Thunder on the Right, Again and Again and Again


Kevin Drum wants to put the Tea Party movement in historical perspective:

When FDR was in office in the 1930s, conservative zealotry coalesced in the Liberty League. When JFK won the presidency in the '60s, the John Birch Society flourished. When Bill Clinton ended the Reagan Revolution in the '90s, talk radio erupted with the conspiracy theories of the Arkansas Project. And today, with Barack Obama in the Oval Office, it's the tea party's turn….

The growth of the tea party movement isn't really due to the recession (in fact, polling evidence shows that tea partiers are generally better off and less affected by the recession than the population at large). It's not because Obama is black (white Democratic presidents got largely the same treatment). And it's not because Obama bailed out General Motors (so did George W. Bush). It's simpler. Ever since the 1930s, something very much like the tea party movement has fluoresced every time a Democrat wins the presidency, and the nature of the fluorescence always follows many of the same broad contours: a reverence for the Constitution, a supposedly spontaneous uprising of formerly nonpolitical middle-class activists, a preoccupation with socialism and the expanding tyranny of big government, a bitterness toward an underclass viewed as unwilling to work, and a weakness for outlandish conspiracy theories.

I think Drum writes off the recession too quickly—the polling data he cites tells us more about the Tea Parties' armchair sympathizers than it does about the people who organize and attend the rallies. And there's a difference between a movement like the John Birch Society, which is conspiracist at its core, and the Tea Parties, which include conspiracy buffs but are hardly limited to them. But Drum is certainly correct that these eruptions on the right take place whenever a Democrat becomes president.

A Bircher tract from 1971

That doesn't make the issue "simpler," though, because such surges sometimes happen under Republican presidents as well. The John Birch Society may have flourished under Kennedy, but it was founded and had its first spurt of growth under Eisenhower. Nixon faced enough right-wing discontent that a Birchite presidential candidate, John Schmitz, got over a million votes on a third-party ticket in 1972. Under Ford conservative dissatisfaction spread far beyond the Birchers, to judge from Ronald Reagan's insurgency in the '76 primaries—a campaign strong enough that it still had a shot at the nomination when the Republican convention began. And while I wouldn't put it on the same level as those earlier rebellions, you could see the rudiments of what would become the anti-Clinton right assembling itself under the first George Bush. If Pat Buchanan's run in the '92 primaries didn't have the impact that Reagan did in '76, the flipside is that a lot of disgruntled Republicans preferred Perot to Bush in the general election.

So yes, right-wing anger tends to flare up under Democratic presidents. Obviously. But the really interesting question isn't why Obama is facing the same sort of opposition that Clinton did; it's why George W. Bush didn't face a rebellion of the scale that challenged his dad, let alone Nixon or Ford. I suspect the chief reason was 9/11. I'm sure there are other factors as well, which you can suggest in the comments.