Glenn Beck is the new Abbie Hoffman
The out-of-power right has built a counterculture, just as the left
did in the '60s
By Michael Lind
Feb 23, 2010
Street theater. Communes. Manifestoes. Denunciations of "the system."
The counterculture is back. Only this time it's on the right.
Political factions that are out of power have a choice. They can form
a counter-establishment or a counterculture. A counter-establishment
(a term that Sidney Blumenthal used to describe the neoconservatives
in the 1970s) seeks to return to power by reassuring voters that it
is sober and responsible. A counter-establishment publishes policy
papers and holds conferences and its members endure their exile in
think tanks and universities.
In contrast, a counterculture refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy
of the rules of the game that it has lost. Instead of moving toward
the center, the counterculture heads for the fringes. Like a cult, it
creates its own parallel reality, seceding from a corrupt and wicked
society into morally and politically pure enclaves.
In response to the long era of Republican presidential hegemony that
began with Nixon, many on the American left adopted the
countercultural strategy. Some withdrew to raise rabbits and
home-school their children in rural America. Other radicals on the
left made pilgrimages in search of utopia to this or that illiberal
communist dictatorship -- Mao's China, Cuba, Nicaragua.
Many devoured books by Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn, who
taught them that Washington and Lincoln and FDR were all capitalist
warmongers and that America was the greatest menace to world peace.
They cheered on Jesse Jackson as he denounced an insufficiently
multicultural curriculum at Stanford, with too many overrated dead
white European males like Aristotle and Dante and Shakespeare on the
reading list, by chanting, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to
go!" Coming at a time when the right was becoming increasingly
scholarly and policy-oriented, these antics by the countercultural
left backfired by identifying liberalism with the lunatic fringe in
the minds of many middle-of-the-road Americans. (It was its
association with the countercultural left in the 1960s and '70s that
made the word "liberal" so toxic that it has been dropped by the
center-left for "progressive"; New Deal liberal programs like Social
Security and Medicare remain popular with Republican and Democratic
As the hegemony of conservative politics deepened in the 1980s and
'90s, others to the left of center rejected the counterculture and
sought to assemble a progressive counter-establishment. This was the
project of the Democratic Leadership Council and its leaders like
Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Joe Lieberman. In retrospect they made too
many philosophical and programmatic concessions to the reigning right
of their time. But many groups to their left, like some
environmentalist groups and critics of Pentagon spending, followed
them in abandoning the moralistic tone of the counterculture and
argued on the basis of facts and trade-offs.
Meanwhile, as counterculture was succeeded by counter-establishment
to the left of center, the post-'80s right moved toward the fringes.
Like T.H. White's Merlin, the American right is aging backward. What
was a mature adult has regressed to a spoiled child throwing a temper
tantrum. When he founded National Review in 1955, William F. Buckley
Jr. said that conservatives wanted to stand athwart history and cry,
"Stop!" The post-Buckley right has managed not only to stop history
-- the history of conservatism -- but to run the reel backward.
When Buckley came on the scene in the mid-1950s, the American right
was dominated by kooks: right-wing isolationists, Pearl Harbor and
Yalta conspiracy theorists, anti-Semites and members of the John
Birch Society like the palindromically named professor Revilo P.
Oliver. Buckley and his movement conservatives, and later the early
neoconservatives, struggled to purge the right of crackpots and
create an intellectually serious movement capable of governing the country.
And yet the right of 2010 looks like the fever-swamp right of 1950
instead of the triumphant right of 1980. The John Birch Society,
which Buckley and Goldwater expelled from the conservative movement
in the early 1960s, was a co-sponsor of this year's Conservative
Political Action Convention (CPAC). Folks who claimed that Eisenhower
was a communist now insist that Obama is a socialist. (The
conservative historian Russell Kirk had the wittiest put-down of the
Birchers: "Eisenhower isn't a communist; he's a golfer.")
The tea partiers are the hippies of our time. True, they tend to be
relatively affluent -- but so were the hippies. As Tony Hendra once
told me, "You had to have a lot of money to take part in the Summer of Love."
Consider the following countercultural features of the emerging American right:
Anti-System Radicalism: Just as the New Left claimed that the New
Deal era wasn't really liberal, so the countercultural right claims
that the Republican Party from Nixon to George W. Bush wasn't really
conservative. '60s radicals like Carl Oglesby denounced John F.
Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson as sinister "corporate liberals" in the
same way that the radicals of the right claim that the two Bushes, if
not the sainted Reagan, were inauthentic "big government
conservatives." The radical left had Ralph Nader. The radical right
has Ron Paul.
Luddism: A few decades ago it was the countercultural left that
opposed science, technology and markets. Now mainstream
environmentalists have arguably gone too far in adopting the market
rhetoric of cap-and-trade. Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole
Earth Catalog, today seeks to save the environment by means of
nuclear power plants, genetically modified crops and urban living.
Nowadays anti-science, anti-technology Luddites are more likely to be
found on the right, among opponents of stem-cell research and
evolutionary biology. And while the exaggerations and coverups of
some scientific proponents of global warming undermine the claim that
science on this subject is settled, it is clear that many
conservatives reflexively believe the opposite of what progressives
say on this and other subjects. If Al Gore changed his mind and
announced that global cooling was imminent, one suspects many on the
countercultural right would immediately warn of rising global
temperatures and flooded coastlines. A counterculture inverts not
only the widely shared values but also the agreed-upon facts of the
dominant culture they despise.
Street Theater: The eclipse of the countercultural left by the
countercultural right is evident in political protest as well.
Carnivalesque protest is practically monopolized by the tea-party
right in the age of Obama. In the U.S., at least, the street theater
of antiwar and anti-World Bank activists cannot compete with the mass
demonstrations of the tea partiers. The giant puppets of the left are
out. Posters of Obama with a Hitler mustache are in.
Dropping Out: In a letter to other conservative activists in 1999,
the late Paul Weyrich, the president of the Free Congress Foundation,
called on the right to adopt an explicitly countercultural strategy.
"I no longer believe that there is a moral majority," Weyrich wrote.
"I do not believe that a majority of Americans actually shares our values."
Echoing the back-to-the-land hippies of the '60s and '70s left,
Weyrich called on conservatives to secede from American society and
form their own subcultural communities. "And while I'm not suggesting
that we all become Amish or move to Idaho, I do think that we have to
look at what we can do to separate ourselves from this hostile
culture." Weyrich concluded by holding up the countercultural left as
a model for the new countercultural right: "The radicals of the 1960s
had three slogans: turn on, tune in, drop out. I suggest that we
adopt a modified version."
During the freak show at CPAC, the crumbling old conservative
establishment sought to prove that it's still relevant by calling for
"constitutional conservatism" in its "Mount Vernon Statement." Signed
by dignitaries of the old regime like Reagan's Attorney General Edwin
Meese, the Mount Vernon Statement is less interesting for its content
-- an attempt to reunite the libertarian, religious and foreign
policy hawk wings of moribund "fusionist" or "movement" conservatism
-- than for its dignified style and invocation of philosophical first
The attempt of the Mount Vernon constitutional conservatives to
re-create conservatism as a counter-establishment is almost certainly
doomed. Meese and the other signers of the Mount Vernon Statement are
to the tea party right what Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and other lions
of New Deal liberalism were to Abbie Hoffman's Yippies. Indeed, in
Glenn Beck, the countercultural right has found its own Abbie
Hoffman. In both cases it is hard to distinguish sincere zealotry
from self-promoting show business.
The rise of the conservative counterculture may provide the
beleaguered Democrats with a stay of execution. A serious Republican
counter-establishment, putting forth credible plans for addressing
the nation's problems and determined to collaborate with the other
party to govern the country in this crisis, would be a greater threat
to the new, shaky Democratic establishment than the theatrics of the
right's Summer of Love.
Or should it be called the Winter of Hate?
Most 'tea party' followers are baby boomers reliving the '60s
A poll debunks assumptions about the movement, showing that it's
largely middle-class, college-educated, white and male.
By Jim Spencer and Curtis Ellis
February 24, 2010
Oceans of ink, terabytes of blog space and an eternity of television
time have been devoted to the latest object of media fascination, the
"tea party" movement. Now (finally!), a poll conducted by CNN gives
us some hard data on the Tea Party Nation.
Neither "average Americans," as they like to portray themselves, nor
trailer-park "Deliverance" throwbacks, as their lefty detractors
would have us believe, tea partyers are more highly educated and
wealthier than the rest of America. Nearly 75% are college educated,
and two-thirds earn more than $50,000.
More likely to be white and male than the general population, tea
partyers also skew toward middle age or older. That's the tell. Most
came of age in the 1960s, an era distinguished by widespread
disrespect for government. In their wonder years, they learned that
politics was about protesting the Establishment and shouting down the
Man. No wonder they're doing that now.
Look closely at the tea partyer and what you see is a famil- iar
American genus: a solidly middle-class, college-educated boomer,
endowed by his creator with possessions, opinions and certain
inalienable rights, the most important of which is the right to make
sure you hear what he has to say.
The tea party is a harbinger of midlife crisis, not political crisis.
For men of a certain age, it offers a counterculture experience
familiar from adolescence -- underground radio, esoteric tracts,
consciousness-raising teach-ins and rallies replete with extroverted
behavior to shock the squares -- all paid for with ample cash.
The partyers are essentially replaying the '60s protest paradigm.
(We're aging boomers ourselves, so we know it when we see it.) They
fancy themselves the vanguard of a revolution, when in fact they are
typical self-absorbed, privileged children used to having their way
-- now -- and uninhibited about complaining loudly when they don't.
It's the same demographic Spiro Agnew called "an effete corps of
impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals."
In a flashback of "turn on, tune in, drop out," the partyers reject
mainstream culture, don the equivalent of Che T-shirts that say
"Don't Tread on Me," and join sects with trippy names like Oath
Keepers, Patriotic Resistance and Freedom Force. Instead of getting
themselves "back to the garden," they get off the grid and, like the
Bill Ayers crew, indulge in fantasies about armed rebellion against
But the (often-overlooked) truth about the '60s is that the great
accomplishments we associate with the era -- civil rights, putting a
man on the moon -- were made not by boomers but by the generation
born before World War II, which accepted shared sacrifice and saw it
as an expression of their belief in duty, honor and country, not as socialism.
At Woodstock, Haight-Ashbury and the marches on Washington, the
boomers socialized rather than sacrificed. They made great theater,
and the media couldn't resist them. It still can't.
The tea partyers' pictures and sound bites are so good, no one cares
that their math doesn't add up: Cut taxes and the deficit but keep
your hands off my Medicare; do something about jobs but don't
increase spending. Everyone understands it's about something deeper.
Ah, tea partyer, we know ye well. One of your signs says "Listen to
ME!" That's all that's ever really mattered -- the original "me
generation" grabbing the spotlight and the world's attention by
whatever means necessary. The rest, whether beads, bell bottoms or
birther slogans, is just a means to the same end.