Kevin Drum offers an interesting short history of right-wing populism and its rise after the election of Democratic presidents since the 1930s over at Mother Jones (via RealClearPolitics.) He writes:
When FDR was in office in the 1930s, conservative zealotry coalesced in the Liberty League. When JFK won the presidency in the ’60s, the John Birch Society flourished. When Bill Clinton ended the Reagan Revolution in the ’90s, talk radio erupted with the conspiracy theories of the Arkansas Project. And today, with Barack Obama in the Oval Office, it’s the tea party’s turn.
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[S[hared tropes [of these movements] include a fear of “losing the country we grew up in,” an obsession with “parasites” who are leeching off of hardworking Americans, and—even though they’ve always received copious assistance from business interests and political operatives—a myth that the movement is composed entirely of fed-up grassroots amateurs. Take, for example, this description of Pam Stout, the star of a seminal tea party profile written earlier this year by David Barstow of the New York Times. After Obama took office, he writes, “Mrs. Stout said she awoke to see Washington as a threat, a place where crisis is manipulated—even manufactured—by both parties to grab power. She was happily retired, and had never been active politically. But last April, she went to her first tea party rally.” Compare that to the description of Estrid Kielsmeier in Suburban Warriors, Lisa McGirr’s history of ’60s-era right-wing activism in Orange County, California.Kielsmeier, a resident of my hometown of Garden Grove (my mother acidly recalls PTA meetings at my elementary school as hotbeds of John Birch Society activism), was a homemaker who ran the local gubernatorial primary campaign headquarters of ultraconservative oilman Joe Shell against Richard Nixon in 1962: “Her baby played in a playpen next to her desk while Kielsmeier participated in what she later called her first real involvement in politics. ‘Up to that time…it was education and just kind of…networking, really.’”
The media trope of the politically-clueless-white-woman-turned-activist is an interesting connection between the 1960s and the Tea Party. Casting a white woman as politically out-of-touch until inspired by the awfulness of everything these days is absolutely necessary. I’m sure you’ve all heard about 2009′s own Estrid Kielsmeier, Tea Party star Kelli Carender, aka “Liberty Belle,” the “Seattle hipster” and adult literacy educator who awoke to the horror that in the United States under President Obama, “other people decide what the needs are in society. They get to decide. But in order to fund those things, they have to take from some people in order to give to the other people.” White American men who are cast as politically clueless for so long wouldn’t be taken seriously–whereas white American women, whose citizenship has always been qualified, are useful symbols for dramatizing the urgency of their movements. (After all: isn’t that the pose that Betty Friedan struck, too? “Oh, I’m just a suburban housewife, no history of leftist journalism or CP membership here! Nothing to see here–now move along,” at least according to Daniel Horowitz’s brilliant and authoritative intellectual biography.)
I’d argue that this trend goes well beyond twentieth-century political movements and back to the founding days of the Republic. White women–at least respectable ones who kept to their separate sphere of domesticity and motherhood–were convenient symbols for the urgency of nineteenth century movements like temperance, abolition, and feminism. “Things are so bad that the wives and mothers are enlisting in the cause!” Mary Ryan has written about this brilliantly in chapter 4 of her recent book, Mysteries of Sex. She shows how white women manipulated separate spheres ideology to serve their political interests through the nineteenth century, and how they thereby made their first claims on American citizenship.
What cause do you think will mobilize Mad Men’s Betty Draper, if any? She seems pretty immune to the Civil Rights movement and to feminism, and I don’t think Bobby will be old enough to get drafted. The whole white cast of Mad Men seems immune to the Civil Rights movement, now that Don’s living in his bachelor pad and has left his old firm, we never see Carla his maid or the elevator operator in his old building, so there are exactly zero permanent African American cast members. (By the way, if you’re watching Mad Men in real time, check out Chauncy DeVega’s review of this week’s episode, “Hands and Knees.” As the kids say on the internets: SPOILER ALERT!)