Election Day is finally upon us, and most people are focusing on the minute-to-minute results streaming out of precincts across the country. Twenty or thirty years from now the specifics of elections won't mean much, but I do think that we'll remember this election because it heralded the reemergence of southern radical rightism.
A few weeks ago, Sean Wilentz provided a modern historical take in The New Yorker on the connection between the radical right groups of the past and the Tea Party of today. It's a fascinating treatment, but I actually think Betty Chmaj's 1962 article for The Atlantic, Paranoid Patriotism, may provide us with a better idea about how we might remember the Tea Party decades hence. Here are just a few excerpts and insights from her investigation.
"The emerging power of the radical right-wing groups in the South is a source of concern in national politics. The combination of two fears -- fear of Communism and fear of the Negro -- forms a particularly explosive threat to politics, education, and calm thinking. BETTY E. CHMAJ, who teaches at the University Center for Adult Education in Detroit, analyzes the types, traditional background, and possible effect on this fall's elections of the Southern radical right."
Chmaj's key insight is that, though the far right groups nominally organized to combat domestic Communists, there were none where they lived. "The enemy was a phantom," she wrote. And because the enemy was a phantom, it could be anywhere or anything. Communism, in the hands of the far right, became a kind of glue that bound together all the various things they didn't like under one big heading. She quotes the Alabaman Admiral John G. Crommelin tying together the various strands that wove their way through the fanatical side of the southern far right.
Crommelin announced his candidacy for governor in 1958 by declaring that the state of Alabama had been "selected by the Communist-Jewish Conspirators as the proving ground," to test means for carrying out their "satanic plot to mix the blood of the White Christian people of the South with negroes," in order to achieve their ultimate objectives," which are:to use their world-wide control of money to destroy Christianity and set up a World Government in the framework of the United Nations, and erase all national boundaries and eliminate all racial distinctions except the so called Jewish race, which will then become the masters -- with their headquarters in the State of Israel and in the UN in New York, and from these two communications centers rule a slave-like population of copper-colored mongrels...
Granted, Crommelin appears to have been on the fringe, but his willingness to entangle so many different fears and prejudices into just a couple of sentences is impressive -- and familiar. More mainstream radical rightists in the 60s, Chmaj wrote, had similar tendences. "The amalgam that always includes the Communists, the Warren Court, and the N.A.A.C.P. was, from the first, designed to take in other enemies of the South as well." Early pamphlets from the Citizens Councils in the South argued along similar lines. "The integration scheme ties right in with the new one world, one creed, one race philosophy fostered by the ultra-idealists and the international left-wingers."
Racial conflict and Communism and and religious sentiment and the federal government's power all stewed together. Where one might imagine that such a movement would fall apart, particularly when business rightist interests conflicted with racial rightist interest. But Chmaj said that the movement was held together by a force to "which the Southern right consistently appeals, one which operates to obfuscate internal differences and effectively paralyze dissent."
Let me call this force naive conservatism and define it as a utopian longing to revive the simpler society of a bygone time; a dogmatic insistence upon the cleavage between good and evil, right and wrong, loyalty and treason; and a capacity to romanticize these dogmatisms with a glow of unreality and an air of innocence that serve to blunt their cutting edges. The politician appealing to naive conservatism characteristically explains that he is fighting the Communist menace because he loves his children. Or because America is a Christian country. Such attitudes have deep roots in Southern history.
Have things changed much?
When we look back at the Tea Party, I think we'll see it like the earlier southern radical movement Chmaj chronicled. It will look like a response to a horrible economy and structural shifts in balance of power in the world. This country weathered that far right surge -- and our moderate politics will prove resilient to this one, too. But as both Chmaj and Sean Willentz noted, it's going to take dedicated people within the right itself to contain the ultraright.
"[T]oo hard a push to the right may boomerang, if enough responsible conservatives are forced to repudiate their more extreme colleagues, leaving the impression that the resurgent right-wing movement is little more than a collection of fanatics and demagogues trading on the fear of Communism," Chmaj wrote.