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Ronald Reagan v. the Tea Party Movement

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks a Reagan and the Tea Party Movement. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.

In 1966, Ronald Reagan won his first political campaign in a landslide victory against the two-term Democratic Governor of California, Edmund Brown. What is sometimes forgotten is that the preceding Republican primary had been a highly contested one. According to Reagan, it was “very bitter at times, largely because of the lingering split between conservatives and moderates in the state party.” The intra-party attacks became so heated that state Republican chairman, Gaylord Parkinson, proposed the Eleventh Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican,” a rule that Ronald Reagan obeyed ever since because the intra-party strife he experienced in his first political contest left him with a bitter taste in his mouth. Henceforth, his political career was dedicated to building coalitions and fitting as many people as he could squeeze under the Republican tent.

Forty years later, on the day on which Reagan would have celebrated his 99th birthday, Sarah Palin called on his memory when she delivered the keynote address at the first National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, TN, rehearsing a litany of bumper sticker lines that the Old Gipper would have approved. But Sarah Palin is no Ronald Reagan.

While like Palin, Reagan exuded charm and a common touch; unlike Sarah Palin and the general tenor of the Tea Party movement, he was not categorically, viscerally, or paradoxically anti-establishment. While Sarah Palin has admitted to being a pittbull with lipstick, Ronald Reagan was no pittbull. He was as as mellow and as measured as politicians came. He didn’t feel dispossessed or victimized. And if he felt it, he never showed the one sentiment – even if it had been legitimate – that permeates the Tea Party Movement: anger. Red, hot, seething, Glenn Beck Fury.

Most illustratively, Sarah Palin and the Tea Partiers do not believe
in the 11th Commandment. Next week, Palin is off to campaign for Texas Governor Rick Perry against his primary challenger, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson. Palin has already campaigned against Dede Scoozzafava running for election in NY 23, where she had supported Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman because he had “not been anointed by any political machine.” At Nashville, she reiterated her support for intra-party competition: “Despite what the pundits want you to think, contested primaries aren’t civil war. They’re democracy at work, and that’s beautiful.”

Democracy at work – grassroots movements without the backbone of a machine – has too often, in a dominant two-party system such as the US is, meant politicians out of a job. To survive after the surge of populist disaffection at a recession has subsided and to be more than a spoiler in elections, the Tea Party Movement must, paradoxically, go mainstream. And it should take it from a icon they have wrongly called their own. Ronald Reagan pulled the various factions of the Right together under a large, fusionist electoral tent that delivered him to victory. Sarah Palin and the Tea Partiers are trying to do the reverse and (perhaps inadvertently) break this tent up in a battle for ideological purity. If Reagan helped to turn a movement into a winning electoral coalition for three decades, the Tea Partiers are exerting a centrifugal force on the Right that may well counter-balance the considerable anti-Democratic bias going into the 2010 elections.

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