Mike Lofgren spent 30 years on Capitol Hill working for Republicans before publicly leaving the party last week. Responding to Lofgren's denunciation of the Grand Old Party as a "cult," Andrew Sullivan agrees
that the GOP, deep down, is behaving as a religious movement, not as a political party, and a radical religious movement at that. Lofgren sees the "Prosperity Gospel" as a divine blessing for personal enrichment and minimal taxation (yes, that kind of Gospel is compatible with Rand, just not compatible with the actual Gospels); for military power (with a major emphasis on the punitive, interventionist God of the Old Testament); and for radical change and contempt for existing institutions (as a product of End-Times thinking, intensified after 9/11).
And so this political deadlock conceals a religious war at its heart. Why after all should one abandon or compromise sacred truths? And for those whose Christianity can only be sustained by denial of modern complexity, of scientific knowledge, and of what scholarly studies of the Bible's origins have revealed, this fusion of political and spiritual lives into one seamless sensibility and culture, is irresistible. And public reminders of modernity - that, say, many Americans do not celebrate Christmas, that gay people have human needs, that America will soon be a majority-minority country and China will overtake the US in GDP by mid-century - are terribly threatening.
I have written several times on this topic, but one must be careful with generalizations. To be sure, tea party and Fox News propaganda aim squarely at distinct cultural identities: think of Bill O'Reilly's "war on Christmas." But there's no single religion at the heart of tea party or Republican cultural values. For example, I have seen lots of speculation as to whether America is ready to elect a Latter Day Saint, Mitt Romney, president.
The "more spiritual than political" Glenn Beck rallies have sought to syncretize doctrinal differences into the kind of mushy, right wing unitarianism. The new Republican Party is marked by Michele Bachmann leaving her anti-papist church as well as Rick Perry's prayer meetings. I agree with Sullivan that all this marks the downfall of evangelicalism in America, as the book of Rand has been inserted between Romans and Revelations. But I'm not sure you can describe the religion of the new right in a monolithic way.
Instead, it may actually be more instructive to regard the Republican party as a brand, and the tea party as a new, competing brand from within the same corporation. Think of New Coke. For this purpose, I'll turn things over to Patrick Hanlon for a minute; he's a branding guru. "Branding" is the business of making products succeed in markets, which is far more complicated than just advertising. As Hanlon explains, brands are actually belief systems. More after the jump...
One might ask what the real difference is between a religion and a marketing exercise, and in fact conservative politics today are a business, rife with profit-taking. But a fair examination must go deeper than that.
Tea party activists and right-wing evangelicals want to believe. That is, their belief systems are bulwarks of rationalization. Like cult members, they invest in that system and become party to it. For his purposes, Hanlon identifies seven parts to a belief system:
A CREATION STORY
We know that tea parties began as a Ron Paul moneybomb experiment, were picked up as a meme by K-Street firms, were propelled by conservative media, and became the new marching banner for the same old right-wing conservatism -- especially evangelicals. Indeed, tea party activism has consistently shed its libertarian origins, which is why Michele Bachmann has been more popular than Ron Paul among tea party adherents.
But tea party members don't like this narrative (indeed, many of them reject it), preferring to ignore the role of Republican and conservative policy shops in creating their "grassroots" phenomenon. For its part, the mainstream media has swallowed their creation story whole and unquestioning.
One example of this is the general acceptance of capitalization for "Tea Party." Note to the media: there is no The Tea Party. The NAACP tracks at least six major national tea party organizations. Infighting is common: some groups want to separate from FreedomWorks to maintain their indie spirit, while Tea Party Patriots and Tea Party Express have disdained each other at times. All of this goes on while the capitalized Republican Party seems diminished as a party of big ideas.
Meanwhile, the creation story of the Republican Party has become moribund. Indeed, the advance of tea parties has happened in a vacuum left by the collapse of modern conservatism. William F. Buckley's brand of conservatism has its last homes with David Frum and Andrew Sullivan. Rational conservatism, and the party it used to inform, have been overtaken by a movement in the grip of magical thinking and paranoid fantasy. Buckley ejected Bircherism from the Big Tent in 1964; it is back, and driving the party. I need hardly recite the tea party litany of paranoid memes and silly tinfoil hattery. It suffices to recall a button for sale at Tea Party Express rallies:
Spend money we don't have
to build cars we don't want
to end man-made global warming
that doesn't exist
That is a fully enclosed paranoid universe where the ice is not melting, the government is too big, and freedom is threatened by change. Moreover, the fundament of this "epistemic closure" is lies. Websites like Crooks & Liars, Media Matters, and Newshounds offer a virtual catalog of examples. I am not the first commentator to note the narrowed range of acceptability in Republican politics these days.
Ron Paul was both cheered for letting the uninsured die and booed for apostasy on Islamophobia by the same crowd the other night. John Huntsman is running dead last because he admits that climate change is not a hoax; Rick Perry is running first because he says climate change is the hoax. If you don't recite the creed, then you sit in the dark, cold corner of the "big tent."
Tax Day tea parties. Tea Party Express bus stops. The tea party convention and tea parties at town halls. Remember the tea party rally on the National Mall in September 2009? FreedomWorks claimed that two million people showed up. FreedomWorks revised its figure down to merely 600,000 people, but that is still a lie. In fact, it is physically impossible for the crowd to have been larger than a tenth that size.
Nevertheless, the lie was repeated at subsequent tea party events, permanently informing their cultural lore. It was a naked play for the "bandwagoning" effect: cultural conservatives were fed the appearance of a strong, active movement, and responded. At revivals, Billy Graham's crusaders used to emerge "spontaneously" from the edges of the crowd to create the altar call rush. Rituals are "magic;" science understands it as psychology.
Rituals are aimed at the unbeliever, too. Recently, Digby wrote about ritual defamation, quoting an article on the topic:
The power of ritual defamation lies entirely in its capacity to intimidate and terrorize. It embraces some elements of primitive superstitious belief, as in a "curse" or "hex." It plays into the subconscious fear most people have of being abandoned or rejected by the tribe or by society and being cut off from social and psychological support systems.
Digby remarks on the way ritual defamation instills fear in liberals: "that they will be rejected by the American people --- and a subconscious dulling of passion and inspiration in the mistaken belief that they can spare themselves further humiliation if only they control their rhetoric." Rituals force witnesses toward the sacred with fear.
Rituals also create habits. When Democracy Corps did a series of focus-groups with Georgia conservatives (.PDF) in October of 2009, they found that more than half of respondents watched Glenn Beck, or tried to watch him, every weekday. He was their Mecca, so to speak. For beyond the silly historic garb and Gadsden flags, the icons of the movement are mostly people. Remember, this tackier, paranoid conservatism emerged at Sarah Palin's rallies on the 2008 campaign trail before most Americans had ever heard of tea parties.
Look at the freshman class of the Republican Party, both in Congress and in state legislatures. Demographically, they are no different from their more experienced caucus colleagues. Rhetorically, they are louder and hotter: it is their brand. They are the emerging icons of the "new" old conservatism.
Calling the Republican Party a "cult" is another way of saying that culture warriors dominate it. Language is a primary ingredient of culture, and the wholesale adoption of conservative language by tea parties is a telling indicator of what tea parties are. Think of the words and phrases common between the GOP and tea parties: freedom. Smaller government. Private enterprise. Free markets. Lower taxes. And so on.
A phrase like "personal responsibility" invokes traditional American virtues and values -- as George Lakoff would say, it activates their conservative brains. Put another way, the sacred words of conservatism resonate with their cultural identity. This is a distinct idea from dog whistles, however, which are about the profane.
Brands make almost as much effort to define what they aren't as what they are. Like hideous masks meant to scare off demons, the ugly signage of tea parties speaks to what they fear: foreigners, blacks, immigrants, "socialists." Rush Limbaugh has made an entire career out of abusing the word "liberal" to identify what he isn't. He has always styled himself the Mac to a liberal PC, though in his case the letters stand for political correctness.
One of the reasons why tea parties, and hence Republicans, have become more offensive and bold is that they actively reject "political correctness." Tolerance and multiculturalism are the infidel's marks.
LEADERS WHO STRUGGLE
Charismatic figures always have a bio of personal victory over adversity. But there are many conservative leaders who actively work to build a false image of struggle: George Bush, all hat and no cattle, cutting brush on his dude ranch. Glenn Beck wearing a bulletproof vest at his rally. Sarah Palin "roughing it" and shooting wildlife. Michele Bachmann's indeterminate number of foster children.
Of course, all of this is what you might expect from a Republican party and a conservative movement that have perfected the arts of their communication. Frank Luntz has focus-grouped phrases with every intention of seeing them added to the creed. Entire constellations of conservative organizations, many of them now hip-deep in tea parties, have been pushing the new religion of the righteous for decades.
And that is what many commentators find most disturbing about Lofgren's disaffection: political religion has stripped itself of redeeming virtues. In this great moment of reactionary culture, the belief system that drives Republican politics is turning radioactive.