The Populist Right Isn’t a Political Movement.


By Joe Campbell
April 12th, 2010


 
Last week, I wrote my response to the Tea Party: Government is Good! It’s one of those pieces that I wrote 10 separate drafts of, and if I had included them all, would have written some 10 pages on the subject.

So, I’ll be following up with some further thoughts on the subject periodically.

My first follow-up, the first point that made it into previous drafts, but was excised from the final one is the glaring discrepancy between:

  • the populist right’s rhetorical opposition to all domestic government action on the grounds that it is incompetent, ineffective, and a threat to liberty; and
  • the populist right’s support for apparently unlimited government power on national security and law enforcement matters on the grounds that it is highly competent, effective, and the defender of liberty.

What you get are many arguments asserting that the state is competent and effective enough to deprive some people of liberty without any check on its power, to trample on their every right and to strip away their sanity through torture, and to kill them — all in the name of protecting liberty; but — at the same time — government is so toxic to liberty, so ineffective, and markets are so fragile, that if taxes go up 1% for those making over $250,000, if corporations can’t give money directly to candidates, if Wall Street is forced to suffer more regulations, or if people are required to purchase health insurance to provide for medical care or suffer a small penalty – that if these things happen, we have descended into abject Socialism.

The common cop-out I’ve heard to explain this is that the government’s proper role is to provide for the common defense. But it is the government’s proper role to assess income taxes and to regulate interstate commerce as well.

The populist right simply isn’t ideologically coherent. Ron Paul may be, to his great credit — but it is precisely his coherence that makes him unpalatable to the rest of the populist right, the bulk of the Tea Party, and the Republican Party. The bulk of the populist right is in favor of the government’s curtailing of the civil liberties of resented minorities in the name of a War Against Terrorism. It favors wars abroad — or at least, doesn’t favor “retreat” or anything that doesn’t look tough enough. It is enamored of the war atmosphere, of the narrative of good versus evil, that permeated Fox News’s coverage of the Bush administration. It is enamored of the revolutionary atmosphere, of a nation under assault by a Hitler-wannabe, of another narrative of good versus evil, that permeates Fox News’s coverage of the Obama administration.

From a political perspective, it makes no sense to call the government too incompetent to provide postal service and yet still consider it competent enough to detain, torture and kill anyone it deems a terrorist.

The populist right, then, cannot be properly understood as a political movement. It is a cultural movement and a media phenomenon with political overtones.

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