Liberty of the Powerless

Scarcely two years have passed since excited crowds of Tea Party activists thundered fervent evocations of individual liberty and yet today there is only a faint echo of their temper tantrum. Although they could be faulted for puerile conceptions of the American Revolution, for treating the U.S. Constitution as holy text rather than as a deal struck about the rules of the game for competing for power in a liberal democracy, and for barely concealed racist hysteria about President Barack Obama, we can still grant that some Tea Party activists were sincere in declaring their love of freedom. That is what makes their nearly complete silence in the face of current threats to individual liberty from state governments across the country worth noting.

Today Republican controlled state governments from Virginia to Arizona are on the offensive against unionized workers, Black voters, animal rights and anti-capitalist activists, undocumented workers and students, unemployed and welfare recipients, and women seeking birth control and abortion services. Among the recent punitive measures are universal drug testing for public employees in Florida and unemployment insurance recipients in Arizona, the criminalization of investigations of animal cruelty on farms in Iowa and the publication of a hit-list of abortion providers in Tennessee. America has not witnessed such an embrace of coercion at the state level against this many groups since the passage of anti-syndicalist laws of the 1920s. With the exception of an ineffectual and irrelevant squeak from the Georgia Tea Party about an anti-picketing law, nothing has been heard in opposition from the thousands of self-proclaimed patriots who had postured as defenders of freedom.

That many of the Tea Party activists have been engrossed in the spectacle of the Republican Party primary campaigns explains some of the silence. That the targets for the coercive power of government simply do not resemble the white, middle income, middle aged male demographic of the Tea Party explains more. However something decidedly uglier is also at work. Mass movements on the Right are often less about bread and butter public policy issues than about social status anxiety. We know that Ku Klux Klan membership in America exploded in the 1920s because of white anxiety about erosion in the racial hierarchy in the South and Midwest, that European fascism was born in Italy in the same decade in response to class anxiety of the middle class desperate not to fall into the working class, and that the Islamists who seized power in Iran in 1979 were often traditional religious, merchant and landowning elites envious of the modern business and professional elites who prospered under the Shah of Iran. Whatever the specific ideological claims deployed, perceived loss of social status is a powerful impetus for political mobilization.

So if America has not heard from the Tea Party activists of late it may be because Republican governors and state legislatures have been busy reinforcing their privileged status. The new regulations for documents proving identity, drug tests or mandatory “volunteer” work in return for employment or benefits, restrictions on freedom of the press and assembly, and threatening or humiliating abortion laws impose no constraints on their freedoms but more importantly symbolize their privileged status as members of the population less subject to the coercive authority of the state. The raft of new laws limiting the liberty of the powerless or disempowered is the payoff from Republican state lawmakers for histrionic posturing that briefly captured the attention of journalists. That it stands in contradiction to Tea Party rhetoric about liberty is evidence for the proposition that that social status anxiety trumps abstract ideals.

If there is an upside to all this it is that Republicans have handed ownership of individual liberty as rhetoric and issues back to the ideological Left. As has been true so often in the history of the United States, the cause of freedom once again belongs to those capable of looking not only after their own interests but beyond to the interests of others who are also oppressed.

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John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.