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A Response to David Welch in The New York Times.

It is IREHR’s policy to use this website for new data-driven research and analysis, not as a place to regurgitate newspaper headlines or use it as a debate-centered discussion forum.  Nevertheless, an opinion piece in the December 4, 2012 New York Times by David Welch, which called for William Buckley-like figures to marginalize the Tea Party movement and push it outside the bounds of conservative respectability, bears a thoughtful response. Indeed, Welch offers a well-considered, if ultimately wrong, strategy for reducing the Tea Parties to “pariah” status.

Welch, a former research director for the Republican National Committee, begins by comparing the contemporary Tea Party movement to the John Birch Society of an earlier time.  Although he doesn’t say it, the time period is roughly congruent to that of the black freedom movement in the 1960s.  His is an appropriate comparison; particularly given the fact the Birch Society has experienced a relative comeback while riding on the coattails of the Tea Parties.  And regular readers of IREHR might remember that FreedomWorks Tea Party staffers have been promoting Birch Society events since February 2011.

Welch asserts that it was William Buckley who rendered the Birchers impotent.  Buckley supposedly did this through the pages of National Review, which set the boundaries for responsible “conservative pragmatism.” In this regard, Welch cites a 1962 essay by Buckley as the defining moment. 

While paleo-conservatives often complain that Buckley’s National Review set and enforced the limits of conservative thought, by ruling their more radical often race-based ideas outside the bounds, Welch is wrong about Buckley on two counts. 

First, Buckley’s record on these issues is more spotty than clear. It is well-documented that Buckley began his career at National Review in support of racial segregation and white supremacy and as an opponent of civil rights legislation. He later recanted those positions.  And his magazine did then periodically criticize more radical versions of conservative thought.  More recently, after the Birch threat had subsided, National Review failed miserably at keeping Pat Buchanan’s culture warriors outside its gate.  After publishing a long Buckley essay concluding that Pat Buchanan “could not be defended from the charge of anti-Semitism,” National Review endorsed him in the 1992 New Hampshire Republican primary. 

Also note that two years after Buckley’s supposed defining essay, in 1964, the Birch Society was well alive and at its peak; exerting a significant influence on the Goldwater campaign.  Remember the Arizona Senator’s “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” speech.

It was the tenacity, courage and success of the black freedom movement—not William Buckley or National Review—that pushed aside the Birchers, the Kluxers, Citizens Council racists and the Wallace-ite segregationists.  By eliding the connection of the fate of the Birchers to the rest of the racist far right, Welch errs in both his assessment of the past and his prescription for the future.

During the mid-1960s, the same time period as the Goldwater and Birch ascendancy, opinion data shows a significant stratum of white Americans changed their minds on the issues of civil rights. The excesses of the Klan and the Bull Connors of the world, and the bravery and moral courage of the civil rights movement did that, not William Buckley.  And it was that change more than anything else that within a few years sent the Birchers and the white supremacists into abeyance.

The strategy of the 1960s freedom movement, in the main, was to defeat the racists by out organizing and out lasting them.  There were exceptions, of course, as Lance Hill has pointed out in his book on the Deacons for Defense.  But the tide of history, unleashed by a war against racism and fascism in the 1940s, was with the black freedom movement at that time.  They bore a moral witness against white supremacy and thus were able to defeat the Birchers along with the Klan and other segregationists.

What about the contemporary period, however? Can “establishment” Republicans like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie or “pragmatic conservatives” defeat the Tea Party movement, as David Welch asserts?

It is IREHR’s stated non-partisan position that people of all political stripes and parties should stand up and publicly denounce the racism, bigotry and pure nonsense of the Tea Party movement.  That would be liberals and conservatives, Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Green Partiers, atheists, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and practitioners of Native American Indian traditional religions—all should bear moral witness and defend the common good.  Doing the right thing is always better. So we applaud David Welch’s call for Gov. Christie and Gov. Bush to denounce the Tea Parties.

It is not enough, however.  Consider suburban Johnson County, Kansas in this regard.  Moderate Republicans and Democrats have tried to stem the radical conservative Republicans through a strategy of supporting moderate Republicans in the primaries.  This strategy has been in effect since the late 1990s, and it is an abject failure.  Please note that three out of four Kansas congressional seats will be held by Tea Party endorsed candidates in 2013.  Kris Kobach is Secretary of State while he runs around the country writing other states’ anti-immigrant laws. In this period, supporting so-called “establishment” Republicans as a strategy for defeating the Tea Party movement simply will not work.  Ask the former senator from Indiana.

Neither is a strategy of simply bearing a moral witness or “out-organizing” enough to defeat the Tea Parties, Birchers and related, movements.  (Remember: not all Tea Partiers are Republicans and vice versa not all Republicans are Tea Partiers.)  Certainly upholding a moral standard for the common good is necessary, but it is not sufficient.  The same goes for the “out-organizing” them strategy, which is currently in vogue among progressives.  It is important and necessary work, but not adequate for the current tasks.

This is a different time than the 1960s, and the same approaches that worked to turn down the racists and bigots then, are not enough for today.  Again, IREHR applauds David Welch for offering his views.  Soon after January 1, we will more fully offer our ideas about how to defeat the Tea Party nonsense and the racist and bigots.

Leonard Zeskind

Author Leonard Zeskind

is founder of IREHR. For almost four decades, he has been a leading authority on white nationalist political and social movements. He is the author of Blood and Politics: The History of White Nationalism from the Margins to the Mainstream, published by Farrar Straus & Giroux in May 2009. [more..]

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