History is a funny thing. When you have an understanding of it, you can spot it rattling down the street like a steam roller and you can leap out of the way in time. When you're oblivious to history, you never see itcoming until it rolls you over and transforms you into road pizza.
If you are a political actor in the current tragicomedy taking place in the U.S. Congress, and also ignorant of history, you can depend upon the past sneaking up and biting you in your collective dumb asses. So it is with the Tea Party suckers who have been bamboozled by the 1 percent's agenda. Senate Republicans propose bill after bill to cut the top income tax rate and abolish the estate tax, or now that it has been Frank Luntz-ified, the "death tax." Their agenda has nothing to do with helping the middle class; they know there is a grass-roots movement behind them that is antigovernment and hates Obama. As long as the plutocrats make nice, the plebeians will do their dirty work for them. Mainstream Republicans have made an unholy alliance with radicals and racists, and if history is a harbinger of things to come, the Tea Party will either devour the GOP from within or become a fringe third party.
As the Republicans look toward 2016, their best chance to win the presidency is with the conservative governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie. But he's not right-wing enough for the clueless caucus of the GOP, which seems to prefer the plagiarist senator Rand Paul as their candidate. (If I may just make an aside here, I realize that having sport with someone's looks is the lowest form of criticism. Having said that, am I the only one who thinks Rand Paul looks like Lee Harvey Oswald? They have the same pinched, weasel face and an expression of combative, smug assurance.)
Paul is the perfect Tea Party candidate. He's a libertarian one moment and a right-wing flame thrower the next. He has said, "I have a message from the Tea Party, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words. We've come to take our government back." Paul has also expressed reservations about provisions of the Civil Rights Act and had an aide on his staff who was forced to resign when it became known that he was a former shock-jock and neo-Confederate activist known as the "Southern Avenger."
The Tea Party is thought to be made up of ordinary angry citizens, but a current Pew Poll shows the typical member to be older, whiter, and wealthier than your average yahoo. The same poll found that 49 percent of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of the Tea Party. But that ain't gonna stop them, and they will continue to be a tapeworm in the GOP's small intestine. The parallel universe in which the Tea Party exists is the same one that once enraptured the Dixiecrats. They were also a party that favored home rule and opposition to the federal government. But before that, they were part of a post-war Democratic coalition that included the "Solid South."
The South could be depended upon to vote Democratic because of a poisonous political bargain to accommodate racists and white supremacists within the party. When Harry Truman established a Presidential Commission on Civil Rights, there was a rebellion in the party among the far right. At the 1948 Democratic Convention, when the platform committee adopted a Hubert Humphrey plank calling for civil rights, the right flank bolted and formed the States' Rights Democratic Party, better known as the Dixiecrats, and nominated a presidential candidate of their own, J. Strom Thurmond, the miscegenating governor of the great state of South Carolina. Their platform was to protect the Southern way of life, beset by an oppressive federal government, and to uphold Jim Crow laws concerning voter suppression and white supremacy. Even after an ignominious defeat, the segregationists were welcomed back into the party and remained there well into the 1960s.
When the Democratic-sponsored Voting Rights Act of 1964 and Civil Rights Act of 1965 were signed into law, Lyndon Johnson said that the Democrats had probably lost the South for a generation. But LBJ underestimated the right-wing resentment that animates the opposition nearly 50 years later and manifests itself in the Tea Party.
Richard Nixon made all the pigeons flock to him with the cynical "Southern Strategy" of 1968. The GOP started whistling "Dixie," and all the goobers converted to Republicanism. Tricky Dick won 70 percent of the popular vote in the Deep South but lost 90 percent of the black vote. And so it stands today. Democrats didn't win a lot of elections in the South after 1968. Even Jimmy Carter lost the South when running for a second term. The Dems paid dearly for their embrace of right-wing radicals and segregationist Southern politicians, but the obstructionists had to be purged in order to construct a progressive agenda.
The radicals are still on the right-wing, railing over Obamacare now just like they did over civil rights in the past. But just as they once were a problem for the Democrats, they are now the asp in the bosom of the Republican Party. And if they don't get their way come convention time, history says they're gonna bite again.
Randy Haspel writes the "Born-Again Hippies" blog, where a version of this column first appeared.