They have become a media sensation. Their trick is to show up at town-hall meetings and challenge congresspersons with crazy declarations and nonsensical questions. They compare Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler and health-care reform to Nazism.

Of course, many (if not all) white supremacists are displeased by this comparison. They find it deeply offensive that their beloved führer is repeatedly compared to a black man whose father was Kenyan, whose mother was white (meaning Obama entered the world by way of miscegenation), and whose closest advisers are Jewish. White supremacists most certainly hate this absurd association drawn by the teabaggers. But the people disturbing town-hall meetings and carrying pictures of Obama sporting a small mustache will not let go of the comparison. They need it, because it makes things clear to the world: Who is Obama? Obama is Hitler. "DIFFERENT COLOR, SAME OLD SHIT," screamed a sign held by an angry-looking teabagger. How could you not understand that?

The teabaggers make the comparison because they've suffered a shock, a shock that has no relief in sight, a shock that only seems to grow and grow and make the world evermore alien and inhospitable—the shock that America is now run by a black man. But another mechanism is at work in this comparison, a mechanism that is not on the minds of the GOP's fevered foot soldiers but is certainly on the minds of the party's intelligentsia. The comparison has its roots in a group of German economists who, after World War II, established the European and American strains of neoliberalism.

"[For the] people who inspired the programming of neo-liberal politics in Germany [in the 1940s], the experience of Nazism was at the very heart of their reflection," said the French philosopher Michel Foucault in a lecture he delivered on the morning of February 7, ­1979. "Nazism enabled them to define what I would call the field of adversity that they had to define and cross in order to reach their objective." What is this all about? How does this passage relate to the teabaggers? Let's begin with a definition and a short history of neoliberalism, and end with a quick look at the book that contains Foucault's lectures on the history of neoliberalism, The Birth of Biopolitics.

Neoliberalism is an economic program that places great importance on the mechanism of the market and its freedoms, its innovations, its dynamic and productive forces. The market is everything that the government is not: efficient, reliable, progressive. Any effort to control the market, to manage or direct its course, is seen as an act of madness. This way of thinking is called "neoliberalism" because it is a return to many of the principles of the physiocrats of 18th-century France (the logic of laissez-­faire) and the classical political economists in the UK (the logic of the invisible hand).

After Word War II, German economists associated with the Freiburg School ("ordoliberals"), and influenced by Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, circulated the notion that a free and big market and a small government was the best thing for Germany's future. They argued that any form of government intervention, planning, or programs would inevitably lead to Nazism. For them, the Nazi state was the government in its final condition, the state in a position of total control. Foucault says: "The Freiburg liberals... thought they could establish National Socialism as an invariant which, as both cause and effect, was absolutely bound up with the unlimited growth of state power." The fight for free markets was a fight against the Nazis.

How did these ideas cross the Atlantic? By way of Hayek, his popular book The Road to Serfdom, and his influence on the Chicago School of Economics. From the Chicago School develops the American brand of neoliberalism that to this day dominates American economic policy. (When Obama went to Africa and criticized President Robert Mugabe for mismanaging the national economy of Zimbabwe by keeping it closed, even he sounded like a neoliberal.)

Foucault's lectures on neoliberalism are clear, easy to follow, and fascinating because, for one, they were delivered at the very moment the ideas of the Chicago School entered reality. As the Marxist geographer David Harvey points out in several of his essays, the ideas of the Chicago School transformed Chile and New York City in the 1970s. By the early 1980s, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan rose to power and began privatizing anything they could get their hands on. By the 1990s, economic power had shifted from the industrial sector to Wall Street, and the International Monetary Fund became the instrument for the liberalization of the global market, dismantling welfare programs and privatizing government services.

The intelligentsia of the GOP want to demonize Obama's health-care plan and discredit the public option by drawing the most extreme comparison they can—that neoliberalism is the progressive fight against tyranny and that Obama is pulling us backward to the age of state control.

But is Hitler the same as Obama? Is health-care reform the same as the Nazification of America? Foucault says no. Why? Because people like the teabaggers are confusing state power with something very different: party power. Hitler's Germany was a one-party state. The expansion of violence, the transformation of the market into a war machine, the repression of dissent—all of this was the result of unlimited party power, without the dissent of a multiparty state, without the dissent the teabaggers so loudly exercise for such stupid purposes. They may wreck America's chance to join the rest of the developed world in providing affordable health care, but that is the price of liberty—the liberty the teabaggers insist is being taken away. Their confusion is destructive, but it is their right.

The more accurate comparison with Nazism would be the GOP obtaining absolute power, weakening the Democrats until America is effectively a one-party state: a political condition that Karl Rove attempted to realize while George W. Bush was in office, a condition Fox News still dreams about every day. recommended