What the appear to favor is a return to the Gilded Age (with the presumed exceptions of keeping Social Security and Medicare), which was anything but a "
regulated,multiclass, integrated national economic structure."

-- The goal of empire or a radical change in the nation’s relationship with other powers.  I have no idea.  Foreign policy does not appear to be the Tea Party's major interest.

-- Specific espousal of an idealist, voluntarist creed, normally involving the attempt to realize a new form of modern, self-determined, secular culture. I have no idea what this means.  It sounds a lot like "fundamental transformation," though, something the Tea Party dreads.

C. Style and Organization: 
-- Emphasis on esthetic structure of meetings, symbols, and political choreography, stressing romantic and mystical aspects. I would say that running around in 18th Century costumes and the intense veneration of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution as a sort of immutable archetype
 counts.  But so what?  Lots of non-fascists political movements do the same thing.

-- Attempted mass mobilization with militarization of political relationships and style and with the goal of a mass party militia. Mass mobilization, yes.  Militarization, no.  Mass mobilization alone does not make a movement fascist.  The Civil Rights movement mass mobilized as well.

-- Positive evaluation and use of, or willingness to use, violence.  The Tea Party often uses violent language and violent imagery.  It does not, however, practice actual violence.  Indeed, the advanced age of so many of its members make the whole idea of the Tea Party as Brownshirts absurd.

Tea Party
Brown Shirts
See any differences?

-- Extreme stress on the masculine principle and male dominance, while espousing the organic view of society.  On the one hand, Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman are heroes to the Tea Party.  On the other hand, they do seem to be making a concerted effort to cut off women's access to reproductive care (at least for poor women), which looks suspiciously like an effort to keep women (at least poor women) in their place.  But no, some right wing movements do look like nothing but an outbreak of testosterone poisoning.  The Tea Party does not appear to be one of them.

-- Exaltation of youth above other phases of life, emphasizing the conflict of generations, at least in effecting the initial political transformation.  Quite the opposite, the Tea Party largely a movement of the old, offended at the younger generation's perceived fecklessness.

-- Specific tendency toward an authoritarian, charismatic, personal style of command, whether or not the command is to some degree initially elective. Well, there is Rush Limbaugh, I guess.  Also Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Roger Ailes.  If these are the true leaders of the Tea Party, then it is something new (so far as I know) -- a political movement led by media personalities who shun public office rather than politicians.  (There have been many media moguls who were important political figures in the past, from Horace Greeley to Silvio Berlusconi, but most of them have also sought office.  A political movement whose leaders refuse to run for office is so unfamiliar as to be impossible to categorize.  Alternately, one could call the Tea Party a grass roots, leaderless movement.

In addition, Robert O. Paxton in The Anatomy of Fascism offers nine "mobilizing passions" of fascism. Again, applying them to the Tea Party;

-- a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions; I think this is true.  It is what makes the Tea Party so dangerous.

-- the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether universal or individual, and the subordination of the individual to it; I don't think this is true.  As discussed above, I think the Tea Party applies in-group loyalty to partisan politics in a manner dangerous to the health of democracy, but I certainly don't think they go this far.

-- the belief that one's group is a victim, a sentiment which justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against the group's enemies, both internal and external;  I have no doubt that Tea Partiers see their group (defined as conservatives, Real Americans, or whatever) as a victim and are prepared to go well beyond generally accepted democratic norms, but nothing as far as all that.

-- dread of the group's decline under the corrosive effect of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;  Yes, I absolutely do think that is a major factor driving the Tea Party.

-- the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary;  To some extent.  I think the desire for a closer integration of a purer community is largely what drives the Tea Party's hostility to immigration and concern over who is and is not an Authentic Real American.  No doubt they greatly fear the alien Other.  I see no evidence of exclusionary violence, though.

-- the need for authority by natural leaders (always male), culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group's destiny; No, the Tea Party shows no interest in such a leader and prides itself in being leaderless.

-- the superiority of the leader's instincts over abstract and universal reason; Irrelevant, since there is no Leader. On the other hand, they do show a certain tendency to reject facts in favor of going with the gut.  But it is their gut, not the leader's.

-- the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group's success;  Once again, the Tea Party uses the language and imagery of violence sometimes, but not the actual practice.  Give the advanced age of so many members, I do not believe it has a capacity for violence.

-- the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group's prowess in a Darwinian struggle.  This is a decent definition of American exceptionalism.

CONCLUSION:  The Tea Party is best characterized as reactionary.  It either stands athwart history shouting stop or seeks a return (perhaps successful) to the Gilded Age.  It engages in a delegitimization of the opposing party that is dangerous to the health of democracy.  But it has none of the ambitious goals or violent methods or leader worship characteristic of true fascism.  Try Ron Paul.


  1. Not sure I agree with your analysis. First, I think the Tea Party is actually in its incipient stage. There are people in the movement who don't look like your typical European fascist but there are others like Ted Cruz who appear to have the same kind of contempt of democracy as being too wishy washy and a deep penchant for demagoguery and the use of propaganda as a political strategy that characterized the leading fascists of Europe's past. If these types of people come to dominate the Tea party then I think you will begin to check off more of the fascist characteristics over time.

    Also note that there is no reason American fascism need exactly model the origins and nature of European fascism. I think the more generic authoritarianism aspect of fascism has at its root the notion: "I know better how the world should work than you do and if I can't convince you then I will manipulate you into following my vision or if that fails force you".

    To summarize, I think your analysis is premature and may be misinterpreted as saying "don't worry its not fascist" instead of what is should say which is "currently it is not fascist but there are fascist components to it which may or may not grow over time so we should continue to be concerned about it"

  2. Well, thanks. I always appreciate comments by strangers. And it is an interesting insight you have there. Looking back over my analysis, I do not believe the Tea Party shares any of the ultimate goals for society with classical fascists, They are more like hard-line libertarians who want a return to the Gilded Age. Nor are they fascistic in their methods (although problematic in other ways).

    But I do believe the Tea Party shares many of the "mobilizing passions" of fascism, and that this makes them dangerous. I suppose you may be right that if they find a charismatic leader like Ted Cruz, they may begin to share most of the mobilizing passions of fascism, though none of its ideology and goals. And it may indeed be worth considering how dangerous that is.