How Fundamentalists and Libertarians Buried the Hatchet

Rand Paul is an unlikely fundamentalist hero. He was a rebel in his days at deeply religious Baylor University, apparently forming some sort of half-sarcastic, anti-religious student group. He’s a libertarian who quotes Ayn Rand and hasn’t denied his past drug use. On culture war issues he prefers to dodge rather than charge. In many respects Paul looks like the sort of Republican that the religious right has tried to purge from the party.

Yet Paul’s 2010 primary campaign against a well-established Republican drew endorsements from Sarah Palin, Jim DeMint, and even the Concerned Women for America. The lock was in late in the primary campaign when James Dobson at Focus on the Family very publicly switched his endorsement to Paul.

So how have the high priests of Christian fundamentalism found such enthusiastic common cause with a prophet of Aqua Buddha? Why are evangelicals overwhelmingly the largest block of Tea Party supporters?

This poorly understood and carefully limited alliance of libertarians and the religious right can be partly traced to a strategic shift by Paul Weyrich during the Clinton years. It helps explain why competence has diminished as a priority and some Republicans are comfortable promoting policies that seem dangerous to the point of recklessness.

Weyrich, the architect of modern American fundamentalism, generated some surprise when he declared in 1999 that the movement had failed. Many fundamentalists at the time were feeling euphoric. The electoral wave of ’94 had given evangelicals effective control of the GOP infrastructure across large swaths of the country. Though they had failed to defeat Bill Clinton, their power in Congress and state legislatures was steadily growing.

However Weyrich saw a different trend. When he worked with Jerry Falwell in the ‘70’s to turn evangelicals into activists he believed they would form an overwhelming political block. That’s why he urged Falwell to call his group The Moral Majority. But during the Clinton years he decided that he was wrong.

His 1999 Letter on the Moral Minority in America explained the problem, “our victories fail to translate into the kind of policies we believe are important.” In other words fundamentalists could get people elected, but they couldn’t persuade those people to enact the movement’s most extreme policies.

The cultural base on which Weyrich had hoped to build his fundamentalist juggernaut was not as broad as he had hoped. Weyrich blamed the public’s weak interest in his more radical goals on the spread “Cultural Marxism.” Instead of focusing their efforts on government, he urged religious activists to direct their attention toward a transformation of the culture.

This did not mean that evangelicals would take their Bibles and go home. Under Weyrich’s influence religious revolutionaries would still participate in politics, but they would cease to care much about governing.

Weyrich’s shift was not uncontroversial, but it gradually gained political force. In 2001, his Free Congress Foundation released a manifesto called Integration of Theory and Practice meant to guide activists in the pursuit of this dark new direction.

The document recommends “intimidating people and institutions that are used as tools of left-wing activism” so that “leftist causes will no longer be the path of least resistance.” It endorses “obnoxious” tactics designed to “serve as a force of social intimidation.” It outlines a grim strategy, “We will not try to reform the existing institutions. We only intend to weaken them, and eventually destroy them.”

No longer hoping to achieve power as a majority, religious conservatives were freed from the demands of effective government. Evangelicals could shed any concern for compromise, effectiveness, or even competence as political priorities. Consequences mattered less than purity.

The document also described a new posture toward libertarians:

There is nothing in this movement that an operational libertarian would find objectionable…this movement does not promote a direct confrontation with the state, but a sort of “weaning off,” or a ‘walking away’ from the state.

But then there is this critical qualification:

[We] must be willing to lose allies among the libertarians we brought on board the post-war conservative coalition …[W]e choose not to make a fetish of political freedom. We recognize that there are other freedoms besides political freedom–such as the freedom not to be subjected to a barrage of cultural decadence at every turn.

Those two paragraphs written a decade ago define the scope of alignment in our time between fundamentalists and libertarians. Weyrich didn’t create these strains in the fundamentalist movement, but he took them off the leash. His shift neutralized a gnawing disagreement among fundamentalists over pre-millennial and post-millennial theology. This approach meant the disagreement no longer mattered for practical purposes.

Weyrich’s strategic shift not only changed the fundamentalist movement, it eventually shifted the balance of power among libertarians. This carefully calibrated opening from well-established Republican evangelicals meant that libertarians could actually win elections, so long as they were willing to embrace a deeply Southern re-branding of the philosophy. Goodbye Ayn Rand, hello Ludwig von Mises.

The alignment between evangelicals and libertarians is most visible under the banner of the Tea Party. The religious wing brings the motivating force of a fresh apocalyptic fetish while the opening to the libertarians offers some cover. Rand Paul has thrived in this new environment, downplaying his libertarian credentials while backing key fundamentalist priorities. A few adjustments allow him to become a far more potent figure than his father without compromising his values … much.

For the country this new political phenomenon means the far right has no incentive to compromise on issues critical to America’s fiscal health. The ratio of spending cuts to tax increases doesn’t matter to Tea Party. They will not accept any deal that fails to weaken the Federal government.

How much damage are they willing to accept in pursuit of this strategy? Glenn Beck’s investments in food storage and the helpful survival guides he offers on his websites offer a hint. Unless Republicans find a way to counter this alliance inside the party we may all need to buy more of what Beck is selling.

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Mobs and Other Shortcuts

If the Occupy Wall Street protestors represent ‘the 99%’ then why don’t they already dominate our government?

Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street protests should create some concern. These are not the products of healthy politics.

The tagline of the OWS protest sheds some light on where these kinds of movements really come from and why they struggle to accomplish anything useful. OWS calls itself ‘the 99%’ in reference to the concentration of wealth in this country. Yet, if the OWS protesters genuinely represent the 99%, why aren’t they in office instead of sleeping in a park?

The Occupy Wall Street protestors point to the Arab Spring as an inspiration, but there’s a crucial problem with that analogy. You can’t create a ‘Tahrir Square’ moment in a broadly representative democracy. We already have what the Egyptians were fighting for. Something else is happening here.

In our system of government such mass events tend to cut in the opposite direction, as a reaction against the will of the people. When you see thousands of people gather in a grand protest in America they are doing it because they don’t represent very many voters. If they did, they would just vote.

The actual direction of OWS was laid out rather coldly by a former Alan Grayson staffer who is working with the movement. He claimed in his op-ed for Politico that citizens are “exercising power outside of the ballot box” and he explained why:

Many of them saw an uprising in Madison, Wis., over Gov. Scott Walker’s collective-bargaining and privatization initiatives; and they understand the choice to initiate recall elections rather than strikes resulted in a crushing loss for workers.

They saw that the electorate is solidly against them. Now they are shopping for alternatives to the democratic process.

America’s last great wave of mass protest was the anti-war movement of the ‘60’s. When you look beneath the haze of marijuana and tear gas you can see what that movement gave America – the Nixon Administration. Both OWS and the Tea Party should take that as a sober warning. Over the long term, Americans who actually vote are relatively hostile to the costumed and/or unwashed mobs that take to the streets to lengthen their commute and tell them what to think.

It seems as though the reasonable American center took the fall of the Berlin Wall as their cue to tune out. We won the great war of political ideas. There was nothing left for politics but the drudgery of administration. Now our political sphere has descended into entertainment, degraded by the antics of cartoon characters.

The message of both movements can be boiled down to this sentiment – Running a superpower is haaaard. We want to be it easier. We want a political system that has less reading and more parties. Not political parties, but the fun kind. Send pizzas to Zuccotti Park and we’ll figure it all out at some point.

Our political system channels the public will into the political process through elections. We may not like the direction America has taken over the past decade, but we can’t hide behind supposed villains like the Koch brothers or the Federal Reserve. Any of us who wants to see the dark forces driving America need only borrow a mirror.

Romney Can’t Stop the Tea Party

By all appearances Mitt Romney seems likely to walk away with the Republican Party’s 2012 nomination. We can still expect a few scares, particularly in Iowa and South Carolina, but it’s getting harder to construct a credible scenario in which Romney fumbles this one away. He looks smart, savvy, and ready to take on a struggling President. Rational Republicans all over the country are imagining that it’s safe to come out from under their desks.

Hunker down. This is the eye of the storm.

Don’t be fooled by the myth that the Tea Party Movement emerged from nowhere in 2009. They are not an external insurgency. The Tea Party is little more than a rebranding of extreme elements that have come to control the party infrastructure across most of the south and west. A potential President Romney will be governing from a political island in a wild, conspiracy-whipped sea.

The Tea Party is not going to melt away without a fight. Romney may not have signed up with them, but he’s shown no willingness or capacity to take them on in the grassroots trenches. Romney has the party’s financial base, its main media arm, and the bulk of the primary electorate. The Tea Party has the activists and the infrastructure. And if you thought these folks were weirded-out by having a Black suspected Muslim in the White House, wait ‘til they get a confirmed cultist.

Romney will find it extremely difficult to nominate a credible Vice-Presidential candidate. The same intra-party dynamics that forced McCain into the arms of Sarah Palin will press Romney toward something that could be even worse. We may see someone just as politically daffy as Palin, but far more capable.

Worst of all, the Tea Party has locked up a critical prize in this campaign – second place. For more than 50 years the standing rule in the GOP has been that we nominate either our sitting President or the guy who finished second last time.

The only direct exception is Nixon who defeated the 1964 second-place finisher, Nelson Rockefeller, in the ’68 race. George W. Bush was nominated without having to face the previous runner-up, Pat Buchanan, who left the GOP in ‘99. Unless Jon Huntsman experiences some strange and miraculous surge, there is no realistic outcome in which the Tea Party will fail to capture the strategically critical runner-up slot.

Maybe this year’s second place finisher will get so fat and happy on their multi-million-dollar book and Fox News contract that they’ll lose interest in politics. Otherwise they will ride into the next campaign as the presumed frontrunner. That would be the culmination of twenty years of eroding GOP credibility, making a public showdown between the Tin Hat Brigade and the party’s old-line conservatives finally unavoidable.

With the presumed frontrunner in their camp and control of the party machinery over a wide swath of the country, the Tea Party, or whatever brand emerges to take its place, will hold the high ground in that fight. Someone might be forced to launch a third party. Unless we start working very hard and very soon (like yesterday) to retake control, it will be rational conservatives who are pushed out onto that rough road.

Ever since Reagan boarded a helicopter bound for retirement the Republican Party has been harboring a lazy fantasy. We’ve imagined that the genie he unleashed on the far religious right might crawl back in its bottle if we just left it alone. It’s amazing that a generation later so many Republicans still cling to that fantasy. A Romney win in this campaign is good. But the fight over the 2012 nomination is just a prelude to the battle for the soul of the Republican Party.

Paul’s Straw Poll Wins Are Practice for Iowa

One of the minor stories to come out of this year’s Values Voters Summit is Ron Paul’s sizeable victory in the forum’s straw poll.  The Paul organization is developing some expertise at the art of straw poll hijacking.  They turned out their supporters in significant numbers by committing money and organization as they’ve done elsewhere.

This result inspires two questions.  First, why does the Paul campaign keep putting resources into these polls?  And second, could Paul potentially have produced a much more interesting showing if he hadn’t rigged it?

One possible answer to the first question is: Iowa.

Learning to consistently jack up straw polls is good practice for the Iowa Caucus and Paul is putting himself in fine position to compete there.  The presumed Iowa favorites, Bachmann and Perry, are both staggering under the weight of their own mistakes.  The Hermanator can be expected to join them soon enough (“Mr. Cain, tell us again what you think about Muslims and the unemployed”).  Romney is focusing his energy on New Hampshire.

The field is opening for Paul to steal the spotlight in a way that could actually produce some delegates.  Iowa is all about getting committed, qualified people to show up in numbers and perform as directed.  His decision to consistently spend energy manipulating symbolic votes makes some sense if you see it as a rehearsal for the real deal.

Did Paul’s manipulation obscure an otherwise noteworthy show of support?  It appears that it didn’t.  If Tony Perkins’ accounting is correct, Paul’s team astro-turfed in about 600 people just for the balloting.  A total of 1983 people voted.  If you disregard those 600 votes then Paul finished 5th behind Perry and Bachmann.  That’s about where you’d expect him to finish with a group of hard-core evangelical voters.

Can Ron Paul convert straw poll acumen into Iowa delegates?  Is he using these polls to polish his organization for the caucuses?  Maybe that’s reading too much cleverness into his efforts.  Maybe he’s less ‘crazy like a fox’ than just, well…you know.

Occupy Berkeley

The Internet-driven protest that has brought legions of the oppressed and their iPhones to the streets of New York’s financial district is beginning to make waves.  Many of these people suffered terribly when the financial crisis modestly dented their trust funds.  Now they insist that some sort of thing of an as-yet-undetermined nature must perhaps be done about it.  Or not.  They haven’t worked out all the details yet.

The complaints coming from the streets of Lower Manhattan about Wall Street fat cats, Republicans, and the financial bailout sound familiar enough to inspire some confusion, or even envy.  To clarify, the Occupy Wall Street protest has no connection to the Tea Party Movement even though the slogans are pretty much the same.  Both say they want to ‘take our country back’ and neither of them make much sense.  Both groups hate everything about Global Capitalism, though the Tea Partiers don’t seem to know it.  There are, however, some clues that can help you tell them apart.

Tea Party rallies use country music.  Occupy Wall Street uses the same music but they call it ‘folk.’ Tea Partiers pray while OWS’ers meditate.  Both will spin outlandish stories about secret conspiracies that undermine democracy.  They both complain endlessly about bankers, politicians, the financial bailout, and rapacious ‘fat cats’ of all varieties.  But, OWS’ers seldom dress up as Ben Franklin and are much more tolerant of nudity.  Tea Partiers on the other hand are 94.3% more likely than OWS’ers to protest runaway government debt from the swivel-seat of a Medicare-funded scooter.

Missing from the streets is a forceful, rational movement that represents the interests of ordinary Americans.  The Tea Party is too close to the left in its tactics, tone, paranoia, and lack of broad public support to act as an effective counterweight.  All things converge at the extremes.  Maybe we need to show the world what an authentically conservative protest would look like.

It’s time to Occupy Berkeley.

We would begin by setting up cubicles wired with phone and Internet service.  Unlike other protestors we have to continue get our jobs done.  A phony doctor’s note won’t get us off the hook.  We’d collect our own garbage to keep the workspace tidy and decorate our cubicles with adorable knick-knacks and photos.

The revolutionary symbolism of our ‘work-in’ would halt all bicycle traffic on Telegraph Avenue, creating a spoke-twisting snarl that would force the establishment to acknowledge our oppression.  But there would be free donuts and casual dress on Fridays.  Our work-in would express the goal we hold so dear (and too many still live without) – a meaningful job.
What would we demand from our oppressors?  If you still think protests need demands then you obviously don’t get it.

Having a narrative is so ‘90’s.  We would engage in a conversation to raise our collective consciousness on a time frame of our choosing.  It wouldn’t have to end, at least not until it’s time to go visit the in-laws for the holidays.

Our movement would organize a mass resume jam, awarding prizes for the most artistic recasting of the phrase “great people skills.”  In the evenings we’d grill delicious farm animals over charcoal and share our tofu-free bounty with all who pass by. We’ll play games that have actual winners and losers.  For artistic enlightenment we might compose haikus celebrating the miracle of compound interest.

We would set up big screen TV’s and watch college football.  We could stage a mass, revolutionary ‘bathe-in’ where we shave off the metaphorical shackles of our scragglyness and clean ourselves so that we don’t smell like the animals we eat.  And then we would go to bed at a reasonable time so as to be ready for productive work the next day.

It would be like Burning Man, but solely with prescription drugs.

Obviously, the kind of people who hold these values lack the free time required for mass political theater.  Real conservative ‘political expression’ happens every day, away from the cameras, as we struggle support our families and our communities.

And our influence matters.  No Wall Street tycoon, no matter how greedy, rich, or devious, gets more than one vote.  That’s why the great American middle continues to hold so much power.  The media-hungry characters on both extremes who take to the streets for attention most often do it because they lack the political appeal to match their noise.

Despite how frustrated we feel, it’s the shape of our day-to-day choices that decides what becomes of this country.  We can be counted on to keep America functioning while the neo-hippies sleep outside and paint each other’s faces.

We work or look for work, not just for the buying power we earn, but for the vital sense of satisfaction and accomplishment it brings.  We start businesses and hire people.  We weigh issues and vote.  We volunteer at our schools, our churches, our community centers, and our food banks.  We struggle every day to make a better life for ourselves and for those around us, regardless what happens in our politics.

That’s the shape of our protest.  The streets belong to someone else.  They’re welcome to it so as long as can still get past them on our way to work.

Who Controls the GOP?

John Boehner’s continuing inability to manage his right flank in Congress points to the larger frustration of a generation of Republican leadership. They struggle to grasp what drives the Tea Party, evangelicals, and the candidacy of Rick Perry. To begin to understand where these people came from and how they acquired so much influence relative to their numbers, perhaps we should look more closely at ‘The Stockman Effect.’

On November 8, 1994, I woke up to a shock. My persistently undefeatable Democratic Congressman, Jack Brooks, had been swept away. A New Deal leftist who sat atop a union/populist machine; we had come to see the old man as a force that could only be removed by the hand of God. Turns out we were right.

In the preceding years Brooks had fended off two valiant challenges. In those campaigns we had a very strong GOP candidate, good financial support, and a lot of hope. After those failures the party had pretty much given up on his seat. The first thing I did on learning that we’d beaten Brooks was to try to find out who our candidate was.

That was an exercise Republicans were performing all over the South the day after the ’94 election.

The South had been a single-party democracy since Reconstruction. With few exceptions, if you had ambitions to serve your community as a judge, or a county clerk, or a city councilman you became a Democrat. You might be uncomfortable with the party’s national positions on a whole host of issues, but it didn’t matter. Abortion, welfare, and arms control had nothing to do with being Justice of the Peace.

The only local elections that mattered were the Democratic primaries. In many areas the GOP invested no effort below the top of the ticket. Across vast swaths of the Old South, the only Republicans in down-ballot races would be professional candidates – the kind of guys who slept in their cars and lingered on the courthouse square wearing incoherent sandwich boards.

Brooks’ GOP opponent in ’94, Steve Stockman, was a default candidate – some guy who signed up to run. That was the year the national tide finally shifted. On November 7, God reached down in the form of an evangelical electoral wave and called Jack Brooks home to Port Arthur. The same tide swept away rafts of Democratic candidates up and down the ballot.

Stockman, a born-again, fundamentalist Christian who just a few years before was unemployed and living in his car, was a vocal supporter of the militia movement until Timothy McVeigh made that instantaneously uncool. On taking office he wasted no time tackling the nation’s vital problems by co-sponsoring a bill to investigate the authors of the Kinsey Reports. He was unceremoniously voted out at the next election, but he didn’t go away.

Though his single term in office was unremarkable his impact lingers. Across the South odd characters of all varieties found themselves briefly in elected office. As the public sobered up they generally lost their seats, but they didn’t just go home. Draped in legitimacy as a former Congressman, District Judge, or prominent aide and empowered by new connections, they found places for themselves all up and down the sparsely populated frontier of the Republican Party infrastructure in the South.

Stockman’s chief of staff, Jeff Fisher, went on to become the Executive Director of the Texas Republican Party after a stint leading the Texas Christian Coalition. Stockman’s wife has been a delegate to the Republican National Convention. Stockman has hosted his own radio show, consulted for other candidates, and represented a prominent group of climate change skeptics at the Copenhagen conference in 2009.

The unintended impact of the ’94 election, call it The Stockman Effect, would place ridiculous characters into positions of genuine power and influence throughout the Republican Party for a generation. Though the craziest of the deadwood swept in by the great flood of ’94 would promptly be removed from office, many of them came to rest inside the party’s power structure where they continue to clog the gears today.

Barry Goldwater’s curmudgeonly warning that the party was being taken over by “a bunch of kooks” would become a political fact that the country is still struggling to overcome.

Of course, the swing toward extremist politics didn’t start in ’94. Fundamentalists had been carefully organizing at the grassroots of the party for years (enjoy this instructional video circulated in the early ‘90’s by prominent Houston Fundamentalist Steven Hotze on how to capture your precinct for Jesus). But there was a persistent delusion among party stalwarts that our wacky cousins could forever be confined to the basement. The Stockman Effect placed them in the living room making decisions for the family.

The Stockman Effect replaced the old right, left, moderate competition inside the party with a reasonable vs. slightly odd vs. “I hear the voice of God” spectrum that has rendered right and left obsolete. McCain’s ’08 candidacy offered some hope for a power shift inside the party that could have begun to improve matters. His failure left the GOP at the mercy of its darkest impulses. In its wake have come the Tea Party, the Birthers, and a whole sweeping movement away from reality-based politics.

The party will recover at some point because it must. People who value reason over passion, truth over fantasy, reality over propaganda, in other words – responsible adults – will at some point regain some influence. But in the meantime the country is paying a price. One day we will have to clean up the wreckage, but for now the damage continues to pile up.

It’s Hamilton vs. Jefferson All Over Again

When General Lee handed Ulysses S. Grant his surrender and my ancestors went home in defeat, there was reason to believe that one of the great unresolved conflicts over the meaning of the American experiment had been laid to a bloody rest.

I’m not talking about slavery, and it did not in fact prove to be the end. The most important original argument over American’s identity was best encapsulated in the competing visions of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

Simply put, Hamilton was a proto-capitalist New York banker who wanted to see the country embrace a commercial model. His vision would require a strong central government to invest in infrastructure and regulation.

Jefferson was a Southern plantation owner who wanted a republic of small landholders where each was practically sovereign on his own property. His model required almost no central government. It was simple and in the beginning it was dominant, especially in the South.

In the years after the American Revolution Northern states began a shift toward Hamiltonian capitalism. Over strenuous Southern objections those states and the Federal government wherever possible, began chartering banks, building canals, expanding ports, and laying railroad tracks. You can’t develop a coal industry in Pennsylvania if you can’t ship the product to New York. Building that infrastructure would require more organization and capital than individuals could fund on their own, but would yield massive benefits to a wide swath of the country.

Southerners struggled to block most Federal expenditures for infrastructure. President Jefferson himself dismissed the Erie Canal as “little short of madness.” His fellow Virginian, President James Madison, vetoed an effort to fund it. It was eventually financed by New York State. It brought massive new wealth to the Great Lakes basin and solidified New York City as the commercial capital of the nation.

It brought nothing to the South.

My Southern ancestors lived quiet rural lives. The harshest and most dangerous labor in their world was performed by slaves, giving them a sort of borrowed dignity regardless of whether they owned any slaves themselves. Religion was paramount, followed by family, clan and country. Their agricultural model and warm climate left them free from the need to organize any meaningful government beyond basic police and courts.

There were trains and factories, but few of them. Southern states resisted any organized industrial planning and fought federal efforts to build infrastructure. When Civil War came they never had a chance. The Jeffersonian model didn’t just leave them trailing in factories and railroads. As James Webb pointed out in his book, Born Fighting:

With only one-third of the white population, the south had nearly two thirds of its richest men and a large proportion of the very poor…In 1860 seven eighths of [foreign] immigrants came to the north…In the north, 94% of the population was found to be literate by the census of 1860; in the south barely 54% percent could read and write. Roughly 72% of northern children were enrolled in school compared with 35% of the same age in the south.

Their martial spirit made them formidable fighters, but they were lousy at coordination and unable to match the North’s infrastructure advantages. They were plowed under by the massive organizational power of a capitalist civilization. They lost because they had built a weaker system.

Wars don’t necessarily change cultures. The South has experienced waves of Federal Reconstruction, including the post-war occupation, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights Movement. Yet my people have never openly confronted the central question that still hangs in the air.

Will we decide – deliberately – to join a modern capitalist nation with all the complex responsibilities and spectacular benefits it brings, or will we continue to cling to the dead vision of The Confederate Dream?

Now we have fielded a Republican Congress which is determined to burn down the Hamiltonian Republic that has emerged since the war and return to a “simpler” time. Along the way they would damage (or even destroy) the benefits we’ve gained from our reluctant capitalism. If you want to know what a Neo-Confederate political model looks like in a modern country, try to find a good public school for your kids in Mexico.

We may not think that’s what we voted for. No one can say out loud that they are fighting for the Confederate way of life, and some who embrace it may not even recognize it. You can get some hints at what’s going on if you probe Ron Paul’s fans for their thoughts on Lincoln. The weird AM radio and Tea Party rhetoric of fighting “socialism” sounds absurd, but only if you take it literally. We want to relive a fleeting moment of Jeffersonian simplicity.

The rebellion against the Neo-Confederate Revolution must start inside the Republican Party. If we fail to manage the complexity of our age, there are horrors that await. Jefferson’s world is gone, but we can still have a banana republic if we so insist.