28 September 2010

W. Cleon Skousen, Glenn Beck and the Tea Party

Why does the Tea Party sound like a reincarnation of the John Birch Society?

Because, intellectually, it is.

Law professor Jared Goldstein substantiates these connections and explains the view of the constitution that Skousen espoused, one that borrows heavily from Mormon ideology, not very heavily from the constitution itself or mainstream history, and not at all from the two century gloss placed on the document by courts and political actors interpreting it.

W. Cleon Skousen who rose to prominence in the 1950s and wrote the his books that are most read today in the 1980s, was a friend of the reactionary group, an ardent defender of their founder, and frequently lecturer to them. "Barry Goldwater and like-minded conservatives such as William F. Buckley broke with the Birchers, concluding that they were not fit members of the conservative movement," but Skousen saw them (and figures like President Eisenhower) as corrupted liberals.

According to a book he wrote in 1970:

[T]he international communist movement . . . was actually the product of an even larger conspiracy directed by the “dynastic families of the super-rich.” These families created and manipulated both Communism and fascism to carry out their plan to create a globalized New World Order. The conspirators included a cabal of international bankers, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Rothchilds, Rockefellers, Kennedys, J.P Morgan, Henry Kissinger, John Dewey, and Albert Einstein, among countless others. . . [He] continues to be cited as a leading authority by New World Order, Illuminati, and anti-semitic conspiracy theorists.

His views of slavery were well outside the mainstream of history research:

THE MAKING OF AMERICA [1985] asserts that slaves were “usually a cheerful lot, though the presence of a number of the more vicious type sometimes made it necessary for them all to go in chains.” In Skousen’s history of slavery, brutality toward slaves was almost unheard of, and white schoolchildren envied “the freedom” of the slaves: “If pickaninnies ran naked it was generally from choice, and when the white boys had to put on shoes and go away to school they were likely to envy the freedom of their colored playmates.” Although the slaves were well treated, ate well, and lived happily, southerners lived in constant fear of slave rebellions instigated by abolitionists, making life for whites in the south “a nightmare.” In fact, “the slave owners were the worst victims of the system.”

He also claims in his writings that:

[T]he Anglo-Saxons are the descendants of the biblical Israelites and are therefore God’s chosen people. . . . [a view that] in turn, provided the foundation for the white separatist Christian Identity movement espoused by Randy Weaver, who died in 1992 in a shootout with federal agents, who he believed were agents of a Zionist Occupational Government.

Skousen's writings, particularly THE FIVE THOUSAND YEAR LEAP and THE MAKING OF AMERICA, garnered renewed interest after they were promoted by conservative talk radio host Glenn Beck. With Glenn Beck's help, these books have become best sellers and a leading intellectual source for the Tea Party movement's view of the constitution.

Skousen's revisionist history of the United States and view of the constitution as primarily a device by which the Founders established God's law as the constitution of the United States through the concept of "natural law" turns the Enlightenment document into something quite the opposite.

These notions focus on the need to restore the Founders’ true vision of the Constitution, including the centrality of natural law, understood to mean God’s laws; the necessity for limited government that may not undertake welfare programs, redistribution of wealth, or interference in any way with private property; and the embrace of manifest destiny at home and isolationism in foreign policy.

Skousen basically disavows the expansion of the scope of the federal government that took place around the time of the Civil War, again during the New Deal, and yet again during the Civil Rights era, and seeks to create an institution more religious than it or the Founders ever were, and to give lassiez-faire conservative economic policies that the Founders didn't share, the force of constitutional law.

Skousen lays out all of the supposedly unconstitutional things Congress has done:

Skousen asserts, the socialists were acting as agents of certain wealthy bankers and other members of the “dynastic rich,” who sought to gain control of the government and grant themselves monopolies. The capitalist-communist conspirators largely succeeded in duping the American people to abandon many of the ancient principles upon which the nation was founded. As a result, America lost its national identity, producing a “[g]eneration of lost Americans,” and a nation of “un- Americans.”

The United States soon began to adopt one policy after another that conflicted with its foundational principles, and today, almost everything the federal government does is unconstitutional. The primary transgression was the establishment of federal welfare programs like Social Security and Medicare, which violate the fundamental prohibition against redistribution of wealth. The entirety of the monetary system likewise operates contrary to the Founders’ formula because it is based on paper money not backed by gold. The entire administrative state is also unconstitutional because Congress cannot create agencies with regulatory powers, and the President cannot issue executive orders or promulgate regulations. In addition, it was unconstitutional for Congress to establish national parks, national monuments, national forests, and wilderness areas, to enact federal environmental and labor laws, and to provide foreign aid.

Ironically, the Tea Party is a strong supporter of eliminating the estate tax, the policy more important than any other to strengthening the position of the dynastic rich whom Skousen believed had conspired to pervert our constitution and system of government.

Skousen's paranoia is something the Tea Party shares:

To Tea Party supporters, advocates of foreign, anti-American ideas have taken over the federal government, threatening to displace true American values, and the fate of the nation hangs in the balance. Again and again, Tea Party supporters argue that the Obama Administration is “attacking” America, that he is “anti American,” and that he is seeking to undermine basic American values. The vehemence which Tea Party members characterize the Obama Administration’s agenda as “un-American,” “socialist,” or “communist”—or, perhaps even worse, “European”—easily matches Skousen’s own fears of a communist takeover during the Cold War. . . .

Skousen and the Tea Party movement, like religious fundamentalists, see the world in Manichean terms, a world in which believers in the constitutional faith stand on one side and all others are demonized as enemies who seek to undermine American values. Skousen wrote in the 1950s and 1960s that international Communism sought to undermine American values by promoting civil rights for African Americans, by promoting acceptance of homosexuals, and by persuading Congress to adopt welfare programs. Proponents of such measures were not merely wrong on government policies; to Skousen, they were America’s enemies. Tea Party supporters likewise believe that people who disagree with them on health care reform, tax policies, and immigration are not merely political adversaries with whom they disagree on the issues. Tea Party supporters view proponents of health care reform and other such measures to be deeply un-American. Tea Party members believe that, at best, their opponents are ignorant of the fundamental principles upon which the country was founded or, at worst, they seek to undermine these principles.

Indeed, the vehemence with which Tea Party activists demonize their enemies is one of the movement’s most remarkable traits. They characterize their opponents as socialists and communists; compare President Obama to Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam Hussein; and have a large percentage of members who believe that President Obama is a foreigner or a Muslim or at least someone who adheres to foreign views. The Tea Party movement believes that Obama is radically anti-American. The demonization of enemies follows from the fundamentalist nature of the Tea Party movement. Those who act contrary to what Tea Party supporters believe to be the fundamental American are perceived to be undermining or attacking those values; they are not merely Americans who hold differing positions; they are anti-American, and they must be defeated in order to save America.

The article is worth a read. While the view's espoused describe a "fantasy constitution" rather than the real thing, it doesn't hurt to trace the roots of a constitutional ideology that has gained a strong hold in the far right part of the conservative movement and is starting to be accepted, at least publicly, by powerful people with a shot at high political office.

Skousen’s influence has spread beyond Tea Party activists, and several prominent Republican leaders—Texas Governor Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, and Senator Orrin Hatch, among others—have openly endorsed Skousen’s views.

Quite impressive really, for a paranoid racist conspiracy theorist with sense of history profoundly contrary to reality. One fears that Skousen's works might end up become the Mein Kampf of our generation of reactionaries, so they are probably worth being aware of, even if they are nuts.

It is hard to know what to think of the Tea Party's decidedly disreputable and dishonest intellectual foundation. Does it unduly dignify their off the wall ideas to take them seriously? Will they give rise to a terrifying anti-intellectual regime of delusion and hate, or will they fizzle out as normal people recognize just how out of touch their worldview is with reality?

Crazy without power is mildly amusing but a little bit sad. Crazy with power is terrifying. How do you reason with people who think the Enlightenment was basically a bad idea? How do you find common ground with people who want to turn back the clock of progress by two hundred years to a past that never existed?

Goldstein doesn't explore in this brief working paper, the roots of Skousen's ideology, which I suspect has far older roots, probably tracing back to at least the Second Great Awakening that gave rise to the religious fundamentalist ideas that parallel this political vision. But, that isn't inappropriate. Goldstein makes a convincing case that Skousen is the vehicle by which this ideological has been transmitted to the current generation of Tea Party activists and American conservatives, so going back further doesn't do much to inform understanding of the ideologies present in the nation today.

In the same way, one doesn't need to know much about the Mesopotamian roots of the myths in Genesis to understand their impact on Jews and Christians. These myths came into the Judeo-Christian world view the account in the Torah and its predecessors were mostly unknown to them.

Goldstein makes the case that Skousen is the Prophet, who as revealed by his disciple Glenn Beck, gave rise to the legal ideology of the contemporary Tea Party. I've pondered before how we got here, with Tea Party supporters like U.S. Senate candidate Ken Buck and Colorado Gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes representing the Republican Party in this election.

Are so many of my fellow citizens really on board with this kind of thinking? Why? It is surreal. I've speculated at length on what is driving this movement before at this blog, and it has profoundly shaken my faith that the participants in the political system are capable of making good decisions. It is still hard to figure out where they are coming from, and how much of this those in power in the movement really believe.

Perhaps most importantly, how does on defuse all of their anger, fear and hate?

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