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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Roger Ailes’ Secret Nixon-Era Blueprint for Fox News


Roger Ailes' Secret Nixon-Era Blueprint for Fox News

Roger Ailes’ Secret Nixon-Era Blueprint for Fox News

Republican media strategist Roger Ailes launched Fox News Channel in 1996, ostensibly as a "fair and balanced" counterpoint to what he regarded as the liberal establishment media. But according to a remarkable document buried deep within the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, the intellectual forerunner for Fox News was a nakedly partisan 1970 plot by Ailes and other Nixon aides to circumvent the "prejudices of network news" and deliver "pro-administration" stories to heartland television viewers.

The memo—called, simply enough, "A Plan For Putting the GOP on TV News"— is included in a 318-page cache of documents dhttp://gawker.com/5814150/etailing Ailes' work for both the Nixon and George H.W. Bush administrations that we obtained from the Nixon and Bush presidential libraries. Through his firms REA Productions and Ailes Communications, Inc., Ailes served as paid consultant to both presidents in the 1970s and 1990s, offering detailed and shrewd advice ranging from what ties to wear to how to keep the pressure up on Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the first Gulf War.
Roger Ailes' Secret Nixon-Era Blueprint for Fox NewsThe documents—drawn mostly from the papers of Nixon chief of staff and felon H.R. Haldeman and Bush chief of staff John Sununu—reveal Ailes to be a tireless television producer and joyful propagandist. He was a forceful advocate for the power of television to shape the political narrative, and he reveled in the minutiae constructing political spectacles—stage-managing, for instance, the lighting of the White House Christmas tree with painstaking care. He frequently floated ideas for creating staged events and strategies for manipulating the mainstream media into favorable coverage, and used his contacts at the networks to sniff out the emergence of threatening narratives and offer advice on how to snuff them out—warning Bush, for example, to lay off the golf as war in the Middle East approached because journalists were starting to talk. There are also occasional references to dirty political tricks, as well as some positions that seem at odds with the Tea Party politics of present-day Fox News: Ailes supported government regulation of political campaign ads on television, including strict limits on spending. He also advised Nixon to address high school students, a move that caused his network to shriek about "indoctrination" when Obama did it more than 30 years later.

All 318 pages are available here. First, some highlights:

The Idea Behind Fox News Channel Originated in the Nixon White House

"A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News" (read it here) is an unsigned, undated memo calling for a partisan, pro-GOP news operation to be potentially paid for and run out of the White House. Aimed at sidelining the "censorship" of the liberal mainstream media and delivering prepackaged pro-Nixon news to local television stations, it reads today like a detailed precis for a Fox News prototype. From context provided by other memos, it's apparent that the plan was hatched during the summer of 1970. And though it's not clear who wrote it, the copy provided by the Nixon Library literally has Ailes' handwriting all over it—it appears he was routed the memo by Haldeman and wrote back his enthusiastic endorsement, refinements, and a request to run the project in the margins.

The 15-page plan begins with an acknowledgment that television had emerged as the most powerful news source in large part because "people are lazy" and want their thinking done for them:http://gawker.com/5814150/
Today television news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather any other form of communication. The reason: People are lazy. With television you just sit—watch—listen. The thinking is done for you.
With that in mind, the anonymous GOP official urged the creation of a network "to provide pro-Administration, videotape, hard news actualities to the major cities of the United States." Aware that the national television networks were the enemy, the writer proposed going around them by sending packaged, edited news stories and interviews with politicians directly to local television stations.
This is a plan that places news of importance to localities (Senators and representatives are newsmakers of importance to their localities) on local television news programs while it is still news. It avoids the censorship, the priorities, and the prejudices of network news selectors and disseminators.
This was before satellite, so the idea was that this GOP news outlet would record an interview with a Republican lawmaker in the morning, rush the tape to National Airport via truck, where it is edited into a package en route, and flown to the lawmaker's district in time to make the local news. Local stations, the writer surmised, would be happy to take the free programming. The plan is spectacularly detailed—it was no idle pipe dream. The writer estimated that it would cost $310,000 to launch and slightly less than that to run each year, sketched out a 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. schedule with shooting times, editing times, flight times, and arrival times, and estimated that the editing truck—"Ford, GMC, or IHS chassis; V8 engine; 5 speed transmission; air conditioning; Weight: 22,000GVW"—could be "build from chassis in 60 days." In other words, they were serious.

According to Ailes' copious margin notes, he thought it was an "excellent idea" that didn't go far enough and might encounter some "flap about news management."
Basically a very good idea. It should be expanded to include other members of the administration such as cabinet involved in activity with regional or local interest. Also could involve GOP governors when in DC. Who would purchase equipment and run operation—White House? RNC? Congressional caucus? Will get some flap about news management.
And Ailes thought he'd be just the guy to run such a project, telling Haldeman he wanted in:
Bob—if you decide to go ahead we would as a production company like to bid on packaging the entire project. I know what has to be done and we could test the feasibility for 90 days without making a commitment beyond that point.
A November 1970 memo recounting a meeting between Ailes, Haldeman, and two of Haldeman's aides shows that Ailes got the gig, and that Haldeman had proposed a name:
With regard to the news programming effort as proposed last summer, Ailes feels this is a good idea and that we should be going ahead with it. Haldeman suggested the name 'Capitol News Service' and Ailes will probably be doing more work in this area.
The idea as initially envisioned doesn't appear to have gotten off the ground. But Ailes obviously did do "more work in this area," first with something called Television News Incorporated (TVN), a right-wing news service Ailes worked on in the early 1970s after he got fired by the White House. According to Rolling Stone, TVN was financed by conservative beermonger Joseph Coors, and its mandate sounds exactly like a privately funded version of Capitol News Service: "[TVN] was designed to inject a far-right slant into local news broadcasts by providing news clips that stations could use without credit—and at a fraction of the true costs of production." Ailes was "the godfather behind the scenes" of TVN, Rolling Stone reported, and it was where he first encountered the motto that would make his career: "Fair and balanced."
Roger Ailes' Secret Nixon-Era Blueprint for Fox News
Ailes at Fox News in 2006 (Getty)
Though it died in 1975, TVN was obviously an early trial run for the powerhouse Fox News would become. The ideas were the same—to route Republican-friendly stories around the gatekeepers at the network news divisions. In Nixon's day, the only way to do that was to pump stories directly to local stations. By 1996, cable television offered a much more powerful alternative. And the whole project began—on the taxpayer's dime—in the White House under the direction of a Watergate felon. One can only imagine how Fox News would report a similar scheme hatched in the Obama White House.

Dirty Tricks

Some of the documents hint obliquely at Ailes' involvement in Nixonian black ops, though none of the ones that ballooned into Watergate. In a 1970 memo to Haldeman (read it here), he wrote "to guard our flank I would like to see us get one of our people inside the Wallace organization immediately," adding that he would "discuss this in more detail in person." The "Wallace organization" was almost certainly a reference to former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, whose 1968 third-party campaign for president as a segregationist won five southern states and almost cost Nixon the election. At the time Ailes was writing, Wallace was preparing a 1972 run; Ailes apparently sought to infiltrate the campaign in order to gather intelligence or perhaps to sabotage it if it became necessary. Wallace ran for the Democratic nomination, but an attempted assassination in May 1972 left him paralyzed and thwarted any later independent run.

Another apparent dirty trick that never got off the ground involves a 1970 television production Ailes was working on as a response to an anti-war CBS News special. The idea appears to have been to interview pro-war Democrats—including Sens. John Stennis and John McClellan—ostensibly for a news show of some kind (it's not clear from the memo what format the final product would take). But the program was in fact being directed by Ailes and financed by the Tell it to Hanoi Committee, a pro-war Nixon front group. A June 1970 memo (read it here) from someone apparently hired by Ailes to put the show together explained that he was pulling the plug because "the fact that this presentation is White House directed, unbeknownst to the Democrats on the show, presents the possibility of a leak that could severely embarrass the White House and damage significantly its already precarious relationship with the Congress. Should two powerful factors like Stennis and McClellan discover they are dupes for the administration the scandal could damage the White House for a long time to come."

Regulating Campaigns

Given the enthusiasm in right-wing circles—including on Fox News—for the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which dealt an enormous blow to the federal government's prerogative to regulate the role of money in political campaigns, Ailes used to hold some rather contrary views on political campaigns. In a June 1971 speech called "CANDIDATE + MONEY + MEDIA = VOTES" (read it here), Ailes argued forcefully for the role of television in political campaigns while lamenting the rise of the canned political ad:
I am in favor of limiting the number of commercials shown shown on TV during a campaign, and in fact would favor a clause requiring no less than 35% of broadcast monies available to a candidate be spent on buying program time instead of commercial time.
That's a radically intrusive proposal, and I'm not aware of anyone serious on either side of the political spectrum who advocates it today. Ailes even goes so far as to endorse the British model of banning political ads except during the three weeks preceding an election:
Three weeks is much too short for this country but, on the other hand, the fatiguing situation we have now with seven semi-announced candidates a year and a half away from the election running around the country Monday morning quarterbacking is also going too far. In my opinion, if the news media would quit trying to create false excitement by covering all potential presidential candidates in terms of a popularity poll, which is meaningless at this stage, they would be taking a giant step forward in journalistic responsibility.
We're about a year-and-a-half away from the 2012 presidential election right now. We've got a bunch of "semi-announced" candidates in the running. I wonder if Fox News is trying to generate any excitement around them by covering them in terms of a popularity poll?

Lighting the Christmas Tree

Roger Ailes' Secret Nixon-Era Blueprint for Fox NewsAiles' December 1970 memo (read it here) outlining Nixon's role in lighting the White House Christmas tree is a masterwork in political pageantry. Rather than simply throwing a switch, Ailes recommended that "at the end, instead of bringing a child up to the president to light the tree, he walk down to the children seated in front, pick up a small boy, stand him on his chair and ask him to light the tree" because "this simple gesture will do much to humanize him with all the parents."
Ailes' memo scripts the entire event—Nixon is to pick the boy in the "sixth seat of the front row on the right side" and "the president should face camera (2) and keep his arm around the boy"—and recommends that applause be banned since most of the audience will be wearing mittens or gloves and it will therefore "sound like a herd of elephants." Hilariously, the memo includes this bit of megalomaniacal wisdom from Nixon press secretary Ron Zeigler:
Ziegler indicated to me that it is important the president ask the child to help him light the tree and both throw the switch together. Otherwise, the press will play up the boy's name as lighting the Christmas tree.
Don't let the six-year-old steal the spotlight!

Eliminating Poverty and Pollution by 1980

In a 1969 memo (read it here), Ailes argued that the major issue facing the American people was "quality of life," and urged Nixon to devote the rest of his administration to easing it. His solution? Declare the end of poverty and pollution:
He should make a major address on this and state publicly that poverty, air and water pollution will be eliminated in America totally by 1980. This is similar to Kennedy's challenge for the moon. It isn't met in this administration but when it's reached he gets the credit.
When poverty is finally defeated decades or centuries from now, Americans will no doubt look back on the Nixon White House with pride and admiration.
Ailes can be forgiven for inaccurately predicting the end of pollution—his job was just to come up with useful things for Nixon to say. What's less forgivable is his galactically wrong assessment of Nixon's prospects in his 1972 re-election effort. For someone whose job it was to understand public sentiment, Ailes' advice was exactly wrong: "Unless a single major event captures the headlines close to that election we will not see a landslide of any kind.... It will probably be a very close contest." In 1972, Nixon won 60% of the popular vote and carried every state save Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.

Nixon's Address to High School Students

When Barack Obama announced early in his administration that he would conduct a live nationwide address to high school and students, Fox News hyperventilated and described it as an attempt to "indoctrinate children to support him politically." When Richard Nixon decided to address high school and college students in 1970, as this memo to Haldeman from deputy assistant to the president Dwight L. Chapin makes clear (read it here), Roger Ailes produced the event:
Roger Ailes is developing a plan which he is going to phone in to me tomorrow morning.... Ailes likes the idea of having the president originate live from one of the schools and then shift to the other schools to answer questions.

"I will look into the president's ties."

Among Ailes' chief duties, according to this 1970 memo he wrote to Haldeman (read it here), was selecting Nixon's ties:
I will view the videotape of the HEW Veto to see if there were any shimmers from the design on the tie. My preliminary investigation, however, shows that there were none and whoever reported it may have a set that is not scanning properly. I will look into the president's ties and select those that can definitely be used.

Firing Roger

Ailes stopped his consulting for the White House some time in 1971—he was essentially fired by Nixon after he was quoted disparaging the president in Joe McGinniss' The Selling of the President 1968. But he was a feared figure, known back then for the cut-throat brand of corporate politics that has served him so well at News Corp. While he was being eased out and replaced with two new Hollywood men, Bill Carruthers and Mark Goode, Chapin warned Haldeman in a memo (read it here) that Ailes could go rogue if he wasn't handled properly:
I have a gut feeling we are bordering on disaster if we do not get Roger Ailes in and squared away soon. If we can handle Roger in a proper way and quickly, I think we can avoid any bad feelings. If Roger finds out that Carruthers and Mark Goode are coming on his own, he just may launch a small offensive which I doubt that we need very much at this time.
An undated memo (read it here) laying out talking points for Haldeman in a meeting with Ailes shows the White House trying to let him down gently:
We have not been able to build the relationship between you and the president which we had hoped to see. It is no one's fault. We face this sort of thing everyday. There are different directions that we can go which I think you can explore and which will continue to reap you rewards. The president wants to try a new direction and feels we should not only have a new approach, but new people.
The consolation prizes offered by Haldeman included a consulting gig with the Republican National Committee; a talk show featuring Martha Mitchell, the wife of Attorney General John Mitchell; or the "development of a TV series with a pro-administration plot."

A Megatonnage Dose of Media Hammering

Roger Ailes' Secret Nixon-Era Blueprint for Fox News
Ailes with George H.W. Bush in 1998. (White House Press Office)
Most of the records in the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library detailing Ailes' work for the first Bush administration have not been released yet. But the documents that the library did provide in response to our request show Ailes helping Bush navigate a perilous political environment that should be familiar to Obama: A lingering recession, a crisis in the Middle East, and a persistent sense fed by a hostile news outlets that the president is out of touch.

So in August of 1990, days after Saddam Hussein's Iraq invaded Kuwait, Ailes wrote a memo (read it here) to Bush's chief of staff John Sununu warning that the press was preparing to paint Bush as disengaged and shrewdly laying out a plan to combat the perception:
I have had at least half a dozen calls very recently from the press trying to lead me into discussions like, 'fiddling while Rome burns,' 'golfing while Americans are being taken hostage,' etc. The only reason this is of concern to me is that I notice the networks beginning to show more and more footage of the president in the golf cart. It is very clear that they have a point of view which does not represent a fair picture of how the president is handling the crisis... It is my judgment that the American people simply don't believe this about George Bush, and therefore there will not be a major repercussion. On the other hand, I know first hand what a megatonnage dose of media hammering the same message can do.... Do a little more fishing and less golfing.
Roger Ailes' Secret Nixon-Era Blueprint for Fox News
Ailes at the launch of Fox News in 1996 alongside his boss, News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch (AP)
Ailes, of course, knows from using golf to paint a president as remote and out of touch. Here are some recent Fox News headlines: "Obama Finds Time for NCAA Bracket, Golf Amid Global Turmoil," "Obama Chooses Golf Over Funeral," and "Barack Obama Plays Golf More Times than George W. Bush."
In a November 1990 memo to Sununu (read it here), Ailes lays out Bush's wardrobe in detail—"it is my judgment that he should not wear helmets or hats"—and recommends using military resources to concoct a fake briefing between Bush and his commanders in order to "heighten the drama for the news media."
For ceremonial functions, the president should dress in suit and tie and be the president of the United States. In the field he should where khaki slacks, open shirts, long sleeves with the sleeves rolled up. It is my judgment that he should not wear helmets or hats. A fatigue jacket would be fine in the field with soldiers on Thanksgiving Day.
I am sure he will schedule a briefing session with a commander in the field. If the session is scheduled for one hour, and lasted for five hours, it will heighten the drama for the news media and intensify the pressure on Hussein.

Roger Ailes' Secret Nixon-Era Blueprint for Fox NewsAll in all, the documents show Ailes to be an engaged, brilliant, and often catty adviser with an obsessive, almost evangelical focus on the power of television to manipulate people for political purposes. It's almost as though, frustrated by the failure of candidates and presidents to hew closely enough to his political instructions, Ailes founded a network to demonstrate their practical application—see, this is how you use golf to undermine a president. And they show a sustained effort across two White House administrations to undermine and control the press—an effort that, were it revealed to be taking place inside the Obama White House, would send Ailes and his televised outrage machine into epic fits of apoplexy.
Ailes did not respond to a request for comment.


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Contact John Cook: 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Republican Sociopaths Remain Determined To Destroy America's Social Safety Net; They Must Be Shut Down

Republican Sociopaths Remain Determined To Destroy America's Social Safety Net; They Must Be Shut Down



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OpEdNews Op Eds

in distress by sandiegofreepress.com

Here we go again. Paul Ryan and his fellow Republican sociopaths have resurrected their budget that is designed to destroy America's most important social programs while further protecting the interests of the wealthy. As the Republicans continue their attempts to initiate this destructive process, they are presenting Mr. Obama with a brilliant political opportunity.

Some would say the president should simply dismiss and ignore this demented method of controlling governmental spending but that would be a mistake. Ryan's budget is getting a lot of attention in the corporate-controlled media and that must be stopped. Mr. Obama must attack it vociferously and use its content to convince the American people of the extensive pain and suffering that the Republicans intend to inflict upon them.

It's time for this president to stop playing games with the Republican misfits and expose them as the menace that they have become to this nation. Mr. Obama needs to stop playing defense, take the offensive, and flood the national media with this message to Mr. Ryan and his GOP cohorts: "We are not going to allow you to destroy the Affordable Health Care Act that will benefit up to 30 million Americans who would otherwise not be covered by health care insurance."

"We are not going to allow you to destroy Medicare by replacing it with a voucher system that would, in effect, severely water down or eliminate health care for millions of Americans and make it unavailable for millions more who badly need it; no, Mr. Ryan, we will not let you do this by any stretch of the imagination." And lastly he should, once and for all, make it crystal clear to Ryan and his fellow sociopaths that "We will not allow you to touch any part of Social Security; it has no connection with the deficit and it is a non-negotiable issue.

He needs to stop playing their game and make them play his because, whether he realizes it or not, he has the upper hand. He needs to send a strong message to Republicans, telling them that the majority of the American people totally reject their reckless destructive budget; that it is already dead on arrival. This president needs to put a national spotlight on that extremely cruel budget proposal and use Ryan's exact wording to ignite the anger and revulsion of the very people that would greatly suffer if its provisions ever were put into effect.
This is a party that has no intention of ever changing; one that can't relate to the people of America. They have every intention of continuing to support the masters of American Corporatism to dominate and control the citizens of this country. The people now have become fully aware of their intentions and are waiting for someone, i.e., this president, to step forward and deliver the knockout blow that will send them into political purgatory.

These swaggering, arrogant political bullies need to be put in their place once and for all but many of Mr. Obama's current and former supporters now have little to no confidence that he will do any such thing; that he will let this brilliant opportunity to take down the Republicans pass by. And, further, that he just doesn't seem to have the political courage and determination to "strike while the iron is hot."

This president has proven to be very much on the offensive when it comes to exercising his military powers around the world. He has also taken the offensive when it comes to signing onto legislation that puts more and more restrictions on the Constitutional rights and freedoms of the people. But when it comes to dealing with a political party that is in a state of inner turmoil and dissension he just doesn't seem to possess the same aggressive mindset that is so sorely needed.

How many more times must the American people listen and be subjected to this verbal garbage flowing out of the mouth of these Republicans who just won't accept the fact that they have become political pariahs? Their message is old, outdated, obsolete and completely meaningless. They don't seem to understand that they are cutting their own throats when they threaten to take away important social programs from the very people whose vote they need to continue to exist?

So let's watch closely and see what President Obama does in the next few weeks with regard to this latest piece of political trash, aka the Paul Ryan Budget proposal. He can seize this brilliant opportunity and use that same budget to make Ryan and his party look like the fools that they are or he can continue to let them remain on the political center stage and try to fool the people.
When I speak of a brilliant opportunity I mean that Mr. Obama has the means by which he could virtually cripple the Republican Party and, possibly, make it extinct going into the future. The majority of the American people are listening and waiting for this kind of strong talk from this president and if he does exactly that, it could spell doom for Republican candidates running in the 2014 elections. He has a chance to reconfigure this Congress and put an end to the current gridlock and obstructive tactics that have plagued it. But, then why is it that I have this feeling that he is not up to the task?

It is becoming more and more evident that what we the people are watching taking place on this political stage in Washington D.C. is a production that is being orchestrated by both of these parties in order to pursue some kind of common agenda, one whose specific motives are not fully clear at this time. What may be going on could be what is referred to as tacit collusion; an agreement of a covert nature that hides what really is going on. Some call this the Grand Bargain. But we can bet that whatever may be on the drawing board will most likely involve very negative consequences for everyone in this country except the wealthy.

And this is why an increasing number of President Obama's supporters are becoming more and more suspicious of his true intentions. They have watched as his Justice Department has refused to prosecute anyone in the Bush administration for war crimes, specifically torture and water boarding. They have waited for investigations into the financial crimes that have been committed by the Wall Street robber barons but to no avail. They have seen Harry Reid and this president fail to mutually initiate steps to change the Senate filibuster rules that would prevent the continued obstruction of key legislation by the Republicans.

We the people need to watch this president very closely in the coming weeks to see just how he deals with the monumentally important issue of austerity and see if he finally shows some strength and courage and do what is right for this country and the many millions of Americans who put their faith in him when they reelected him. If he fails to live up to expectations and let's the Republicans dominate this issue at the expense of the American people then his influence on domestic matters will, at this early point in his second term, be meaningless and his presidency will become irrelevant.

If the bruised and battered Republicans who were ready to go down for the count manage to get back up, if there are no necessary increased revenues from additional taxes on the rich, if Mr. Obama caves in again and allows Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other social programs to be put back on the chopping block, then the worst fears of many millions of Americans will become a reality and they will know that they have been betrayed.

Michael Payne is an independent progressive activist. His writings deal with social, economic, political and foreign policy issues. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois and a U.S. Army veteran. His primary objective is to (more...)

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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Constitutional Fundamentalism: America's Holy Writ and Why that's Wrong

In Newsweek Magazine

America’s Holy Writ

Tea Party evangelists claim the Constitution as their sacred text. Why that’s wrong. 

Tea Partiers hold up the Constitution on Tax Day in Washington. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Since winning the Republican senate primary in Delaware last month, Christine O’Donnell has not had trouble getting noticed. When the Tea Party icon admitted to “dabbl[ing] into witchcraft” as a youngster, the press went wild. When she revealed that she was “not a witch” after all, the response was rabid. O’Donnell has fudged her academic credentials, defaulted on her mortgage, sued a former employer, and campaigned against masturbation, and her efforts have been rewarded with round-the-clock coverage. Yet few observers seem to have given her views on the United States Constitution the same level of consideration. Which is too bad, because O’Donnell’s Tea Party take on our founding text is as unusual as her stance on autoeroticism. Except that it could actually have consequences.

Inside the Tea Party (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Last month, the candidate spoke to 2,000 right-wing activists at the annual Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. She wore a black suit and pearls, and swept on stage to the sound of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Most of the speech was unremarkable: a laundry list of conservative platitudes. But near the end she veered into stranger—and more revealing—territory. O’Donnell once told voters that her “No. 1” qualification for the Senate is an eight-day course she took at a conservative think tank in 2002. Now she was revisiting its subject: the Constitution.

The Founders’ masterpiece, O’Donnell said, isn’t just a legal document; it’s a “covenant” based on “divine principles.” For decades, she continued, the agents of “anti-Americanism” who dominate “the D.C. cocktail crowd” have disrespected the hallowed document. But now, finally, in the “darker days” of the Obama administration, “the Constitution is making a comeback.” Like the “chosen people of Israel,” who “cycle[d] through periods of blessing and suffering,” the Tea Party has rediscovered America’s version of “the Hebrew Scriptures” and led the country into “a season of constitutional repentance.” Going forward, O’Donnell declared, Republicans must champion the “American values” enshrined in our sacred text. “There are more of us than there are of them,” she concluded.

By now, O’Donnell’s rhetoric should sound familiar. In part that’s because her fellow Tea Party patriots—Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, the guy at the rally in the tricorn hat—also refer to the Constitution as if it were a holy instruction manual that was lost, but now, thanks to them, is found. And yet the reverberations go further back than Beck. The last time America elected a new Democratic president, in 1992, the Republican Party’s then-dominant insurgent group used identical language to describe the altogether different document that defined their cause and divided them from the heretics in charge: the Bible. The echoes of the religious right in O’Donnell’s speech—the Christian framework, the resurrection narrative, the “us vs. them” motif, the fixation on “values”—aren’t coincidental.

From a legal perspective, there’s a case to be made that O’Donnell’s argument is inaccurate. The Constitution is a relentlessly secular document that never once mentions God or Jesus. And nothing in recent jurisprudence suggests that the past few decades of governing have been any less constitutional than the decades that preceded them. But the Tea Party’s language isn’t legal, and neither is its logic. It’s moral: right vs. wrong. What O’Donnell & Co. are really talking about is culture war.

When Barack Obama took office, experts rushed to declare an end to the old battles over race, religion, and reproductive rights—whether because of Obama’s alleged healing powers, or the Great Recession, or both. But these analyses ignored an important reality: at heart, the culture wars were really never about anything as specific as abortion or gay marriage. Instead, as James Davison Hunter wrote in Culture Wars, the book that popularized the term, the conflicts of the 1990s represented something bigger: “a struggle over…who we have been...who we are now, and...who we, as a nation, will aspire” to be. Such conflicts, Hunter explained, pit “orthodox” Americans, who like the way things were, against their more “progressive” peers, who are comfortable with the way things are becoming.

PHOTOS: A History of America's Conservative Movements (Shane Bevel / AP)

For the forces of orthodoxy, the election of a black, urban, liberal Democrat with a Muslim name wasn’t a panacea at all; it was a provocation. So when the recession hit, and new economic anxieties displaced the lingering social concerns of the Clinton era, political fundamentalists sought refuge in a more relevant scripture—one that could still be made to accommodate the simpler, surer past they longed for but happened to dwell on taxes and government instead of sinning and being saved.

The Constitution was waiting. Today, Tea Party activists gather to recite the entire document to each other. They demand that a wayward America return to its Constitutional roots. They even travel to Colonial Williamsburg and ask the actor playing George Washington how to topple a tyrannical government. In short, they take their Constitution worship very, very seriously. The question now is whether the rest of us should as well.

Contemporary Constitution worshipers claim that they’ve distilled their entire political platform—lower taxes, less regulation, minimal federal government—directly from the original text of the founding document. Any overlap with mainstream conservatism is incidental, they say; they’re simply following the Framers’ precise instructions. If this were true, it would be quite the political coup: oppose us, the Tea Party could claim, and you’re opposing James Madison. But the reality is that Tea Partiers engage with the Constitution in such a selective manner, and for such nakedly political purposes, that they’re clearly relying on it more as an instrument of self-affirmation and cultural division than a source of policy inspiration.

In legal circles, constitutional fundamentalism is nothing new. For decades, scholars and judges have debated how the founding document should factor into contemporary legal proceedings. Some experts believe in a so-called living Constitution—a set of principles that, while admirable and enduring, must be interpreted in light of present-day social developments in order to be properly upheld. Others adhere to originalism, which is the idea that the ratifiers’ original meaning is fixed, knowable, and clearly articulated in the text of the Constitution itself.

While conservatives generally prefer the second approach, many disagree over how it should be implemented—including the Supreme Court’s most committed originalists, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Thomas sympathizes with a radical version of originalism known as the Constitution in Exile. In his view, the Supreme Court of the 1930s unwisely discarded the 19th-century’s strict judicial limits on Federal power, and the only way to resurrect the “original” Constitution—and regain our unalienable rights—is by rolling back the welfare state, repealing regulations, and perhaps even putting an end to progressive taxation. In contrast, Scalia is willing to respect precedent—even though it sometimes departs from his understanding of the Constitution’s original meaning. His caution reflects a simple reality: that upending post-1937 case law and reversing settled principles would prove extremely disruptive, both in the courts and society at large. As Cass Sunstein, a centrist legal scholar at the University of Chicago who now serves in the Obama administration, has explained, “many decisions of the Federal Communications Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and possibly the National Labor Relations Board would be [ruled] unconstitutional” if Thomas got his way. Social Security could be eliminated. Same goes for the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Reserve. Individual states might be allowed to establish official religions. Even minimum-wage and maximum-hour laws would be jeopardized.

Tea Partiers tend to sound more like Thomas than Scalia. Every weekday on Fox News, Glenn Beck—“the most highly regarded individual among Tea Party supporters,” according to a recent poll—takes to his schoolroom chalkboard to rail against progressives like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. “They knew they had to separate us from our history,” he says, “to be able to separate us from our Constitution and God.” In Beck’s view, progressives forsook the faithful Christian Founders and forced the country to adopt a slew of unconstitutional measures that triggered our long decline into Obama-era totalitarianism: the Federal Reserve System, Social Security, the graduated federal income tax. True patriots, according to Beck, favor a pre-progressive vision of the United States. When Nevada Senate nominee Sharron Angle says we need to “phase out” Social Security and Medicare; when Alaska Senate nominee Joe Miller asserts that unemployment benefits are “unconstitutional”; when West Virginia Senate nominee John Raese declares that the minimum wage should “absolutely” be abolished; when Kentucky Senate nominee Rand Paul questions the legality of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; when Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann claims that Obama’s new health-insurance law violates the Constitution; and when various Tea Party candidates say they want to repeal the amendments that triggered the federal income tax and the direct election of senators—this is the vision they’re promoting. At times, the Tea Party can seem like a popularized, politicized offshoot of the Constitution in Exile movement.

Over the years critics have lodged dozens of objections to originalism—the disagreements among the Founders; the preservation of slavery in the final product; the inclusion of an amendment process—and they apply to the Tea Party’s interpretation of the Constitution, too. But at least originalism is a rational, consistent philosophy. The real problem with the Tea Party’s brand of Constitution worship isn’t that it’s too dogmatic. It’s that it isn’t dogmatic enough. In recent months, Tea Party candidates have behaved in ways that belie their public commitment to combating progressivism. They’ve backed measures that blatantly contradict their originalist mission. And they’ve frequently misunderstood or misrepresented the Constitution itself. In May, for example, Paul told a Russian television station that America “should stop” automatically granting citizenship to the native-born children of illegal immigrants. Turns out his suggestion would be unconstitutional, at least according to the 14th Amendment (1868) and a pair of subsequent Supreme Court decisions. A few weeks later, Paul said he’d like to prevent federal contractors from lobbying Congress—a likely violation of their First Amendment right to redress. In July, Alaska’s Miller told ABC News that unemployment benefits are not “constitutionally authorized.” Reports later revealed that his wife claimed unemployment in 2002.

The list goes on. Most Tea Partiers claim that the 10th Amendment, which says “the powers not delegated” to the federal government are “reserved to the states,” is proof that the Framers would’ve balked at today’s bureaucracy. What they don’t mention is that James Madison refused a motion to add the word “expressly” before “delegated” because “there must necessarily be admitted powers by implication.” In last week’s Delaware Senate debate, O’Donnell was asked to name a recent Supreme Court case she disagreed with. “Oh, gosh,” she stammered, unable to cite a single piece of evidence to support her Constitution in Exile talking points. “I know that there are a lot, but, uh, I’ll put it up on my Web site, I promise you.” Angle has said that “government isn’t what our Founding Fathers put into the Constitution”—even though establishing a federal government with the “Power To lay and collect Taxes” to “provide for the common Defence and general Welfare” is one of the main reasons the Founders created a Constitution to replace the weak, decentralized Articles of Confederation. In 2008 Palin told Katie Couric that the Constitution does, in fact, guarantee “an inherent right to privacy,” à la Roe v. Wade, but added that “individual states…can handle an issue like that.” Unfortunately, Palin’s hypothesis would only be viable in a world without the Fourteenth Amendment, which gave Washington sole responsibility for safeguarding all constitutional rights. Then there are the proposed amendments. In the current Congress, conservatives like Michele Bachmann have suggested more than 40 additions to the Constitution: a flag-desecration amendment; a balanced-budget amendment; a “parental rights” amendment; a supermajority-to-raise-taxes amendment; anti-abortion amendment; an anti-gay-marriage amendment; and so on. None of these revisions has anything to do with the document’s original meaning.

The truth is that for all their talk of purity, politicians like Palin, Angle, and Miller don’t seem to be particularly concerned with matching their actual positions to the Constitution they profess to worship. For them, the sacred text serves a higher purpose—and in the end, that purpose isn’t hard to pinpoint.

Since the earliest days of the republic, Americans have, like the Tea Partiers, spoken of the Constitution in religious terms. In 1792, Madison wrote that “common reverence…should guarantee, with a holy zeal, these political scriptures from every attempt to add to or diminish from them.” George Washington’s Farewell Address included a plea that the Constitution “be sacredly maintained.” In his Lyceum speech of 1838, Abraham Lincoln cited the document as the source of “the political religion of the nation” and demanded that its laws be “religiously observed.” In 1968, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black called the Constitution his “legal bible,” and a few years later, during Richard Nixon’s impeachment hearings, Texas Rep. Barbara Jordan testified that her “faith in the Constitution is whole.” But the similarity between these figures and the Tea Partiers ends at the level of language. For leaders like Lincoln and Jordan, the Constitution is a symbol “that suppl[ies] an overarching sense of unity even in a society otherwise riddled with conflict,” as sociologist Robin Williams once wrote. It is an integrative force—the cornerstone of our civil religion.

The Tea Partiers belong to a different tradition—a tradition of divisive fundamentalism. Like other fundamentalists, they seek refuge from the complexity and confusion of modern life in the comforting embrace of an authoritarian scripture and the imagined past it supposedly represents. Like other fundamentalists, they see in their good book only what they want to see: confirmation of their preexisting beliefs. Like other fundamentalists, they don’t sweat the details, and they ignore all ambiguities. And like other fundamentalists, they make enemies or evildoers of those who disagree with their doctrine. In the 1930s, the American Liberty League opposed FDR’s New Deal by flogging its version of the Constitution with what historian Frederick Rudolph once described as “a worshipful intensity.” In the 1960s, the John Birch Society imagined a vast communist conspiracy in similar terms. In 1992 conservative activists formed what came to be known as the Constitution Party—Sharron Angle was once a member—in order to “restore American jurisprudence to its Biblical foundations and to limit the federal government to its Constitutional boundaries.” Today, Angle asserts that “separation of church and state is an unconstitutional doctrine,” and Palin claims that “the Constitution…essentially acknowledg[es] that our unalienable rights…come from God.” The point is always the same: to suggest that the Constitution, like the Bible, decrees what’s right and wrong (rather than what’s legal and illegal), and to insist that only the fundamentalists and their ilk can access its truths. We are moral, you are not; we represent America, you do not. Theirs is the rallying cry of culture war.

The Tea Partiers are right to revere the Constitution. It’s a remarkable, even miraculous document. But there are many Constitutions: the Constitution of 1789, of 1864, of 1925, of 1936, of 1970, of today. Where O’Donnell & Co. go wrong is in insisting that their idealized document is the country’s one true Constitution, and that dissenters are somehow un-American. By putting the Constitution front and center, the Tea Party has reinvigorated a long-simmering argument over who we are and who we want to be. That’s great. But to truly honor the Founders’ spirit, they have to make room for actual debate. As usual, Thomas Jefferson put it best. In a letter to a friend in 1816, he mocked “men [who] look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched”; “who ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment.” “Let us follow no such examples, nor weakly believe that one generation is not as capable as another of taking care of itself, and of ordering its own affairs,” he concluded. “Each generation is as independent as the one preceding, as that was of all which had gone before.” Amen.