As Occupy Wall Street has grown, there have been a growing number of comparisons between it and the Tea Party. Francis Fox Piven, offered one of the briefest, no-nonsense accounts, contrasting them as inclusionary vs exclusionary, forward-looking vs backward-looking, and “mainly young, racially diverse, happily counter-cultural” vs “almost all white… better-off and older”. She also wrote that “The Tea Party, under one name or another, has actually been part of American politics for a long time. It is a movement that yearns for the restoration of an imaginary past….”
It also instinctively identifies itself as made up of “real Americans” - which in turn helps to account for dramatic differences between how conservative elites praised the Tea Party effusively, only to heap scorn on Occupy Wall Street. This conservative double standard toward people’s democracy was anything but surprising. If there is one thing conservatives believe in, it’s double standards. The defence of social hierarchies is their core value, which virtually demands very different treatment for those who support vs. those who challenge the powers that be. Decades of research in political psychology - particularly right wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation - support this conclusion, and a new book by Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, offers a detailed critique of how this orientation has expressed itself through the complexities of actual history.
Particularly significant is Robin’s analysis of right wing populism, a more sophisticated view than Piven’s, which he summarised succinctly in his response to a deeply wrong-headed review in the New York Times. Right wing populism “assumes one of three forms,” Robin wrote, “none of which involves false consciousness or conspiratorial trickery.” These are:
- Democratic feudalism: Giving real, not imaginary, power to members of the lower orders to wield over people beneath them. This can happen in factories (supervisors), families (husbands/fathers), and fields (overseers, slave catchers, etc). It can also happen in certain forms of nationalism and imperialism.
- Upside-down populism: Get the lower orders to identify with the higher orders, not through deception but through an emphasis on the one experience they share: loss.
- Outsider politics: Because the conservative defence of privilege occurs in the wake of a democratic challenge, it must develop a new ruling class and “a new old regime”, in which the truly excellent - not the lazy inheritors of privilege but the very best men - rule. These men often hail from outside the traditional precincts of power, proving their mettle in one of three places: at the barricades of the counter-revolution, on the battlefield, and in the marketplace.
Of course, these different forms can also intermingle, or co-exist side-by-side. Herman Cain, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO and Republican presidential hopeful, for example, fits neatly into the “outsider politics” category, but he’s quite comfortable using the rhetoric of democratic feudalism or upside-down populism as well.
What is more, underlying all three forms that Robin describes are another bundle of defence mechanisms that help ordinary people identify with those above them, thus defusing the experience of being taken advantage by them. The three most significant are:
- Identification or introjection, the obverse of projection. It involves identifying with someone else, rather than denying anything in common, taking on their personality characteristics as one’s own. In Anna Freud’s original analysis, it was specifically “identification with the aggressor”. Closely related is:
- Idealisation, the unconscious perception of another as having more positive qualities than they actually possess. Idealisation and identification can work together, creating ideal images of higher class people to model oneself on, rather than resent, regardless of how they actually treat one.
- Fantasy completes the triad; this defence mechanism helps compensate for the fact that such ideal images do not correspond with reality.
The workings of these defence mechanisms can perhaps most easily be seen in works of art or literature romanticising the past - the less realistically, the better. Examples such as Gone with the Wind or Birth of a Nation come to mind. But it’s also reflected in Tea Party fantasies identifying themselves with Revolutionary War figures with whom they may actually have very little in common - Deists like Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine, for example, or high-tax colonies like Massachusetts, where representation rather than taxation, per se, was the over-riding issue. Such fantasy-based narratives work to heighten the identification with traditional, conservative elite figures - real or imagined - and lessen the identification with real-world others situated similarly to themselves.
Stepping back from this description, we can clearly see that Occupy Wall Street involves shedding or stripping away defence mechanisms that serve to hide uncomfortable truths, while the Tea Party, as a form of right-wing populism, activates a greater number of defence mechanisms, making those truths increasingly obscure, and difficult to comprehend.
In short, the outward similarities of these two groups mask a difference as profound as any that can be found in American history. Will we go back to an imaginary past in which we are hopelessly confused and mislead by a welter of different defence mechanisms hiding painful truths from ourselves? Or will we go forward into a future we knowingly shape together for the mutual benefit of all? Those are the two visions before us, which the weeks and months ahead should make increasingly clear to one and all.