E.J. Dionne Jr.: How Obama Changed the Right





[E.J. Dionne Jr. writes a column for the Washington Post.]

Barack Obama's campaign promise of change did not include a pledge to transform American conservatism. But one of his presidency's major legacies may be a revolution on the American right in which older, more secular forms of politics displace religious activism.

The reaction to Obama has also radicalized parts of the conservative movement, giving life to conspiracy theories long buried and strains of thinking similar to those espoused by the John Birch Society and other right-wing groups in the 1950s and '60s....

The rise of the Tea Party movement is a throwback to an old form of libertarianism that sees most of the domestic policies that government has undertaken since the New Deal as unconstitutional. It typically perceives the most dangerous threats to freedom as the design of well-educated elitists out of touch with "American values."...

One of the important groups on the right in the mid-20th century took the name Americans for Constitutional Action. The group, as Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab reported in their sociological classic, "The Politics of Unreason," favored "progressive repeal of the socialistic laws now on our books."

Attacks on a highly educated class that are a staple of conservative criticisms of Obama and his circle also have a long right-wing pedigree. "I can find you a lot more Harvard accents in Communist circles in America today than you can find me overalls," Robert Welch, founder of the Birch Society, declared in 1966.

What's remarkable is the extent to which the Tea Party movement has displaced the religious right as the dominant voice of conservative militancy. The religious conservatives have not disappeared, and Sarah Palin, a Tea Party hero, does share their views on abortion and gay marriage. But these issues have been overshadowed by the broader anti-government themes pushed by the New Old Right, and the "compassionate conservatism" that inspires parts of the Christian political movement has no place in the right's current order of battle....

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