Shared Ideological Ground Between The Militia Movement and the Tea Party

I’m sure some very smart person has written about this topic and I didn’t see it.  What the heck, I’ll plunge boldly ahead.

Manuel Castells’ three volume study The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture includes a section, in volume two, The Power of Identity, discussing the militia movement.  Castells discusses the ideology, values and roots of the militia movement.  The following are quotes from The Power of Identity:

Their membership is overwhelmingly white, Christian, and predominantly male.

They certainly include a significant number of racists, anti-semites, and sexists among their ranks. Yet, most militia groups do not define themselves as racist or sexist, and some of them (for instance the Michigan Militia) make an explicit anti-racist statement in their propaganda.They certainly include a significant number of racists, anti-semites, and sexists among their ranks. Yet, most militia groups do not define themselves as racist or sexist, and some of them (for instance the Michigan Militia) make an explicit anti-racist statement in their propaganda.

This network [of websites and email lists] diffuses targeted information, airs people’s resentment, publicizes right, extremist ideas, spreads rumors of conspiracies, and purveys the eschatological mythology that has become the cultural background for turn-of-millennium right-wing populism.

According to this vision, America is divided into two kinds of people: producers and parasites. Producers, working people, are oppressed between two layers of parasites: corrupt government officials, wealthy corporate elites, and bankers, at the top; and stupid and lazy people, undeserving of the welfare they receive of society, at the bottom.

Together with these localist, libertarian strands, a third major theme runs through the movement: a backlash against feminists (not against women as long as they remain in their traditional role), gays, and minorities (as beneficiaries of government protection).

Traditional national and family values (that is, patriarchalism) are affirmed against what are considered to be excessive privileges accorded by society to gender, cultural, and ethnic minorities, as exemplified by affirmative action and anti-discrimination legislation.

A fourth theme present in most of the movement is the intolerant affirmation of the superiority of Christian values, the pretension that Christian values and rituals, as interpreted by their defenders, must be enforced through the institutions of society; for example, mandatory prayer in public schools and the screening of libraries and the media to censor what would be considered anti-Christian or anti-family values.

Furthermore, at the moment when the traditional family becomes indispensable as an instrument of both financial and psychological security, it has been falling apart, in the wake of the gender war ignited by the resistance of patriarchalism to women’s rights . . . Cultural challenges to sexism and to heterosexual orthodoxy confuse masculinity.

Reading these passages, I was struck by the similarity to the worldview and values of the tea partiers described in the recent Democracy Memo Inside the GOP.

Over three quarters are married and well over 90 percent are white. Their demographics – white, married, religious, and older – sets up a feeling that they are losing. They talk about how the dominant politics and cultures have encroached on their small towns, schools, and churches. What troubles them when they talk with friends, family, and fellow believers is Obamacare, guns, government encroachment, gay marriage, and “culture rot.”

They have an acute sense that they are white in a country that is becoming increasingly “minority,” and their party is getting whooped by a Democratic Party that uses big government programs that benefit mostly minorities, create dependency and a new electoral majority. Barack Obama and Obamacare is a racial flashpoint for many Evangelical and Tea Party voters.

These participants are very conscious of being white and valuing communities that are more likeminded; they freely describe these programs as meant to benefit minorities. This is about a Democratic Party expanding dependency among African Americans and Latinos, with electoral intent. That is why Obama and the Democrats are prevailing nationally and why the future of the Republic is so at risk.

Republicans shutdown the government to defund or delay Obamacare. This goes to the heart of Republican base thinking about the essential political battle. They think they face a victorious Democratic Party that is intent on expanding government to increase dependency and therefore electoral support. It starts with food stamps and unemployment benefits; expands further if you legalize the illegals; but insuring the uninsured dramatically grows those dependent on government. They believe this is an electoral strategy—not just a political ideology or economic philosophy.

. . .big government is meant to create rights and dependency and electoral support from mostly minorities who will reward the Democratic Party with their votes. The Democratic Party exists to create programs and dependency – the food stamp hammock, entitlements, the 47 percent. And on the horizon—comprehensive immigration reform and Obamacare. Citizenship for 12 million illegals and tens of million getting free health care is the end of the road.

Not surprisingly, all the groups think Obama is about big government and big wasteful spending. But in Evangelical and Tea Party groups participants think he is trying to fool the middle class with a more palatable patina while pursuing a darker, secret, socialist agenda.

And in a room full of like-minded others, they become energized and feel ready to fight back, and reclaim what they believe has been taken from them.

Years ago, I read an article that memorably described militias:

Our Roving Reporter goes in search of the militia movement’s amateur soldiers and finds something even scarier—amateur lawyers.

The article goes on to describe the ways in which the militia members used legal precedent and The Federalist Papers in a haphazard way:

But Nichols was not about to buy the judge’s fine distinction; he had done plenty of his own research. Nichols continued his   losing protests, citing Supreme Court case after Supreme Court case. “He’d lift   a sentence or phrase that he thought was applicable, but he’d do so out of   context so that the meaning was completely incorrect or nonsensical,” recalls   Judge Marcus.

. . . “You can’t follow their arguments,” explains Judge Marcus, “because they’re listening   to a different music no one else hears.”

Tell me that doesn’t sound like the tea baggers and their hysterical denunciations of contemporary policy and politics.  Read the Democracy Corps memo – the tea partiers claim the problem is a Republican party that has caved to the Obama administration.  Everyone else can see a Republican party that has flat out refused to work with the Obama administration on anything and everything.  They’re listening to music no one else hears.

We have these two groups – with probably some overlap in membership – which represent a fundamentalist version of American conservatism.  Both regard the Constitution as holy writ.  It’s words are sacred and not open to interpretation or to interpretative efforts.  The idea of a living Constitution is offensive to these Americans.  One of the key ideas in the Democracy Corps memo is that idea that the tea baggers are an embattled remnant of ‘true’ America:

It used to be different, as illustrated by several men in Roanoke when describing their own towns.

It’s a little bubble. So everybody – it’s like a Lake Wobegon. Everybody is above average. Everybody is happy. Everybody is white. Everybody is middle class, whether or not they really are. Everybody looks that way. Everybody goes to the same pool. Everybody goes – there’s one library, one post office. Very homogenous. (Evangelical man, Roanoke) 

They experience the world around them as a threatening, marginalizing place:

They believe there is a dominant culture that has marginalized them ideologically, linguistically, and culturally.   They believe that their views are unacceptable outside of their small circles of like-minded friends and family.  They are also very conscious that they are viewed as rednecks by the liberal elite.

In response, these embattled conservatives have constructed a resistance identity.

Castells defines three types of identity – legitimizing, resistance and project.

Legitimizing identity: introduced by the dominant institutions of society to extend and rationalize their domination vis a vis social actors . . .

Resistance identity: generated by those actors who are in positions/conditions devalued and/or stigmatized by the logic of domination, thus building trenches of resistance and survival on the basis of principles different from, or opposed to, those permeating the institutions of society . . .

Project identity: when social actors, on the basis of whatever cultural materials are available to them, build a new identity that redefines their position in society and, by so doing, seek the transformation of overall social structure.

In simple terms, legitimizing identity generates a civil society, it is a set of institutions and organizations and interactions and social mores and standards which create a society.  Castells points out that this is a dual-edged way of thinking about society – such a society is both legitimizing and oppressing.  Those who live within and fit the rules succeed, those who do not are dominated.

In our culture, we see project identity at work in Civil Rights, in the women’s movement, in movement for marriage equality specifically and gay rights in general.

That leaves resistance identity.  In his discussion of resistance identity, Castells observes (emphasis in original):

The second type of identity-building, identity for resistance, leads to the formations of communes, or communities, in Etzioni’s formulation.  This may be the most important type of identity-building in our society.  It constructs forms of collective resistance to otherwise unbearable oppression, usually on the basis of identities that were, apparently, clearly defined by history, geography, or biology, making it easier to essentialize the boundaries of resistance . . . Religious fundamentalism, territorial communities, nationalist self-affirmation, or even the pride of self-denigration, inverting the terms of oppressive discourse (as in the “queer culture” of some tendencies in the gay movement), are all expressions of what I name the exclusion of the excluders by the excluded.  That is, the building of defensive identity in the terms of dominant institutions/ideologies reversing the value judgment while reinforcing the boundary.

While it may seem strange to suggest that a bunch of white, Christian, middle-class Americans are suffering from oppression, I think it’s important to focus on another word in that passage – “unbearable.”  For the teabaggers the loss of social dominance is unbearable, terrifying, disorienting.  They see themselves as fundamentally decent people and they are genuinely cut to the core when their words and actions are called racist, sexist, homophobic.

In response to a culture that they experience as silencing them, dismissing them, disenfranchising them, they have created a resistance identity in which they are the real Americans and the rest of us are imposters.  If the rest of us are comfortably secular and/or religiously pluralistic, conservatives will proudly and enthusiastically embrace Christianity as the one true American faith.  The more the rest of America embraces science that says we need to make changes to prevent catastrophic climate change, they’ll proudly and stubbornly reject that science as nothing more than cheap politics or an attempt to control people.

For the teabaggers, there’s something profoundly painful in the social and cultural changes we’ve experienced in the last few decades.  They see the changes not as growth or evolution but as loss of something essential.  In a later passage, Castells observed “But, when understanding a social movement, what is objective is the perception of the actors who constitute this movement.”  The tea partiers, conservative Christian evangelicals, and other cultural conservatives perceive themselves as being on the losing end of a cultural and political battle.  They genuinely see themselves as targets of an oppressive society and feel the need to fight back, to form communes in which they can protect their children from pollution at the hands of a culturally rotten world.

Like the militias who see themselves as a bulwark defending against the corruption of American political traditions, cultural conservatives see themselves as an embattled minority trying to preserve a dying culture which the world desperately needs preserved.

The tea partiers genuinely perceive marriage equality as an assault on their values.  They see the unraveling of patriarchal culture as dismissing their core values about family.  They see government programs as illegitimately supporting those who are immoral, lazy, and unmotivated.  The parts of identity they value – self-reliance, rugged individualism, traditional family and faith – get mixed up with patriotism and turn into a rigid, puritanical American chauvinism.

The common ground between the militias and the tea parties is a shared sense of loss, a style of patriotism that melds faith, race, economic class, and nationality into a single, rarely coherent whole.  What began as a struggle on behalf of America has mutated.  They’re willing to use America to advance their struggle.  How to show they dislike the ACA?  Shut down the government.  How do they show they disagree with the President?  Make the  nation ungovernable.  When the other side says they’ll compromise, how do you show you disagree with them?  Reject any and all compromise.  They’re battling for America’s soul and there can be no quarter given in that fight.  Like the militia members in the 1990s, they see themselves as the true and only inheritors of the Founding Fathers’ vision and ideals.

The resistance identity of the tea partiers is all the more fragile and pained because not so very long ago they perceived themselves and their values as part of a legitimizing identity.  They were the mainstream, their values were mainstream values, their families were mainstream families, their politics were mainstream politics.  What they lost was a sense of belonging and rightness in the world.  And despite the general triumphalism of the tea party’s public rhetoric, they know the world has changed and will not change back.

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  1. #1 by Richard Warnick on November 13, 2013 - 9:43 pm

    CJ Werleman proposes a simpler explanation: “The Tea Party is not a movement, it’s a geographical region: the Old South.”

    • #2 by Glenden Brown on November 15, 2013 - 6:48 am

      That echoes Colin Woodard’s argument – that the tea party may have supporters all over the nation the only places in which they exist in large enough numbers to remain relevant is in the Deep South and Greater Appalachia.

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