In an earlier post (Oct. 7) I asked the question: how did the Republican Party get so crazy? and answered it in part by tracing the gradual triumph of the radical right over the moderate establishment in internal Republican politics.   That still leaves open the question, what makes the radical Republicans as crazy as they are?

A note on defining the subject matter:  When we talk about “the Republicans” these days we are most often specifically talking about Republican members of Congress, the agents of Washington’s dysfunction. But “the Republicans” can also refer broadly to all Americans who identify themselves as Republican and usually vote accordingly; or more narrowly to the Republican “base,” which I define as those Republicans who normally vote in party primary elections.  The base is a much smaller and ideologically committed group than all Republican self-identifiers.   I think the behavior of the Republicans in Congress can be understood largely in terms of their felt need to respond to their base.  So, I want to concentrate on that crazy base.

This focus by no means ignores the fact that the organized activities of the base—and particularly the Tea Party—are heavily financed by wealthy individuals, most notoriously the Koch brothers.  Arguably, the Tea Party is a “rich people’s movement,” serving rich people’s interests, even though its membership is overwhelmingly middle class.  But the radical right’s wealthy financiers could not have mobilized a substantial following without appealing to genuinely felt sentiments, beliefs, wants, and fears of significant numbers of people who aren’t rich.   It is those sentiments, beliefs, wants and fears that I’m interested in exploring.

Since the Tea Party does seem to be the dominant force in the Republican base, an understanding of the Tea Party and what makes its members the way they are would seem to be a key to understanding Republican craziness.   Unsurprisingly, the Tea Partiers have generated a good deal of attention from social scientists, so there are some good quantitative as well as qualitative studies available to help us understand them.

The first question to ask is: just who are the Tea Partiers?  All the studies I’ve seen agree that Tea Partiers compared to average Americans are older, whiter and more comfortably middle class; not working class, but also not wealthy. Most of them are longstanding Republicans; indeed, the Tea Party can be regarded as the culmination of a trend underway over the past few decades for the Republican base to become both more right-wing and more politically active.   While the Tea Party is a national phenomenon, it is heavily concentrated in the South.

Tea Partiers’ views on economic policy are extremely conservative, if not reactionary.  Contrary to some early reports, Tea Partiers show little anti-Wall Street, anti-big business or other economically populist sentiment–many are small business owners who identify with big business in its complaints about excessive government interference.   Tea partiers tend to see business as a dynamic, entrepreneurial force that contrasts with the corrupt heavy-handedness of government, which throttles individual initiative and gives out handouts to the undeserving.   They hate the federal budget deficit, which they view not only as ruinous to the country economically, but morally reprehensible, an indicator and harbinger of societal decline and impending collapse.

Tea Partiers’ are often thought to be relatively libertarian, expressing little concern over social and cultural issues like gay marriage and abortion.  Still, one study found that Tea Party supporters were much more likely than non-supporters to be born again or evangelical Christians and to accept a literal interpretation of the Bible.  They were substantially more opposed to repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy towards gays in the military.   So, it seems that Tea Partiers are a diverse group on these issues, ranging from libertarians to conventional cultural conservatives.

Tea Partiers by and large are crypto-racists.  Let me explain.  Most Tea Partiers are sophisticated enough to know that in today’s United States, it isn’t acceptable to express overtly racist sentiments.  Many Tea Partiers would probably be sincerely offended at the suggestion that they are racists.  But, as political sociologists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson reported, “racially laden group stereotypes certainly did float in and out of [our] interviews, even when people never mentioned African Americans directly….A sense of ‘us versus them’ along racial and ethnic fault lines clearly marks the worldview of many people active in the Tea Party….”  Opinion polls also confirm high levels of racial resentment among Tea Party adherents.  (They also show high levels among other whites, but Tea Partiers score well above average.)

Crypto-racism is undoubtedly a large part of the explanation for the extravagant hatred Tea Partiers and other Republican activists express for Barak Obama.   In one survey, 71% of Tea Party supporters agreed with the statement that Obama is “destroying the country.”   The Republican base widely views Obama as a slick liar who is secretly turning America into a socialist if not a communist country.  According to one evangelical woman in a Colorado Springs focus group, “He supports everything that is against Christianity.”  Just the other day, popular right-wing media personality Glen Beck found Obama to have “all the earmarks of a Marxist dictator.”

I used to doubt that Obamaphobia was largely a reflection of racism, since much the same kind of irrational, delusional hatred was directed against Bill Clinton. (Remember how Bill and Hillary conspired to murder White House aide Vince Foster?)  Any Democrat in the White House would get similar treatment.  Then it occurred to me that the target of racist sentiment need not be a member of the disparaged race.  Clinton was perceived as a friend of black people, and his party as their protector and dispenser of benefits.  That was enough.  But of course if the Democratic occupant of the White House actually is black, then the outrage is all the more visceral.

Students of the Tea Party generally agree that its adherents share powerful feelings of loss—loss of the country they knew or think they knew when they were growing up.  Feelings about a country that is becoming unrecognizable are reflected in  concerns about illegal immigration and, maybe more surprisingly, in  resentment of today’s youth, who Tea Partiers see as lacking the cherished values of personal responsibility and hard work.

These fears of societal transformation and decline frequently take on apocalyptic overtones.  One Virginia Tea Party activist explained how, as the US fiscal crisis unfolds, grocery stores will be shuttered and citizens who are not armed will risk falling prey to roving gangs.  Another speculated that politicians might decide to address the “debt load overhanging us” by seizing 401k savings accounts of all private citizens.  Instead, he mused, a default might be a good thing, alerting everyone to the severity of the situation.   Other nightmare scenarios, like planned internment camps for conservatives, are taken seriously in Tea Party circles.

Heavy stuff.  So where do these bizarre ideas come from?  One plausible explanation is economic distress.   For many if not most Americans, wages have stagnated and insecurity has increased in recent decades, and these problems were exacerbated by the financial collapse of 2008.  But as noted, Tea Partiers are generally quite comfortable economically, and fairly well insulated from the economic turbulence and insecurity that have ravaged many American communities.  Skocpol and Williamson heard few expressions of personal economic troubles by Tea Party activists: “…Tea Party members rarely stressed economic concerns to us…. The nightmare of societal decline is usually painted in cultural hues, and the villains in the picture are freeloading social groups, liberal politicians, bossy professionals, big government, and the mainstream media.”  Another study found economic concerns to be a motivating factor for Tea Partiers in the East and perhaps in the West, but much less so in the Midwest and South.

For a broader and more compelling explanation of current Republican craziness, I’ve found it useful to review the work of scholars who sought explanations for the resurgence of right-wing extremism in the 1950s and 1960s—first, among the followers of Sen. Joe McCarthy, and then with the John Birch Society and the Goldwaterites.   Historian Richard Hofstadter, writing in the 1960s, saw contemporary rightists in the light of a “paranoid style” in American political thought and behavior that had resurfaced throughout American history.  Political paranoids (Hofstadter acknowledged that he was loosely adapting a clinical term) saw conspiracies directed not against themselves personally but against their way of life.  They had no trouble arriving at outlandish beliefs via acrobatic leaps of logic.

Citing sociologist Daniel Bell, who wrote about right-wing zealots as feeling “dispossessed,” Hofstadter described people who felt that America had been largely taken away from them and their kind, that the old American virtues were being eroded, that competitive capitalism was being gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers.   Their political views were thus driven by fundamental  fears that couldn’t be accommodated through the normal political processes of negotiation and compromise.  Sound familiar?

Sociologists Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab, writing in the 1970s, also used language that sounds like it could have been written yesterday.  They described right-wing politics as the reaction of groups that were declining in a felt sense of importance, influence and power as a result of secular social change.  Such groups tended to view their adversaries as not just political opponents but as fundamentally illegitimate.  Accordingly, they exhibited relatively few inhibitions about utilizing unscrupulous tactics, violating traditional notions of the rules of the political game.

Hofstadter and Lipset have been criticized–fairly, I think–for overstating the working class and agrarian populist roots of right-wing extremism, but I think their basic concepts are nevertheless useful to understanding what drives contemporary Republican politics.   Tea Partiers and evangelical Christians see a country that is changing-–becoming browner, blacker, more diverse and more secular.  It’s not their country and they want to take it back.  Barack Hussein Obama personifies their resentments and fears.   Obamacare, which promises to strengthen the Democrats’ hold on the 47% (how long will it remain just 47%?) must particularly be opposed at all costs.

So, the virulence of today’s right-wingers reflects their intense discomfort with a changing society.   Hofstadter used the term “status politics” to characterize the anxieties and alienation of people who felt social change was leaving them behind,   that it was robbing them of their rightful place in society.  One first-rate contemporary historian, Lisa McGirr, has criticized the concept as being overly psychological and tendentially dismissive of the people it characterizes. Hofstadter wasn’t entirely satisfied that the term “status politics” adequately conveyed his concept, and neither am I.  But when large numbers of people passionately embrace a variety of ideas and beliefs that are objectively nonsensical, and when they act aggressively on those ideas and beliefs, I think you need an explanation that is ultimately psychological.   Again and again, we have seen that people who are perfectly sane in their daily lives can be politically crazy.

I’ll end with a frank admission that I’m not sure that I’m entirely satisfied with this explanation. What do you think?




  1. Daniel October 25, 2013 at 1:03 pm

    Whether or not this sort of explanation is the whole story of contemporary right-wing extremism in the United States, I don’t see what’s “overly psychological” about it. When people believe things that are obviously and uncontroversially well-supported by the available evidence–e.g., that it’s generally colder in Massachusetts than in Florida–no special explanation of their beliefs is called for. But when people believe things that fly in the face of their available evidence, that’s more puzzling, and we need some special story about what’s going on.

    Even if Hofstadter’s explanation in terms of “status politics” isn’t exactly right, any explanation will probably have to look a bit condescending and dismissive, since it will have to say both (a) that people believe various things, but (b) the reason they believe those things has nothing to do with any solid, rational basis they have for believing them. But that’s unavoidable; there’s no solid, rational basis for believing that Obama plans to open internment camps for conservatives, so whatever the correct explanation of why some people believe it, it’s going to appeal to some irrational, “overly psychological” belief-forming mechanisms.

    That’s not to say there aren’t any legitimate worries in the neighborhood of what I suspect McGirr is getting at (just from your post, not from any independent familiarity with her work). It’s an unappealing character trait–a kind of arrogance or lack of humility–to consistently favor “psychologistic” explanations of other people’s attitudes, while being confident that none of one’s own attitudes might be similarly explained. (I use “psychologistic” rather than “psychological” because I take it as a truism that all beliefs–even the good ones–have some psychological explanation. Psychology is in the business of explaining how the mind works, including when it works well. So we need some special term for the condescending or dismissive psychological explanations, which McGirr is objecting to. So I pick “psychologistic”.) Also, it’s impolite in conversation, and probably not a good political strategy, to argue against people by saying: “you only believe that because…” where some psychologistic explanation fills in the dots. But none of that means that psyhcologistic explanations of political beliefs aren’t often the right ones. And the beliefs that are the subject of this post strike me as a prime target for psychologistic explanations.

    • tonygreco October 25, 2013 at 2:09 pm


      I agree completely. McGirr has written (in 2001) a very good book about the radical right of the 60s and 70s, but I think she tries a little too hard to show respect for her subjects, and also to stake out an original interpretation–i.e., distinct from Hofstadter’s–stressing that a lot of these people aren’t hicks. But her findings in fact are actually quite consistent with the status politics concept.

  2. Jeffrey Herrmann November 1, 2013 at 2:59 pm

    That’s a very helpful collection of many strands of explanation of current Repugnican craziness. I would add an observation from Stan Greenberg’s recent memo, “Inside the GOP.” He identifies three GOP subgroups, the Evangelicals, the Tea Bags and the Moderates, and he observes

    Running through these reactions to Obama is a sense of him being foreign, non-Christian, Muslim – and they wonder what really are his motives for the changes he is advancing.

    It’s another expression of the fear that one’s world is collapsing because there are more and more people who are not People Like Us. And — Oh my God! — there’s a black man in the White House. Politically, we’re are in a bad place for another decade or so, but as more and more of these right wing nutjobs gradually move into their rocking chairs in front of the TV at the old folks home, the Right will fade in importance. It’s only a question of much damage they can do until then.

    • tonygreco November 2, 2013 at 12:47 pm


      On foreignness: i certainly never thought that the first black man elected US president would have a name like Barack Hussein Obama.

      • Jeffrey Herrmann November 3, 2013 at 3:50 am

        Just think if his surname had been Cruz and he had been born in Calgary. Then the wingnuts really would have hated him.

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