Here in Mississippi, voters usually have a choice between a conservative candidate and an even more conservative candidate. They usually get into mudslinging matches about who’s the “real conservative”. Even the democratic candidates. This last run-off election got pretty damned nasty, even for this neck of the woods. According to some people, it’s a sign of things to come.
In Mississippi on Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran defeated state Sen. Chris McDaniel in a runoff election to determine who would be the state Republican Party’s nominee for Senate in the extremely conservative state. Despite the fact that the two men were more or less indistinguishable on issue positions, the race was remarkably contentious and largely defined by dueling allegations of impropriety and fraud. Indeed, while non-conservatives may consider the differences between the so-called establishment and Tea Party wings of the GOP to be slight, the primary battle that reached its culmination last night is clear evidence that Republicans themselves strongly disagree.
On that front, if nowhere else, Mississippi GOPers have themselves an unlikely companion: University of Washington associate professor Christopher Parker, who is the author of 2013′s “Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America” and is a firm believer that the divisions within the GOP are significant and likely to endure. Hoping to gain a keener insight into the Tea Party mind, Salon recently called Parker to discuss his research, his recent Brookings Institution paper on the Tea Party and why he doesn’t think the kind of bickering and dysfunction we saw in Mississippi as of late is likely to go away any time soon. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.
You make a distinction between Tea Party conservatives and establishment conservatives, even though they often support essentially the same policies. How come?
There are a couple of really key differences, one of which has to do with change. An establishment conservative doesn’t necessarily embrace change of any kind; in fact, there’s a reason they cling to conservatism, because they prefer stability. So they don’t necessarily embrace change, but what they do do is they know that [change is] necessary in order to maintain a stable society over the long haul … What they want is, if a change is going take place, they prefer to have organic, controlled change versus revolutionary change. In other words, evolutionary versus revolutionary change. You can see that in the works of Edmund Burke, who railed against the French Revolution because it was such a drastic change and [because] he would have preferred more evolutionary change, not something so drastic that it completely overturned the foundations of society. The difference between these establishment conservatives is that they see change as a necessary “evil,” if you will, in order to maintain a stable society over the long run.
Now, a reactionary conservative, they don’t want change at all. In fact, they want to look backwards in time to a time during which their social group — their power and cultural hegemony was unquestioned. Beyond that, they will do anything they can to protest social change of any kind, up to and including breaking the law … That’s what the Klan did; that’s what the Tea Party has done on a couple of occasions with their violence. It’s not as much violence as you saw with the Klan in the 1920s, but you do see some of the ways in which they break law and order. If you’re a real conservative, you’re supposed to be all about law and order. But these reactionary conservatives — they’re not completely about law and order if it means capitulation and the loss of their social prestige.