Roots of The Tea Party's Conspiracy Mania

T.V. host Glenn Beck addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington on Saturday Feb. 20, 2010.(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana) AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

Richard Kim is a senior editor at The Nation.

Leftists like to say that another world is possible, but I was never quite sure of that until I started reading tea party websites. There, a government of leftists is not only possible, it's on the cusp of seizing permanent power, having broken American capitalism and replaced it with a socialist state. Down that rabbit hole, Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel are communists, and "The Left"--which encompasses everyone from the Democratic Leadership Council to Maoist sectarians--is a disciplined and near omnipotent army marching in lockstep to a decades-old master plan for domination called the "Cloward-Piven strategy" or, as of January 20, 2009, "Cloward-Piven government."

What is this plot? According to David Horowitz, who apparently coined the expression, Cloward-Piven is "the strategy of forcing political change through orchestrated crisis." Named after sociologists and antipoverty and voting rights activists Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, who first elucidated it in a May 2, 1966, article for The Nation called "The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty," the Cloward-Piven strategy, in Horowitz's words, "seeks to hasten the fall of capitalism by overloading the government bureaucracy with a flood of impossible demands, thus pushing society into crisis and economic collapse." Like a fun-house-mirror version of Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine theory, the Cloward-Piven strategy dictates that the left will exploit that crisis to push through unpopular, socialist policies in a totalitarian manner.

Since Obama's election and the financial crash of 2008, Horowitz's description has been taken up by a clutch of tea party propagandists--from TV and radio hosts Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin to WorldNetDaily editor Joseph Farah, National Review editor Stanley Kurtz and The Obama Nation author Jerome Corsi--to explain how both events could have happened, here, in the U-S-A. In their historical narrative, it was Cloward and Piven's article that gave ACORN the idea to start peddling subprime mortgages to poor minorities in the 1980s, knowingly laying the groundwork for a global economic meltdown nearly thirty years later. Beck calls Cloward and Piven the two people who are "fundamentally responsible for the unsustainability and possible collapse of our economic system." It was Cloward and Piven who had the diabolical idea of registering (illegal or nonexistent) poor and minority voters through Project Vote and the Motor Voter Act, thus guaranteeing Obama's "fraudulent" victory. And it is the Cloward-Piven strategy that guides the Obama administration's every move to this day, as it seeks to ram through healthcare reform, economic stimulus and financial regulation (all of which, in reality, have enjoyed majority support in many polls taken during the last two years).

As proof, Beck & Co. point to what they see as a shadowy web of associations: Cloward and Piven worked in alliance with welfare rights organizer George Wiley, who mentored Wade Rathke, who went on to found ACORN, which sometimes coordinated registration drives with Project Vote (whose board of directors Piven just recently joined), a previous incarnation of which employed Obama to run a Chicago chapter in the early '90s. They also repeatedly cite Emanuel's statement, made in November 2008 after the passage of TARP but before the stimulus, that "you never want a serious crisis to go to waste." From The Nation's pages to the White House's brains and muscles--it took only forty-four years!

All of this, of course, is a reactionary paranoid fantasy. Rahm Emanuel is no more Frances Fox Piven's stooge than Obama is a Muslim. But the looniness of it has not stopped the Cloward-Piven conspiracy theory from spreading across tea party networks. And the left's gut reaction upon hearing of it--to laugh it off as a Scooby-Doo comic mystery--does nothing to blunt its appeal or limit its impact. In order to respond, alas, we have to understand, and that means going through the looking glass.

Horowitz first wrote of the Cloward-Piven strategy on his Web site, which claims to be "a guide to the left." His description is a crude and false account of what Cloward and Piven argued. For example, the words "capital" and "capitalism" never appear in their article. The piece is about precipitating a crisis in the welfare system by legally enrolling masses of eligible recipients, which the welfare bureaucracy could not handle, thus creating a demand for more radical reforms, like a guaranteed minimum income--a proposal that Nixon, of all people, floated in 1969 and that, in fact, Democratic-majority Congresses voted down through 1972 [see Peter Edelman and Barbara Ehrenreich, page 15]. Moreover, as Piven recently explained to me, although the article was written as a strategic thought experiment, in many ways it described and reacted to changes already sweeping the nation, chief among them the civil rights and welfare rights movements, which created newly politicized constituencies to which the Democratic Party had to respond. "The mainstream," Piven says, "was responsive to the idea that we could end poverty because of these movements." In short, the stresses placed on the welfare system were caused by a confluence of factors, of which an article published in The Nation, it is safe to say, was but one, and most likely a minor one at that.

Nevertheless--history and facts be damned--it is Horowitz's caricature of Cloward-Piven that is now the Rosetta stone of American politics for the tea party's self-styled intellectuals. Glenn Beck has brought up Cloward and Piven on at least twenty-eight episodes of his show over the past year. Beck is sometimes aided by a blackboard on which he has diagramed something called "The Tree of Revolution," which links Che Guevara, SEIU and ACORN's Wade Rathke to Saul Alinsky, the Sierra Club's Carl Pope, Bill Ayers and, perhaps most improbably, to White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. In the center of the tree's arching trunk, above SDS and Woodrow Wilson (!?) but below Barack Obama, who adorns the tree's crown, Beck has scrawled "Cloward & Piven."

Beck's tree, however, is derivative of and pales in comparison with the flow chart created by Jim Simpson, a self-described businessman and former George H.W. Bush White House budget analyst and the leading proponent of the Cloward-Piven conspiracy theory. Cribbing from Horowitz, but adding his own very special embellishments, Simpson has penned an 18,000-word, six-part exposé of the "Cloward-Piven strategy," which can be found on the websites Americanthinker.com and Americandaughter.com. I have read it so you don't have to. The central innovations of this wild and woolly compilation of right-wing myths, published in installments during the summer and fall of 2008, are to attribute nearly every past, present and future crisis to Cloward and Piven and to link them to Obama's political past and agenda. Among the schemes Simpson credits to the Cloward-Piven strategy are healthcare reform, the Employee Free Choice Act, cap and trade, immigration reform, hate crimes legislation and public financing of elections. For Simpson, the Cloward-Piven strategy is vast, vast--"a malevolent overarching strategy that has motivated many, if not all, of the most destructive radical leftist organizations in the United States since the 1960s." And beyond: somehow, Gorbachev's Crimean dacha is implicated, as are Saddam Hussein's palaces.

Most integral to Simpson's theory, however, and where his rather impressive skills as a collagist descend into the orthodoxy of Fox News, is ACORN, which he says has been "the new tip of the Cloward-Piven spear" since 1970. In what is by now a familiar right-wing story line, ACORN is responsible for the global economic crisis. By using the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act--itself a conspiratorial response to the bogus crisis of housing discrimination--ACORN enrolled masses of low-income people in subprime mortgages, creating a housing bubble that caused stock markets around the world to crash, paving the way for bank nationalization and socialism via the bailout and the stimulus. Whew! There are, of course, more than a few pages missing in this whodunit--for instance, that it was ACORN that tried to warn Congress about risky and predatory lenders; that it was too-big-to-fail banks and complex financial instruments that spread the contagion across the worldwide economy; and that in fact the banks have not been nationalized. [For a debunking of this myth, see Peter Dreier and John Atlas's "The GOP's Blame-ACORN Game," October 22, 2008.]

If Simpson's chain of events is not particularly original, his theory of intentionality is: according to him, the left, guided by the Cloward-Piven strategy, was fully aware that subprime mortgages would produce a calamitous financial bubble; it supported subprime lending not to help minorities become homeowners but to sabotage capitalism from the inside. "The failure is deliberate," he writes repeatedly in italics.

Like others on the right, Simpson sees Obama's election itself as a machination of ACORN, which registered millions of felons, illegal aliens and dead citizens to vote through Project Vote and the Motor Voter Act, which Cloward and Piven championed and which Bill Clinton signed in 1993. (Voter fraud seems to be Simpson's enduring preoccupation and the subject of an early 2007 article on Cloward-Piven.) By the logic of the Cloward-Piven strategy, he suggests, voter registration efforts were aimed at corrupting democracy, not expanding it. This argument depends on the denial of several key realities: that changing demographics have altered the balance of party power, that legally increasing the voting rate of key constituencies is a common and legitimate practice of both parties, and that the Republican Party consistently fails to win over minorities because of the policies it promotes. What Simpson and Beck want to cast doubt on is that the democratic process could elect Obama, or that democratic majorities would endorse the agenda Obama has proposed. In the months before the 2008 election, Simpson wrote, "It is not inconceivable that this presidential race could be decided by fraudulent votes alone."

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