With just a couple of days remaining before the midterm elections many people, including me, are bemoaning what appears to be a new low in political discourse that suggests a complete abandonment of America’s position as the standard-bearer of liberal democracy. If the evidence of yelling, screaming, head stomping, and complete disregard for the truth is any indication, on Wednesday, November 3, we could be facing a new Congress that is likely to turn the rotunda of the Capitol into a cage-fighting ring to settle petty political scores. And to be fair, neither party is innocent here. There are nasty people on all sides. It bears remembering, however, that American democracy has always been a messy and chaotic business and extremism is nothing new. Furthermore, extremism, like that which marks much of today’s Tea Party rhetoric, has a way of becoming diluted over time while offering new leaders a springboard to interpret underlying principles in more attractive ways.
Princeton historian, Sean Wilentz provides evidence of this phenomenon in his recent article “Confounding Fathers” (The New Yorker, October 18, 2010). He details an historical review of the John Birch Society and its tight parallels with today’s Tea Party. Wilentz argues that the extreme rhetoric of Beck, Palin, Limbaugh, and their many followers/imitators, is simply an update of the 1960s incendiary fodder produced by Robert Welch (founder of the John Birch Society) and Willard Cleon Skousen (founder of the All-American Society and philosophical mentor of Glenn Beck). In essence, today’s tea is Birch Tea. As the 60s moved forward, the Birchers experienced a straightening and redirecting of their principles by cooler and more astute minds like that of William F. Buckley, Jr. As Wilentz points out, Buckley’s biographer John J. Judis, observed, “Buckley was beginning to worry that with the John Birch Society growing so rapidly, the right-wing upsurge in the country would take an ugly, even Fascist turn rather than leading toward the kind of conservatism [his] National Review had promoted.”
Buckley and other more practical conservatives asserted the principles of right-wing extremism sans the bombastic bravado. I can still hear Buckley intoning his arguments on Public Television with sharp wit and rhythmic cadence without bludgeoning his political adversaries. He had a sense of decorum absent in the practices of Beck, et al. In time, he also had a candidate for president in the governor of California, Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s brilliance resided in his profound interpersonal intelligence. Historians have roundly criticized him for his lack of analytical skills and interests, but one thing he knew was how to connect with people. He used soaring rhetoric to be sure, but it was always a shade or two less hot than the Birchers. He also knew the difference between rhetoric and policy. He invited the support of social conservatives by embracing their passion against abortion and for school prayer, but knew better than to use his power as president to assert government control over what he viewed as personal liberties. He was a rhetorical conservative and a pragmatic libertarian.
In a recent interview I completed with Reagan’s son, Ron, he suggested his father would be a poor fit in the Republican party of 2010. Ron believes his father would be barely conservative enough on today’s scale to make “center-right.” What is also clear, however, given this reading of history, is that our concerns of the day shall pass. Brighter and more reasonable minds will prevail. The rough and garish will realize that enduring power, like that which Reagan enjoyed, is won not just through coercion and fear, but also optimism and yes, hope. Reagan believed in American exceptionalism more than any politician in contemporary history. While it did not always serve him well, it did allow him to favor inclusion over division, and optimism over fear. He was a compassionate exceptionalist, able to condemn communism as an “evil empire” while befriending its leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. Together, they set the stage for the end of the Cold War and an unprecedented period of economic prosperity.
Birch Tea won’t last, but it will provide elements to cull from its leftover leaves, which, when combined with more mild herbs, will offer a less bitter cup of tea. Perhaps it will be called Reagan Tea.