By Left's Standards, Abe Lincoln Is a Tea Partier

Writing on December 20, former Clinton Labor Secretary and current Berkeley Professor Robert Reich (who also serves, I am pleased to report, as the board chairman of Common Cause) sought to provide a lucid diagnosis of what he termed the “republican crack-up.” His article’s title caught my eye because our country faces some serious issues. We need serious leadership, which is in short enough supply without the Republicans unraveling.

So I read on, surmising that as a former cabinet member Reich would not sound this alarm without good cause. And sure enough, right in the first paragraph he said it’s “bad for America” that the GOP is threatened. Certainly I agree. After all, the core ideology of the Democrats, once known as liberalism, cracked up decades ago, and we have to get our grown-ups somewhere! (By the way, The Liberal Crack-Up is the title of an excellent book by R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., which was published in 1984 and remains an entertaining reference for a continuing catastrophe.)

Mr. Reich lets us know up front that the crack-up isn’t just about Romney’s conservative credentials or the travails of the Republican congressional leadership. No, it’s more than that — an “underlying conflict” whose “very old” roots reach “deep into the nature and structure of the Republican Party.”

From these old roots, Reich explains, an ominous threat has grown. That, naturally, is … the Tea Party! And this is not your multi-great grandfather’s Boston Tea Party. Rather, Professor Reich lectures, “today’s Tea Party is less an ideological movement than the latest incarnation of an angry white minority — predominantly Southern, and mainly rural — that has repeatedly attacked American democracy to get its way.” For proof of this rather sweeping indictment, Reich proffers only the bald assertion that it is “no mere coincidence that the states responsible for putting the most Tea Party representatives in the House are all former members of the Confederacy.”

Much in the manner of a Janet Napolitano press conference, Reich proceeds to inform us that fencing in the former Confederacy will not suffice to stifle this unsavory movement. Alas, the Tea Party also infects “border states with significant Southern populations and Southern ties.” Its tentacles reach even to places such as California, although apparently only in tainted areas “whose political culture was shaped by Oklahomans and Southerners who migrated there during the Great Depression.”

Perhaps with the “Know Your Enemy” slide on the screen, Reich capsules the characteristics of “Tea Party Land” so that responsible citizens can be on the lookout. Pencils ready, class? The three markers are: “white” (ho hum), “Southern” (and that term becomes synonymous with “Tea Party” as it embraces the many flyover country folks deemed “Southerners” by Mr. Reich’s helpful and more expansive definition), and “rural.”

Now, lest we doubt that Southerners (or Tea Party sympathizers) are a threat to civilization as Mr. Reich envisions it, he zeros in with the big guns: polling data. Be on notice, people. These Tea Party troglodytes are more skeptical than most about global warming, less likely than Mr. Reich’s friends to think the Department of Education is doing a swell job, and more concerned than many about deficit spending in the age of Obama. And, in case you naively conclude that those findings merely describe people with common sense, Reich of course plays the obligatory “race card.” This he does by linking what he terms the “radical right wing” of the Republican Party (note for the vocabulary section on the final exam, this is another synonym for “Southerner” or “Tea Party”) to the “ ‘Willie Horton’ conservatives of the 1980s.”

Swift on the heels of smearing Southerners as racist bumpkins too stupid to appreciate the finer points of federal programs and the threat to life on the planet posed by climate change, Mr. Reich laments that the “gentlemanly conservatism” of his sort of Republican has been superseded by “bomb throwing antics.” Mr. Reich apparently does not consider it germane that the “teabagger” and “racist” epithets relentlessly hurled at “Tea Party” members, Southerners, and pretty much anybody espousing conservative political views these days have all originated on the left — which is, after all, the traditional home of bomb throwers.

Still, professor that he is, Reich purported to connect the dots, pointing out that “America has had a long history of white Southern radicals who will stop at nothing to get their way — seceding from the Union in 1861, refusing to obey Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s, shutting the government in 1995, and risking the full faith and credit of the United States in 2010.”

Of course, everyone knows that the Southerners who seceded in 1861, and who engaged in “massive resistance” to the civil rights laws a century later, were all Democrats (and pretty much all gone to their rewards at this point, by the way). Mr. Reich’s attempt to link those historical (and obviously harmful) actions by Democrats to current Republican arguments against profligate federal spending is utterly without basis in either logic or fact. Not one to let this stand in the way of a talking point, however, Mr. Reich warns that this “stop at nothing radicalism” is “dangerous for America,” because we “need two political parties solidly grounded in the realities of governing.”

Wait a minute, I thought. Was it not “stop at nothing radicalism” when the Obama administration rammed the health care takeover through Congress, all 3000 pages of it crafted in closed-door negotiations rife with payoffs and log rolling? And does it foster cooperation between the two parties when the president ignores his constitutional obligation to seek the advice and consent of the Senate, circumventing Congress to make illegal appointments of left-wing ideologues and political cronies to positions of power? What about the billions in government loans and stimulus payments to campaign donors and unions, a virtual festival of looting of the federal Treasury by the president and his allies? Would it not be more accurate to say that it is the Obama administration, not the Tea Party, that “has repeatedly attacked American democracy to get its way”?

And Willie Horton? What a lame attempt at playing the race card. Please, when our president’s own attorney general uses the words “my people” to refer to African-Americans in a context that makes it clear he is not talking about representing the rest of us? With a Department of Justice that has declined, as a matter of policy, to enforce the law in a race-neutral fashion? With preferences based on race (and, concomitantly, penalties of the same nature) the order of the day in program after Obama program? As some Southerner might have said, Mr. Reich, that dog just won’t hunt.

Then I paused and reflected. I like to think the best of a man when I can. So I prefer to consider all the smug bigotry — which might be the best a Bill Maher or a Janeane Garofalo can manage, but should be well beneath Robert Reich — to be just camouflage for more subtle messages. After all, the liberals have long since cracked up. Perhaps Mr. Reich is encouraging his students to look elsewhere for guiding principles.

Searching for something beyond the notion that Southerners should be interned by Homeland Security, I concluded that Mr. Reich’s reference to border states and the Southern diaspora provides dots worth connecting. This must be Mr. Reich’s way of acknowledging that the Tea Party’s reach is far broader than the confines of the former Confederacy; it explains why Mr. Reich confers “constructive Southerner” status on folks in Oklahoma, and California, and wherever the ideas of the Tea Party are embraced.

This leads us back to the Republicans, about whose crack-up Mr. Reich is so concerned. After the 2010 election, the Republican Party holds the highest percentage of seats in the congressional districts of the former Confederate states than at any time since 1868. Since Reconstruction, to put it another way, when former slaves voted heavily Republican, loyal to the political party that brought them freedom. Hold that thought about freedom.

Let us also recall that Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, was born in Kentucky. As you probably recall from school, Kentucky was a border state. Of course, Lincoln moved out to Illinois, just another “Southerner” (by Mr. Reich’s definition) migrating and perhaps carrying his beliefs with him. Like those Oklahomans Mr. Reich mentioned, who moved to California.

Thinking of the issues that separate Republicans and Democrats today, consider what President Lincoln said on April 18, 1864, in Baltimore, Maryland:

The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do what he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor.

Lincoln went on to suggest that the two definitions really relate to “liberty” and “tyranny.” With Lincoln’s leadership our nation chose the right concept of “liberty,” and we are a better nation and a better people as a result.

Today those words distill the essence of the political viewpoints of the (Tea Party) Republicans on the one hand, and the Democrats of the current administration on the other. Who, today, most favors allowing Americans to do what they please with themselves, and the product of their labors? And who, today, is pushing hard to control what Americans do, right down to their choices of physicians and school lunches, and to take more and more of the product of their labors?

I am glad that Mr. Reich’s article led me to the conclusion that Abraham Lincoln is a Tea Party adherent and a “Southerner.” Perhaps this is an example of unintended consequences. In any event, let us take to heart today, as our countrymen of all colors did then, Lincoln’s 1864 teaching about the difference between liberty and tyranny. If we learn that lesson from Lincoln, then neither the Republican Party nor the country needs to fear a crack-up.