How can Nietzsche help us understand the rise of right wing populism in the U.S.?


Scholars have been fascinated by the Tea Party since it first emerged on the American political scene in the spring of 2009. While some have dismissed it as simply a repackaging of conventional American conservative populism, many have been struck by how effective it has been in remobilizing the Republican Party base in the wake of the Democratic electoral landslide of 2008. Most of the scholarship has focused upon the demographic make-up of its members, how it combines elements of elite and grassroots political mobilization in new and innovative ways, how it is a racialized response to the election of the first African American President and how it might connect with more militarized elements of the American far right. Less attention has been paid to the question of whether or not a specific ideology might be driving support for the Tea Party. When ideology is explicitly addressed, authors tend to note a peculiar contradiction in core beliefs of Tea Party supporters: the Tea Party seems to embody an odd fusion of libertarianism and social conservatism. While we agree with previous scholars who observe that the Tea Party does not have one unifying ideology, we believe that political scientists have so far underestimated or incompletely specified the unique ideological drivers of Tea Party support.

            In a recently published article in Social Sciences Quarterly with Justin Murphy, we argue that a crucial ideological factor explaining support for the Tea Party is what Friedrich Nietzsche called "misarchism" in reference to the political philosophy of Herbert Spencer. (for a more detailed analysis of this ideology see this unpublished manuscript by Havercroft). As we explain in detail below, distinct from both libertarianism and social conservatism, misarchism refers to an aversion to government combined with support for the state and traditional morality. Consistent with the expectation of a misarchist dimension in American attitudes, factor analysis on nine variables from the 2012 American National Election Time-Series Study (ANES) reveals that attitudes toward state power are positively intercorrelated with attitudes toward traditional morality. Though neither are strongly intercorrelated with attitudes toward government, the factor underlying support for the state and traditional morality (which we call "moral statism") is strongly and negatively correlated with the factor underlying support for government. These results are consistent with the Nietzschean diagnosis of misarchism as an ideological structure which combines support for the state and moral traditionalism on a dimension which is distinct from, and opposed to, attitudes toward government. Our findings have important implications for our understanding of right-wing ideology in the United States and they help to resolve the puzzle of the Tea Party's still poorly understood and contradictory ideological components.

            While we completed this analysis prior to the election of Donald Trump, we believe that our research points to an important ideological driver of far right populist movements in the U.S. Paul Walsh, however, has drawn out the connections between our analysis and the rise of Donald Trump. This piece is also an interesting exercise in mixed-methods as it combined ideological analysis by a political theorist with quantitative analysis by an empirical political scientist.