Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"Gather Your Armies"

I'm inspired to post today after seeing this campaign advertisement, for Rick Barber, a conservative candidate in the GOP runoff in an Alabama district. Obviously, its all kinds of awesome, and this is in a midterm year that has already seen the rise of Demon Sheep and the unbelievably hilarious ad in the New Orleans coroner campaign, two all time greats.

Barber's ad is noteworthy, I think, for how it represents a figure really buying into everything that the Tea Party movement stands for--limited government, limited taxation, and something of a libertarian ethos. The ad mostly rails against the Internal Revenue Service, although it drops in some health care reform hating as well. Primarily, the ad is noteworthy for two reasons--in the ad, Barber is having a discussion with some of the Founding Fathers (they appears to be Sam Adams, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin), and the ad ends with one of the figures supporting Barber's rant against the government by pledging his loyalty to Barber's cause with the cry "Gather. Your. Armies."

Josh Marshall over at Talking Points Memo and his people did some good work on this ad, and they tracked down Barber who denies that the advertisement is a call to arms--it could just be "misinterpreted" that way. I'm inclined to say that Barber is not really "lying" per se--he and his campaign staff probably don't think the ad will lead to any real violence, and instead its another attempt to capitalize politically on the happy combination of the myth of the American founding and the voting block of individuals who feel symbolically disenfranchised by the Obama administration's somewhat progressive policy agenda. In general, the unsubtle violence threatened by the ad is closer to the rattle of a spray paint can than a full force political gale. By this I mean--anti-government yahoos and Michigan militia types are probably going to continue to meet, buy assault rifles, and get steamed while watching Glenn Beck whether or not this ad exists. One caveat to this claim is that an anti-government extremist did crash a plane into the IRS building in Austin--its pretty bold of Barber to put out this ad in light of that.

What's interesting about the ad is the striking originalism (in a hyrbid historical/legal sense) that permeates the performance. We've seen explicit echoes of this throughout the right. For example, the idea of constitutional challenges to the health care bill, the persistent attempts of a few people at The Corner to claim that New Deal was both unsuccessful and unconstitutional, and the general argument that a "big government" goes against what the Founders wanted. I am not here to debate what the Founders did or did not want--that work is the job of historians, and frankly, is uninteresting for people interested in how effectively the supposed myths are mobilized within a general public.

No, what's fascinating is the implicit vision of what the Founders stood for that Barber's ad assumes to be the case. Addressing Washington et. al. about the reach and power of the IRS, and to speak to them specifically as small business owners is a rather hilarious conceit. Not to mention the details of what the IRS does that are so objectionable--you need to have records of who is hired, fired, and how much they are paid? Heavens to Betsy (Ross, in this case I'd wager)! Political ads by their very nature trade in reductio and polemic, so I don't want to single out this ad just for being those things (although it certainly is). But what strikes me about the ad, and the candidate's performance, is just how goddam sincere he is. The fact that this ad was made means some people in a campaign think it really will resonate with some people.

To review briefly, we might ask conservative rapper Polatik what the major characteristics of a Tea Party are. To quote his song "That's a Tea Party", they are fiscally responsible, stand for limited government, are "not a race thing", and echo back into the past to summon the spirit of the American founding. I jest, but essentially, what we really know the Tea Party stands for is less government and less government spending, both of which are consistent with a lower overall tax rate. These statements are too general to form much of a positive political platform--and indeed, the Tea Party is mostly into negation, writ large, as seen in the way they flooded the town halls to show their opposition to health care (and yes, I know many of them were civil--negation can be and often is civil).

Not to beat a dead horse (elephant) but the ol' Boston Tea Party and general crankiness of revolutionary America related in part to the "without representation" part of the old "no taxation" complaint. And I guess part of what frustrates/amuses me the most about this ad is that is makes an explicit call for a revolutionary solution to a problem that already has a political avenue for expression--elections allow for "the people" to change their leadership. It really assumes that the audience has little to understanding of any nuance that came out of the revolution. But even the most sanguine and cynical observer would have to admit--most history classes taught it as "no taxation without representation", rather than "only enough taxation to allow for the fulfillment of Nozick's limited state".

Typically, people revolt and protest when their demands and claims are not being satisfied by the dominant political elite. In this sense, the emergence of the Tea Party is perfectly logical and legitimate--the government is dominated by individuals who do think that the government should do things, lots of them, and the Tea Party points to how their is precious little wiggle room for the pragmatists who speak dogmatically to soothe their base (I'm looking at you, Lamar Alexander).

There is no great theoretical point to this post. But I want to make the case that right now, the conservative movement in America is, in terms of argumentative quality, at an absolute nadir not seen since Alf Landon was getting his ass kicked by FDR. We have an oil rig exploded in the Gulf. A massive economic collapse that we are not even two years removed from. Enormous natural disasters in Louisiana and Nashville. A giant volcano that basically shut down all air travel to and from Europe for a while. A housing crisis that is impacting to a great extent the country's population (not including that it also casts doubt on the ability of both the celebrated liberal individual and the bank to judge what is and is not a good investment, a pretty key bit for the whole capitalism operation). And the Tea Party has one overwhelming argument--less government. But its not the government that people fear will make their lives worse--its the prospect that shrimp might cost twice as much, the possibility that some distantly held dividends will collapse, that your 401K becomes a 200.5, in my father's formulation. We are not at the End Times, but these are certainly not the beginnings either. Perhaps not the best time to rail against the government, when plenty of bad news comes from outside the government's purview.

Barber's ad, and the Tea Party proper, is following a well worn conservative tradition--just as Nixon was able to effectively tap into the anger of Southern voters even though his politics were left of George Wallace's, these politicians are using communicative strategies to try and harness some of the anger and popular sentiment to boost their campaigns. Fair enough--its politics, after all. But to think the angry folks now number as Wallace's constituency did in the sixties seems a risky gambit. And frankly, in 1968 "I protect states rights" was a better argument than "the IRS is fascist" is in 2010, if only because racism taps into something deeper and more irrational than various libertarian strains of thought. Yet today a real revolution is truly unthinkable. People may brandish guns at health care summits, and we might yet see another Oklahoma City bombing--but the structural issues that proceeded the secession of the South in the 19th century and the American revolution of the 18th century are nowhere to be found. We instead have a political party grasping for its identity, trying to be something more than a kind of principled resentment. It had a very nice 40 year run or so, this principled resentment.

Nothing throws this into starker relief that the firestorm stoked by Rand Paul's initial claim that he would have voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which he was then forced to painstakingly walk back after it became clear that opposing such legislation was essentially to deny the importance of a serious lesson of equality embedded in American history. It was a mistake, surely, but as a colleague noted to me, for Paul and his staff only a PR mistake, not a principled one. Indeed, if you but into the very general tenets of the Tea Party movement you end up with something that looks a lot like a version of libertarianism than santizes social violence and endorses abstract equality at every step, and especially in the face of actually existing material inequality. No one is against "freedom" or "liberty" until the definitions of those goods come into conflict with an individual's already existing understanding of their content--thats one nice lesson McGee gave us with the ideograph. The Tea Party is relying upon a certain notion of what it means to be an American, one it believes is unproblematically articulated all the way back to what the Founders did. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the way in which they summon American history is a way that almost any seventh grader knows to be factually inaccurate. At some point, the Tea Party will either have to rewrite American history to present something that produces the actions of the Obama administration as something illegitimate, or it will cease to succeed in writing itself a history, and conservatism will hazard down a different path.


  1. They haven't read this part of Thomas Jefferson:

    "A foreigner of any nation, not in open war with us, becomes naturalized by removing to the state to reside, and taking an oath of fidelity; and thereupon acquires every right of a native citizen; and citizens may divest themselves of that character, by declaring, by solemn deed, or in open court, that they mean to expatriate themselves, and no longer to be citizens of this state." (Notes on the State of Virginia)

    Much less the part where he says that property shouldn't be inheritable. Selective memory, etc.

  2. Thats exactly the sort of juicy gem about the Founders I have no familiarity with. But it totally hits the nail on the head. There's obviously a neat paper about collective memory and circulating imagery of the founding to be written about these folks.