Utopian Radicals Never Recant. Not 1960’s leftists. Not Tea Party rightists.


Bill Keller at the New York Times has an op-ed comparing modern right wing Tea Party radicals to leftist 1960’s radicals. Not only do I think this is accurate, I think he doesn’t take his analogy far enough.

First a few quotes from Keller’s piece:

The right-wing campaign to sabotage the Affordable Care Act has driven a lot of normally temperate people past the edge of exasperation. Pundits have described the crusade as crazy, stupid, arrogant, dishonest, cynical, ridiculous and politically suicidal. And that’s not just liberals talking…..

But I have a notion: The Republicans are finally having their ’60s.

To those of us who lived through the actual ’60s, the conservative sequel may seem more like an adolescent tantrum than a revolution. For obvious starters, their mobilizing cause is not putting an end to an indecent war that cost three million lives, but defunding a law that promises to save lives by expanding access to insurance. Printing up unofficial “Obamacare Cards” and urging people to burn them is a silly parody of the protest that raged 50 years ago. But bear with me.

At the heart of the ’60s radical zeitgeist was a sense that the government had forfeited its legitimacy, and that the liberal establishment had sold out or lost its nerve. At the heart of the right-wing uprising is a similar sense of betrayal: the president is not just an adversary but an alien; the Republican leadership has lost its principles; the old rules don’t apply.

Keller makes great points. In fact I agree despite my view of the 1960’s being far more mixed than his New York Times take. Civil rights: awesome! Get out of Vietnam: awesome. But for me that is mixed in with hedonism run amok, persistent sympathy to the horrors of communism, and blind utopian longings turning murderers like Che Guevara into t-shirt icons. Some great things, but some awful ones.

Where the analogy becomes powerful is the 1960’s radicals never recanted. For example, recall the behavior of Bill Ayers partisans during the 2008 Obama campaign. Fifty years have passed and nobody’s changed their mind. Unfortunately we should expect the same for the Tea Party. The idea that the tea party will implode once the “white trash” that comprises it comes to their senses is a condescending liberal fantasy. Radicals never recant, even if inspired by Jefferson and Madison instead of Marx.

Demographics make this situation worse. The Tea Party is a rural religious movement. I’ve linked to this chart in an earlier post on Republican Demography, but it’s worth linking to again:



The chart shows population density versus 2012 election results. The cut off is around 800 people per square mile. Denser than 800 people/square mile is solid Democratic. Less dense is solid Republican. The country is splitting apart. Cities are getting richer and more liberal. Rural and less densesuburbs are becoming poorer and more right radical. Why this is scary is the trend has no end in sight. We should expect politics to follow demographics.

At least in the 1960’s the radicals sprung from within the upper middle class and lived in the same geography as people they opposed. So while the radicals themselves never recanted, their children and grandchildren could slip back into being middle class. But republicans and democrats are now geographically separated. Wealthy city liberals barely comprehend rural republicans. Republicans utopian commitment to founding father virtues like self reliance or a penny saved is a penny earned is real. But it’s so far beyond the pale of everyday urban liberal experience that it’s sincerity is scarcely believed. Note the mocking Keller line above: “Printing up unofficial ‘Obamacare Cards’ and urging people to burn them is a silly parody of the protest that raged 50 years ago.” This is why the Obama quote “they cling to guns or religion” will never be forgotten. The contempt. It burns.

The last time we had geographic separation of political parties with radical leadership it grew into a civil war. Obviously this will never go that far. But the naive conceit that the current fight will be easily resolved is foolish. Radical utopians never give in, right or left. This conflict and the demographics behind it are just getting started.

Categorized as Politics

By Nathan Taylor

I blog at http://praxtime.com on tech trends and the near future. I'm on twitter as @ntaylor963.

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