Historical Analogy and the Tea Party

Recently, among the various smart journalists that I follow, there has been a lot of debate about to what one should compare the current American far-right movements. During the shutdown, journalists talked a lot about the Civil War, for example.

As a historian, I’m always interested to see how people invoke history to explain contemporary moments (a practice in which I engage as well, of course).

But I’m finding the following fairly compelling, from Adam Gopnik:

My colleague John Cassidy wrote not long ago about his difficulties, shared by the fine historian Jerrold Seigel, in finding an apt historical analogue for the Tea Party caucus as it exists today. Nothing quite like it anywhere else, he mused—and then Cassidy won this Francophile heart, at least, by citing as a possible model the Poujadists and Poujadisme, the small shopkeepers’ revolt in France in the nineteen-fifties—a movement that seemed to wither away when de Gaulle came to power, though it’s still alive today in many of the doctrines and practices of the French National Front. (Siegel, being provocative, must have enraged a few others by comparing our shutdown artists to the Islamic Jihad.)

But Gopnik doesn’t think we need to go so far afield, we don’t need to dip back to the Civil War, we don’t need to compare them to anyone really … except for themselves.

As it happens, I’ve been doing some reading about John Kennedy, and what I find startling, and even surprising, is how absolutely consistent and unchanged the ideology of the extreme American right has been over the past fifty years, from father to son and now, presumably, on to son from father again. The real analogue to today’s unhinged right wing in America is yesterday’s unhinged right wing in America.This really is your grandfather’s right. [my bold].

Gopnik then lays out a good case for consistency, finishing with:

So we don’t have to look any further than our own past to find exact cognates for today’s movement to the right. The fever won’t break, because it’s always this high. The best hope one can hope for is that, somehow, the adjustments to reality get made, even in the face of the ideology. Reality has a way of doing that to us all.

So the question is what do we do with this information? To me, I’m interested in why it SEEMS new even if it isn’t. The fault, I think, lies in us, our media, a lack of historical perspective in our news commentary, and so forth.

But most of all, I think this: There’s something radical and disturbing about a movement that does not change. The world has changed. We as a nation and as a species (in terms of our relationship to technology) are changing. Our understanding and values shift. Against such change, the rock of American right-wing radical constancy seems to me to loom as a terrible hazard.

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