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3 lessons for the tea party

By Michael Kazin, Special to CNN
October 12, 2013 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Michael Kazin: In 1961 Reagan warned of spread of socialism -- he was talking about Medicare
  • Kazin: In opposing Obamacare, tea party echoes movements against Social Security
  • He says they're usually backed by wealthy and predict catastrophe that never comes
  • Kazin: Activists draw power as outsider, but often find citizens like their social programs

Editor's note: Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University and is editor of Dissent. His most recent book is "American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation" (Knopf/Vintage)

(CNN) -- If we allow this awful measure to stand, predicted the conservative spokesman, "behind it will come other federal programs that will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country until one day...we will wake to find that we have socialism [and] we are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it once was like in America when men were free."

This could be a tea party representative warning about the perils of Obamacare and willing to keep the government closed until it is delayed or repealed. But it was Ronald Reagan speaking back in 1961. And the program he viewed as the driving wedge of socialism was Medicare.

Michael Kazin
Michael Kazin

One can draw three important lessons from that statement and from the later presidential career of the man who made it. First, the fear that a federal program designed to help millions of people flagrantly violates the Constitution and speeds the nation toward tyranny has deep roots in modern U.S. history.

In the mid-1930s, the American Liberty League hurled that charge at Franklin D. Roosevelt for creating Social Security as well as for endorsing the right of unions to organize. In 1964, Barry Goldwater made a similar argument against the Civil Rights Act.

"The problem of race relations," the Republican presidential nominee contended, should be left to the people of the South to decide. It "should not be effected by engines of national power." In 1994, Newt Gingrich and his fellow House Republicans described President Bill Clinton's national health care plan, which included an employer mandate, as a radical attempt to coerce American business.

The Liberty League collapsed after FDR won re-election in a landslide in 1936. But the careers of Reagan, Goldwater and Gingrich were propelled by a large movement of white, middle-class Americans who shared the same dread of federal power tea party members now express. Like the Koch brothers today, wealthy individuals on the right were always eager to finance that movement.

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The second lesson is that, over time, the dire predictions of conservatives have not come to pass. Social Security and Medicare did not destroy individual liberty in America; they enabled millions of people to avoid poverty and an early death. Of course, these programs eat up the lion's share of the federal budget. But few citizens -- including the most zealous tea party activists -- would wish to cut the benefits they receive, much less abolish them. And if black people had waited for the majority white Southerners to grant them equal rights, they might be waiting still.

The final lesson is that when conservatives do take power in Washington, they depart quite markedly from the rhetoric of their campaigns. As president, Reagan made no attempt to reduce Social Security payments and expanded Medicare to cover "catastrophic" costs. When he made it to the White House, George W. Bush, who had been the favorite candidate of most conservatives in the 2000 primaries, initiated a major new entitlement program, Medicare Part D.

When they campaign for votes and donations, conservative candidates for national office are fond of such slogans as "the bigger the government, the smaller the citizen." But those who gain victory quickly realize that Americans like and often rely on the government programs, which benefit them and their families, and will punish any politician who tries to take them away. As two astute political scientists put it in the 1960s, most Americans may be "ideological conservatives," but they are also "operational liberals."

Ironically, however, the conservative activists who despise "big government" endure because the politicians they endorse never fulfill their desires. By losing nearly every big battle to curb federal power from the New Deal onward, they maintain the fervor of a movement of outsiders. The struggle to preserve the constitutional order against the onslaughts of its enemies never ends. If a future President Rand Paul or Ted Cruz did make a serious attempt to dismantle the welfare state, their disciples would lose their image as heroic losers.

But this fall, the tea party, the latest version of the grassroots right, has already achieved a victory of sorts. With the acquiescence of Republican leaders, its stalwarts in Congress have done much to bring the nation to the brink of a financial catastrophe. If that debacle were to occur, we could, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, someday be telling our children and grandchildren what it was once like in America when we had a government that could truly function.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Kazin.

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