So what is it? Richard Kim describes it in his essay, "The Mad Tea Party and the Cloward-Piven Conspiracy Theory."
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 WorldNetDailyNational 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). [...]
There you have it. The world as we know it is being taken over by "Leftist!" As Kim notes, "All of this, of course, is a reactionary paranoid fantasy."
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...
Suffice it to say, if Beck and crew believe half of this crap, they belong in an asylum in the middle of Shutter Island, where they can tend to their survival seeds and sleuth out imagined conspiracies apart from the rest of the human population. The danger, however, is that they will maroon a sizable portion of the electorate there with them. Since Obama's inauguration, references to the Cloward-Piven strategy have popped up with increasing frequency in op-eds and letters to the editor of local newspapers, including those in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Mexico. Snippets of Simpson's tome or Beck's rants appear frequently in the comments section of blogs and articles; a search for the term "Cloward-Piven strategy" generated more than 255,000 Google hits.
On one level it's entertainment. It allows believers to tease out the left's secrets and sinister patterns. Since none of the evidence that supposedly confirms the existence of the Cloward-Piven strategy is, in fact, secret, this proves rather easy to do, and so the puzzle is both thrilling and gratifying.
On another level, the theory is an adaptive response to the tea party's fragmentation. As Jonathan Raban pointed out in The New York Review of Books, the tea party is an uneasy conclave of Ayn Rand secular libertarians and fundamentalist Christian evangelicals; it contains birthers, Birchers, racists, xenophobes, Ron Paulites, cold warriors, Zionists, constitutionalists, vanilla Republicans looking for a high and militia-style survivalists. Because the Cloward-Piven strategy is so expansive, it allows tea party propagandists to engage any one--or all--of the pet issues that incite these various constituencies. For some, the left's "offensive to promote illegal immigration" is "Cloward-Piven on steroids." For others, it is the Cloward-Piven "advocates of social change" who "used the Fed, which was complicit in the scheme" to "engineer" the 2008 fiscal crisis. In his speech at the tea party convention in Nashville, WorldNetDaily's Joseph Farah notes that Obama was just 4 when the Cloward-Piven strategy was written. "We think," Farah said. He paused dramatically before adding, "Without the birth certificate we really just don't know," as a sizable portion of the audience broke into applause.[...]
And as of now, the Cloward-Piven strategy is most often used to put two classes of people on the tea party's enemies list: those who work for the Obama administration and those who work to increase the political power of poor people of color.[...]
Perhaps most critical, the Cloward-Piven conspiracy theory pushes the tea party's kettle closer to a boil. In its obsession with voter fraud and the potential illegitimacy of the 2008 election--and the democratic process itself--the conspiracy suggests a tit-for-tat strategy for victory: if the left is going to cynically manipulate the system to produce tyranny, then so will we. How? To begin, there's the tried-and-true tactic of suppressing the poor minority vote--which would next place Project Vote in the tea party's cross hairs. But why stop there? Like every good conspiracy theory, this one too is a call to arms.