MSNBC’s Chris Matthews aired his documentary Rise of the New Right on Wednesday night in which he investigated the apparently new and widespread resentment of government. Matthews promised in advance that the special would “scare the heck” out of liberals and “amaze” Americans in the political center.
From the very start, Matthews appears to work under the sweeping assumption that all anti-government groups and sentiments active and alive in the United States today are part of one and the same movement: what he calls the “new right.” From libertarians to Tea Party activists to militia extremists and self-proclaimed “patriotic” fanatics; according to Matthews’ special, all of them belong to the same phenomenon.
The aforementioned movements do have one thing in common and Matthews is correct to point this out — their anger. They are angry about the federal government overstepping its constitutional boundaries and condemning future generations to massive debt. They are angry about local and state governments intervening in their businesses and personal lives. As one surprisingly sane Michigan volunteer militia member interviewed in the documentary put it, “Leave me alone. Let me do my thing. I don’t need the government’s help. I don’t need the government’s supervision.”
As this administration seems to interpret its role and purpose more broadly than any of its predecessors, more and more Americans are learning about the restraints which their constitution imposes on government. They understand that government ought not to micromanage their lives; that government should not attempt to “spread the wealth around”; that government is not charged with ensuring that everyone is happy and prosperous.
Different people take different action in response to that. Millions of Americans sympathize with the Tea Party rallies and at least tens of thousands participate in them. Politicos and opinion makers on the right are leading the charge for constitutional conservatism while libertarians suddenly find themselves with large audiences. Commentators who explicitly describe themselves as such, including John Stossel and Judge Andrew Napolitano, now host shows on the Fox Business Network while even Glenn Beck’s otherwise bombastic fury has a newfound libertarian streak to it. And then there are the lunatics who issue death threats and refuse to believe that the president is a natural born citizen.
Matthews suggests that these fringe groups, who practice violence instead of peaceful demonstration, are encouraged by the rise of the Tea Party movement and the calls to “revolution” by the likes of Sarah Palin. He quotes an April 2009 Department of Homeland Security memo which warns that homegrown terrorism could be fueled by the recession and the election of the first African American president. Because they as well as the tea partygoers focus their anger on President Obama, they must be of the same mindset, no?
No. Pathetic though the depictions of the president as either a communist or a Nazi may be, they are, unfortunately, nothing new in America. President George W. Bush was similarly portrayed at rallies and demonstrations while domestic terrorism which targeted the federal government was particularly active during the 1990s under the Clinton Administration as well. Racism and outright bigotry do indeed play a significant part in these extremist movements but it is disingenuous of Matthews to pretend that they share these sentiments with the Tea Parties and with the broad opposition to “big government” expressed by many in both the political center and on the right. He notes that “there’s an element of class and racial resentment that is loud, visible, unmistakable” running through the whole of this spectrum and brazenly perpetuates a narrative that has been proven wrong time and again in recent months. While the majority of tea partygoers and protesters rallying in the streets against the government takeover of health care and their obliteration of individual rights may be typified as “angry while males,” there is nothing inherently racist about their calls for freedom.
Matthews doesn’t do journalism a poor service altogether and quickly nuances this perspective by pointing out that the Tea Parties lack leadership and cohesiveness. Sarah Palin may have emerged as something of a de facto spokeswomen for the movement; it is not a political party and at least for now, most voters frustrated with government spending and regulation spinning out of control are betting on the Republicans to change their ways and nominate more fiscally conservative candidates for office. The election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts in December 2009 and the more recent nomination of Rand Paul for Kentucky’s open Senate seat show that the Republican Party can still be a platform to them.
Indeed, according to Matthews, it has always been. No matter the newness of today’s political right, which he himself professes, Matthews traces its anti-government rhetoric back to 1950s McCarthyism and the rise of Barry Goldwater in the 1960s. With Republican stalwarts as Ronald Reagan and Pat Buchanan reiterating the message of small government and austerity during the 1980s and early 90s, what’s really new today?
What’s new is that today’s constitutional conservatism is facilitated by a rapid sharing of information over the Internet and by cable news and that it is fueled by evermore aggressive rhetoric as espoused by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Matthews depicts them as conspiracy theorists, sparking fears of tyranny, and claims that the specter of New World Order is resonating powerfully with the Tea Party movement — without volunteering any evidence to back up this startling assertion.
Matthews concludes his documentary by noting that the greatest objection to the more vocal of anti-government protesters is the language they deploy. “Words have consequences,” he says. “You cannot call a president’s policies un-American as Sarah palin has done, or refer to the elected government as a regime as Rush Limbaugh persits in doing, or the president as a foreign usurper as the birthers do, without giving licence on some day to real trouble.” He blames them beforehand for any violence that the Tea Party movement may stir, which is ridiculous, without bothering to demonstrate that such rhetoric is indeed reflective of the whole of the “new right.”
Ending on this notion, the documentary fails to understand what the growing resentment against the Democrats and the Obama Administration is truly about. Instead it resorts to stereotyping rightwingers as misinformed rednecks who are inspired by fears of suppression and the overblown rhetoric of a few angry white men on television and radio.
Matthews doesn’t recognize the independent spirit that is still strong with many Americans today who simply have no appetite for a government regulating their work, their work hours, their pay, their education, their children’s schools, their health care, their insurance, while billions of dollars are spent on bailing out failing banks and automakers and many billions more on trying to “stimulate” the economy into recovery. They don’t need a government denying them responsibility for their own lives and livelihoods. They want the government to get out of the way.