Sixteen months ago, political commentators and analysts felt they had a handle on the mood of US citizens. All saw the election of Obama and the sweep of Congress as a powerful rejection of the politics of the Bush era, including a repudiation of the extreme-right agenda associated with it.

Roughly 20-25% of the electorate still tenaciously embraced the bizarre brew of religious zeal, rabid nationalism, racism, and social retardation, but polls – like the detailed, twenty year survey of “Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes” conducted by The Pew Research Center – showed a decided tilt towards more socially progressive, government-directed policies on the part of the US population. Some pundits even spoke of a sea-change in US politics: the emergence of a new democratic and progressive era as potent as the so-called “Reagan Revolution.”

That moment has passed. Today, the political stage is not dominated by progressives or even tepid liberals, but by a motley, but dynamic group dubbed the “Tea-Party Movement”. While still a minority movement, its intense activism is amplified by the media, both the partisan right of Fox and talk radio as well as the “mainstream”. Today’s Father Coughlin’s – Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck – nursed the stirrings against Obama’s health care plan into a national campaign knitted together around hatred for Obama and anti-government grievances. It is worth noting that no similar media courtesy has been extended to any left or liberal formations by the more moderate media. Indeed, the “mainstream” has shown a curious fascination – a sensational fixation – that has helped to propel the Tea-Party movement forward.

Of course this movement did not spring from nothing. The elements have been there for years, if not decades. Arguably, this political formation was even larger and more influential during the years of extreme anti-Communism, the era associated with the antics of Senator Joe McCarthy. Again, rightwing extremism forced itself center stage behind the candidacy of Barry Goldwater in the sixties. And, of course, it returned with a vengeance with the election of Ronald Reagan.

In most cases it attached to the Republican Party for its political expression. In most cases, it found a happy home with Republican leaders who were able to marshal the movement’s energy and press some of its demands without surrendering any of the Party’s commitment to a corporate-coddling agenda.

That is not to say there were not times when the extreme-right could not be contained within the bounds of the two-party system. The Wallace-LeMay campaign of 1968 drew nearly 10 million votes (13.5% of voters) to a virulently racist, belligerently war-mongering program outside of both major parties. But generally, the extreme right sees the Republican Party as a natural haven. Likewise, Republican leaders find extreme-right ideology as a handy weapon or ready diversion against liberal-left ideas that might slow or stop the rapacity of capital. They have succeeded in wedding “free enterprise,” anti-regulation, anti-tax principles to the racist and nationalist intolerance and conservative values of the historical extreme-right. Throughout most of the twentieth century, the bond cementing this wedding was anti-Communism.

Doug Henwood of Left Business Observer (LBO #125) takes a stab at describing the social composition of the Tea-baggers, the current crop of extreme-right foot soldiers: “Though no one has done the rigorous sociological work, they look to be a movement of middle managers, professionals, and retirees – the petite-bourgeoisie, to use the old language.” I think Henwood is substantially correct, though “petite-bourgeoisie” is both a broader and more precise category than he suggests while still eminently useful despite its age. Those who answer polls by identifying with the wealthy few because they mistakenly believe they are the rich or soon will be instantiate this class or, at least, this mentality. Further, I think this class has historically always provided the fertile ground for extreme-right views. The shrillness and threatened violence of the extreme-right’s actions are clearly rooted in fear and the threat to petit-bourgois illusions from the economic crisis.

Tea-baggers and Fascism

It is a facile and immediate response to label all extreme-right movements as “fascist”. The term has been wrenched from its precise meaning in a particular historic period applying to particular historic developments and particular social movements as to lose all meaningfulness. Its common use today is more as an expletive rather than a helpful explanatory term. Nonetheless, it is useful to locate extreme-right movements in relation to historical antecedents. Thus, we understand the Tea-Party movement better by uncovering its common features and differences with the fascist social movements of the 1930’s and 1940’s.

As Henwood points out, the Tea-Party movement is predominantly petit-bourgeois in social composition. It shares this feature with the earlier fascist movements which drew heavily from the upper-middle and middle strata. These strata – in pre-war Germany, but also Italy – feared the loss of a comfortable and formerly stable way of life. Then and now, that life-style was seriously threatened by an economic crisis. Assumptions about values and world-views were and are challenged by the crises.

For the most part, fascist movements were responsive to a left and working class movement growing in power and influence. While that is not true today, the Tea-baggers have constructed an imaginary left by drawing on Cold-War imagery and crudely pasting that imagery on a President perceived by them as alien. If indeed history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce, the Tea-bagger fears of the left are surely farcical – labeling policies aiding corporations and the wealthy as “socialist”.

Like their fascist predecessors, the Tea-Party groups operate somewhat independently of the established political parties. Previously, the extreme-right found a comfortable home inside the Republican Party. And to a great extent, the cynical, corrupted leaders of the Republican Party exercised a control, even manipulation, of the fundamentalist zealots, racists, libertarians, etc. that nested in that party. But the new movement challenges those reins on many counts, generating some consternation among Republican big-wigs.

Recently, Dorothy Rabinowitz, a trusted member of The Wall Street Journal editorial board, chastised Sarah Palin in an op-ed piece (2-18-10) for Palin’s recent endorsement of Rand Paul – libertarian Ron Paul’s son. Paul, the younger, “holds views on national security and defense that have much in common with those of the far left.” She notes that Paul, the elder, has “said repeatedly that the United States had given Osama bin Laden good cause to attack us…” In addition, Rand Paul “stands opposed to the Patriot Act and he wants to cut defense spending.” Rabinowitz is warning Palin, the Paul’s, and others in the Tea-Party movement that any deviation from the Republican pro-corporate, pro-imperialist agenda will not be tolerated. The defense procurement and supporting industries are among the most generous and loyal components of the Republican fund raising apparatus. Moreover, imperialist aggression is the policy that drives the growth of these industries.

Twelve days later, Gerald F. Seib, The Wall Street Journal’s influential Capital Journal columnist emphasized the dangers of a renegade Tea-Party movement with an article “Tea Party Holds Risks for GOP” (3-2-10). “In particular,” he writes, “Republicans’ courtship of the Tea Party movement threatens to pull the party away from its moorings on two crucial and emotional issues: the war on terror and immigration.” One can translate this to mean that Republicans are fearful that this movement will alienate its corporate sponsors in the defense industry and challenge Republican efforts to recruit voters from the ranks of Hispanics. Seib cites many examples of Tea-Party leaders opting for a libertarian slant on civil liberties over the repressive, police state Patriot Act – further signs of a distance from a corporate agenda. His closing comments reveal the danger perceived by the two-party system insiders: “The problem with those independent movements is that they are exactly that – independent.”

Some on the left confuse this independence with a spark of progressivism, taking attacks by Tea-baggers on the current health care reform initiative, the bailouts, and the stimulus package to be anti-corporate populism. In fact, they are rabidly and solely anti-government. The fact that there is virtually no popular understanding of the fusion of government and monopoly corporations in contemporary capitalism– state-monopoly capitalism – feeds this confusion. This same confusion creates a false and diversionary political divide between those who are pro- and anti-government. The truth is that government and big business are joined at the hip and any serious, progressive movement for change must tackle both.

A Conundrum

For those who cry wolf at the activities of every right wing movement on the political stage – easily recalling the rise of European fascism in the twentieth century – something resembling the real deal may now escape them. For generations, the extreme right has been nourished and groomed by the leaders of the Republican Party. Our current incarnation was courted by Ronald Reagan and his successors to serve as electoral troops for the Republican Party. In return, Republican leaders gave gestures and symbols to hold their attention while relentlessly pressing a corporate, wealth-coddling course. Nothing, absolutely nothing, was sacrificed from that course to hold the extreme-right in place. The raw meat of prayer, flag waving, charter schools, government funding for religious charitable work, anti-abortion posturing, gun rights, etc. cost the corporate world nothing, while cheaply satisfying right-wing zealotry.

Yet in the last few years –especially with the exposure of the callowness, cynicism, and corruption of the Bush administration – the movement has taken on a new life, fueled by Fox News, talk radio, unabashed racism, and economic uncertainty to make demands upon the Republican Party often out of step with the larger goals of the Party leaders, corporate board rooms, and our ruling class. The tail is beginning to wag the dog.

I believe this evolution of the organized extreme-right towards independent action accounts for the near unanimous Republican opposition to the TARP bailout – an event that found candidate Obama offering unconditional support for this blatant gift to the financial sector. Likewise, the Republicans fought hard against a stimulus package that Herbert Hoover could have endorsed in 1932. Republican intransigence towards the final Congressional health care proposal – a plan that had substantially won the support of the health care and pharmaceutical industry – counts as another example of the political weight of the extreme-right’s new found independence. In my view, it is this departure from the capitalist program that has Republican leaders – and mouthpieces like Rabinowitz and Seib – so frenzied over the Tea-bag movement. They – like their bourgeois antecedents in the nineteen thirties and forties – are trying to tame a tiger that has its own appetites.

Missing from this discussion are liberals, the left, and the Democratic Party. And therein lays the problem: they are missing. I begin with an account of the promise – both emotionally and objectively – of the election of 2008. If no other lesson can be drawn from the Tea-Party phenomenon, it is that an independent political movement, even a minority one, exercises inordinate influence upon the direction of US politics. As Seib points out so well in the above quote, independent movements pose serious problems to the corporate dominated two-party system, problems that bend the parties away from the trajectory preferred by the US ruling class. This is an old lesson – one that many of us drew from the mass upsurges of the thirties that shaped the programs of a cautious, relatively conservative President into the show pieces of the New Deal. The independent militancy of labor and the left prodded Roosevelt into becoming the icon of liberalism that he is today.

Many are wringing their hands and crying “betrayal,” blaming Obama for the failure to bring any significant change to the political landscape. This is silly. Anyone paying attention would recognize Obama as a mainstream corporate Democrat sensitive to the moment, but – left to his own devices – inclined to support the call of monopoly capital. I have written often of his career and the parallels with other Democrats who have been publicly ordained with messianic qualities. I have pointed to the strong corporate sponsorship – especially from finance capital – of his candidacy and warned of any easy dismissal of what that might mean. Those who fostered such illusions have only themselves to blame for the disappointment of the last fourteen months.

Facing an interim election in eight months, it is likely that little will be accomplished legislatively after the spring. Few politicians will want to take any risks and campaigning will begin in earnest. Still it will be a great opportunity to press an independent progressive agenda on vote-hungry, promise-happy politicos seeking support in November. It will be a chance to build a counter-force preparing for the legislative battles to come after the elections. Support for independent candidates – many Green Party candidates are projecting effective campaigns – will scare the pants off complacent Democrats, much as the Tea-Party advocates frighten Republican leaders. There is much to do to put some spine into labor leadership and rekindle the anti-war movement. All of these steps will move us closer to creating a left-oriented third-party that can consistently influence our political course. Its time to lose the defensive posture of the last period and mount an offensive against those offering two flavors of the same poison. And we won’t have to explain the puzzling fact that the people are hungry for progressive change while the political winds are blowing rightward.