Why are today’s rebels Republicans?
About this blog: We used to think of rebels as liberals: student activists of the 1960s, hippies, Dylan, Springsteen. These were the outsiders – the rebels and radicals –who identified our nation’s ills and sought to change the system. Often they were middle-class white Americans who saw a romance in rebellion and ultimately changed the culture. Now, those standing against the status quo have a decidedly different outlook: they are conservatives, fundamentalists, Tea Partiers. How did this shift come about? Why are today’s rebels Republicans? Grace Elizabeth Hale explores the nature of the outsider in American culture in her book “A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America,” recently released by Oxford University Press. Here, Hale, an associate professor of history and American studies at the University of Virginia, delves into the impulses that drive both conservative and liberal rebels.
Not so long ago, rebels and radicals were reliably liberal. They were left activists and politicians like Tom Hayden, Ralph Nader and Bernie Sanders; popular icons of resistance like Bob Dylan or Pete Seeger or Bruce Springsteen; or maverick fictional characters like Holden Caulfield or Sal Paradise.
But today, arch conservative Sarah Palin proudly plays the rogue, Tea Party members declare themselves rebels, and bloggers like “Main Street Radical” and “Left Coast Rebel” write for the right. When did the rebel become a Republican?
In fact, politically conservative rebels are nothing new. Many revolutionary era patriots and Civil War rebels fought for conservative visions of property rights. In the last 50 years, rebels on the left championed social justice and freedom of expression, garnering media attention and positive reviews in the New York Times. Meanwhile, right-wing rebels from William F. Buckley to the Jesus People have been laying the ground for today’s Tea Party members.
No single figure did more to create the role of rebel on the right than Buckley, whose journal National Review and television program Firing Line popularized rebellious conservatism. Rich, Catholic, and white, Buckley’s political conservatism made him an outsider in the rich, white, Christian world of the Ivy League.
His first book, “God and Man at Yale,” attacked his alma mater as a hotbed of socialism and atheism—a vision that resonated with college students who had come of age reading Ayn Rand’s libertarian novels “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged.” Overshadowed by rebels on the left in later years, these conservative activists continued to spread Buckley’s vision of a radical revolution against the liberal center.
In the late 1960s and the 1970s, the counterculture fused with conservative Christianity to generate a new version of the conservative-as-rebel. While many hippies explored eastern religious practices like yoga, meditation and American Indian rituals such as sweat lodges and vision quests, others challenged the mainline Protestantism and Reform Judaism that dominated American religious life.
Members of the Jesus People movement sought self-fulfillment in ostensibly earlier and “purer” forms of Christianity. “Jesus Freaks” learned to “dig” Christ at Christian rock festivals, where they were baptized in their bikinis or surfing trunks at beachside ceremonies. Christian rebels kept their casual clothes, rock music, and easy emotional intimacy even as they adopted a very conservative, Jesus-centered theology. The churches they established eventually became some of the first mega-churches that today dominate suburban American religious life.
In the last quarter of the 20th century, many conservative Christians rebelled against what they understood as liberal politics—policies that banned prayer in schools, established equal rights for women and gays, and legalized abortion.
The most important anti-abortion activist of the period, Randall Terry, who wanted to be a rock star, left home in search of the counterculture and discovered Christian fundamentalism instead. In the late 1980s, his organization Operation Rescue drew thousands of believers into nonviolent mass protests against abortion in what conservatives called the new civil rights movement.
These members of the New Right, like some members of the New Left before them, understood their opposition to the American political practices of their time in deeply moral and spiritual terms.
Contrary to popular opinion, the rebel has always been politically promiscuous. The rebel is not a set of political or intellectual or spiritual beliefs. It is a character or role characterized by opposition to whatever appears to be central in a particular time and place. Seemingly outside the history they actually live within, rebels claim a powerful innocence.
Across the last half century, this sense of alienation has proven remarkably productive in both politics and popular culture. Sarah Palin and her Tea Party supporters are simply the latest in a long line of Americans who draw power from their sense that they are outsiders.
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