by George T. Axiotakis
Recently, there has been a spate of analyses about the Tea Party and its motivations. Sean Wilentz and Matt Taibbi have published informative pieces, while Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow regularly expose their irrational positions. These analyses are all good, but all seem to share a crucial error: they see the rank-and-file protesters as "dupes" or "saps" or "suckers," while any moral judgment or excoriation is directed at the leaders of the movement: Beck, Limbaugh, Palin, the Koch Brothers. While this mode of analysis may feel right, the distinction is too simplistic. The angry white faces carrying placards are often literate adults who know what they are doing. What is dangerous is that theirs is actually a coherent, albeit bizarre, worldview with deep historical roots. The purpose of this essay is to draw on some well-known sources to explain it. I hope this is more than a pedantic point ("rabbits are not rodents"); to combat a malady, one must first have an accurate diagnosis.
By now, many aspects of the Tea Party philosophy are well known. These include: Opposition to healthcare reform on "Constitutional" grounds; hostility to the progressive income tax; denial of global climate change; a putative right to openly carry firearms, even at political events. Much has been written and said about the irrationality of these positions. But for Wilentz, Olbermann and Maddow, the locus of analysis is usually not the Tea Party rank and file. In a recent New Yorker piece, Wilentz points out the crackpot sources of Beck's tirades, placing him squarely in the tradition of the John Bircher Robert Welch. While Olbermann lambastes Tea Party supported candidates like Sharron Angle, Ken Buck and Rand Paul, Maddow seeks to expose the real money behind them, such as Dick Armey, Rick Berman, the Koch Brothers. Taibbi did talk to the Tea Party protesters, and concludes that their philosophy is basically irrational (but in more interesting terms, repeated below).
Yet in all cases, even Taibbi's, it seems that the protesters are perceived as the hapless dupes of powerful forces that they do not understand. Unfortunately, this is probably not true. The cognitive linguist George Lakoff (he who discusses campaigns in terms of "framing"), points out that liberals often proceed from the assumption--and it is just that, an assumption--that the reason many people do not hold progressive positions is because they have not been exposed to clear, rational arguments. Lakoff argues that this ignores how people actually think, in "conceptual metaphors." Wilentz quotes the great literary curmudgeon H. L. Mencken: "A demagogue is somehow preaches what he knows to be untrue to people he knows to be idiots." But surveys have shown that many Tea Party protesters are often successful people, many with real college degrees. These folks have plenty of access to information which they consciously reject. (Political psychologists call this "confirmation bias," and in fairness, liberals can do this too.) To put it bluntly, these people really believe this stuff--from Beck to the ubiquitous characters with misspelled signs. What Lakoff calls conceptual metaphor I would call a frame of reference, but he has a serious point that can help us to understand the Tea Party's worldview.
The Tea Party Philosophy revolves around at least four interrelated propositions. All of these are bad policy or morally dubious, and at least one is demonstrably false.
One: Fairness is not usually conceived in terms of equality, but a selective conception of merit. A just society rewards and admires successful people, and does not try to impede them. I suggest this has its roots in Max Weber's Protestant Ethic, the thesis that material success is evidence of God's grace. In this world view, God rewards those who actually deserve it. There is a kernel of historical support for this view, as the framers of our Constitution did not conceive of political liberty in terms of social equality; they were not, in the parlance of the time, "levelers."
Two: This view conveniently ignores the Constitutional preamble "to promote the general welfare," and sees several amendments that follow the first ten as irrelevant intrusions. For the Tea party, the United States Constitution in its original form protects liberty because it allows the deserving to succeed. Even the First Amendment is not immune to some ingenious interpretation. In a recent debate, Christine O'Donnell actually asked where separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment. For Glen Beck, the clearest conspiracy is a modern fiction that the Constitution is not divinely inspired. Beck seems to believe that the Constitution is actually a Judeo-Christian ethical guideline, and that the supporting evidence has been suppressed. This is demonstrably false, as there is a wealth of primary source material that shows how the Framers were influenced by the European Enlightenment, especially John Locke. And they were almost to a (white) man quite suspicious of organized religion and its hold over the human mind. (No need to go further here, except to agree with Wilentz that the fact that many college-educated people do not know this means we are doing a bad job teaching history). The next two propositions follow from the first two.
Three: The most important aspect of political liberty is private property; as a corollary, the greatest threat to liberty is any form of centralized government power that can make people depend on it. After all, the truly deserving would never have to depend on the government. Here is a penetrating exchange from Taibbi with a man in Kentucky (including his priceless "conclusion":
"I'm anti-spending and anti-government," crows David, as scooter-bound Janice looks on. "The welfare state is out of control."
"OK," I say. "And what do you do for a living?"
"Me?" he says proudly. "Oh, I'm a property appraiser. Have been my whole life."
I frown. "Are either of you on Medicare?"
Silence: Then Janice, a nice enough woman, it seems, slowly raises her hand, offering a faint smile, as if to say, You got me!
"Let me get this straight," I say to David. "You've been picking up a check from the government for decades, as a tax assessor, and your wife is on Medicare. How can you complain about the welfare state?"
"Well," he says, "there's a lot of people on welfare who don't deserve it. Too many people are living off the government."
"But," I protest, "you live off the government. And have been your whole life!"
"Yeah," he says, "but I don't make very much." (Here Taibbi adds, "Vast forests have already been sacrificed to the public debate about the Tea Party: what it is, what it means, where it's going. But after lengthy study of the phenomenon, I've concluded that the whole miserable narrative boils down to one stark fact: They're full of shit.")
Some may recall a disturbing image from the healthcare debate that occurred in Ohio. During competing rallies, there was a pro health reform advocate who happened to be an elderly man with Parkinson's disease. He sat on the sidewalk holding a pro healthcare reform sign. Two anti-reform advocates (much younger than he) approached him and repeatedly mocked him. That's right--these two clowns actually dissed a man with Parkinson's disease. What must be understood--other than that they have no class--is that these guys really believe they were calling out a freeloader, a loser. Theirs is a worldview that sees weakness as a deep moral flaw. Consequently, any central government with the power to redistribute resources from (deserving) winners to (undeserving) losers is almost existentially evil.
Four: For the Tea party faithful, there was a traditional America that held these values, and it was a real place. In this world, people rose on merit, gender roles were defined, people knew their place. Here Rachel Maddow is absolutely correct to point out that the Tea Party is not just about radical economic libertarianism; they readily align with hard-right culture warriors on abortion, gay marriage, climate change, etc. I may not be academically qualified to call Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell nut jobs, but I can state with confidence that they are not libertarians--they are culture warriors quite at home in the Tea Party. (Besides Maddow, the only observer I know of who discusses the potential threat to abortion rights is Ed Kilgore at The Democratic Strategist.)
It is the last point that needs some elaboration. Many who are not of the cultural right are perplexed how people can be libertarians on economic matters but almost draconian on matters of sexual choice. Here, Lakoff offers an explanation. He suggests that people on the right have a "strict father" morality, which holds that the world is a dangerous place filled with flawed people. In the real world, it is natural to have winners and losers. As such, the real way to success requires discipline, and people must pay for the consequences of their actions. Taken to its logical extreme, this is how some on the right can blame AIDS victims, or force a woman to carry any pregnancy to term--people must bear the personal consequences of their own actions.
I believe Lakoff's thesis to be useful, but incomplete. The Tea Party phenomenon also has a strong cultural dimension. If Beck and the Tea Party have a foundational belief, it is that America once held these values. It was a simpler America where people succeeded or failed based on merit. To argue that this is nostalgia, not history, misses the point; for this crowd, it is liberals who have distorted history. Things started going downhill not with the advent of the New Deal, but twenty years earlier, with the adoption of the progressive income tax in 1913. This evocation of a mythical past is nothing new for the cultural right. Throughout history, various elites have been able to rouse whole communities with threats of cultural change. The familiar themes repeat themselves: An exaltation of community, traditional gender roles, a distrust of cosmopolitanism. In his classic Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Barrington Moore terms the phenomenon Catonism, as it goes all the way back to Cato the Elder. The function is apparent, as it places the elite as the defender of tradition against real or invented enemies.
I do not think Taibbi or Olbermann would disagree with much here; where we might disagree is that I believe the Tea Party is filled with people who want to be led--as long as it is by people they feel are like them. This is why Armey and the Koch brothers are seen as leaders, not cynical manipulators. Let me give props to MSNBC here, as Olbermann and Maddow have both exposed the practice of elite corporate interests masquerading as grassroots movements. And Olbermann, Maddow and Chris Matthews have not shied away from exploring a connection between the Tea Party and the Militia movement. What binds these elements of the far right together is their list of potential enemies: THe usual suspects include assorted tree huggers, eggheads, immigrants, queers, weirdoes, etc.--they are not us. Let me also make the obvious point that for this crowd, there is no greater evidence of this existential threat than the election of the first American African president (and--yawn--the "birthers" who suggest that Obama is not even American).
For me, what is so frustrating is that the Left should have seen all this coming (I conveniently define "Left" here as anyone who agrees with Taibbi that the Tea Party is full of shit). As mentioned, the themes are not at all new. In a famous essay, historian Richard Hofstadter defined "The paranoid style in American politics." In it he discusses numerous perceived threats: Masons, Jesuits, communists, etc. Hofstadter acknowledges that some threats were real, such as Soviet communism; he focuses on various paranoid (over)reactions, such as McCarthyism. His stated purpose was to locate "our political psychology through our political rhetoric." But his real target was the radical right of 1964 (especially the John Birchers), and the following passage is worth quoting at length:
"(T)he modern right wing, as (sociologist) Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high."
This was written in 1964, and it describes the "modern right wing" today.
I suggest that the Left misread the Tea Party, because of the occasional, but real, tendency to confuse power and morality. Simply put, there are serious people who seem to believe that only those with real power can be bad guys; the corollary, of course, is that to be weaker is to be a nicer guy. (In a fine reply to Edward Said, Judith Shulevitz points out that if you take the weaker = good guy position to its reductio ad absurdum,you end up supporting the South during the Civil War.) A current example: A New York Times article (10/20/2010) reported on climate change doubt among Tea Party members. It began by quoting a couple of skeptics after after a congressional debate in Indiana--so far, so good. But the article then veered off into a report of how climate change skepticism is promoted and financed by energy companies and lobbyists. While the article is informative, it seems to imply that the Tea Party faithful are being manipulated by powerful corporate interests. But this analysis is shaky. Interviews showed how many of the skeptics are guided by by religious belief: "I read my Bible," said one Norman Dennison: "He made this earth for us to utilize." It is this fundamentalist worldview that makes some people receptive to anti-science propaganda. Armey and Berman are just giving the Tea Baggers what they want--not telling them what they want.
Many liberals, especially professional politicians, were loath to go after the Tea Party protesters at a time when many people were losing their jobs and/or homes (although surveys showed that the Tea baggers themselves are usually not the unemployed or those without health insurance). While many commentators were willing to dispute Beck and critique Armey, very few thought it wise to criticize the rank and file protesters; maybe they feared being labeled elitist or condescending. But to not confront the Tea Party protesters had one unforeseen effect--it made liberals appear weak. This is not an appeal for a "politics as war" metaphor; of course, we should be civil. (Nor is it a missive for mockery--dissing people because they cannot spell goes only so far.) But there is nothing wrong with treating adults as adults, and that means subjecting wacky ideas to rigorous criticism and rigorous politics. While we cannot throw those two bullies in Ohio a beatdown, they should at least have been the butt of a political ad. We all know that, with the roles reversed, the Right would have done so with alacrity.
Even Taibbi, while willing and able to criticize, evokes a degree of sympathy:
"They want desperately to believe in the one-size-fits-all, no-government theology... because it's so easy to understand. At times, their desire to withdraw from the brutally complex global economic system that is an irrevocable fact of our modern life and get back to a simpler world that no longer exists is so intense, it breaks your heart."
No, it should not break your heart. In the political arena, we are not obligated to feel compassion for an adult who openly carries a firearm at a political event--when we know the real purpose is intimidation. We do not need to be patient with someone willing to display a picture of the first African-American president of the United States with a bone in his nose--especially when we realize that he really means it. Much has been written suggesting that while the Tea Party may enjoy electoral success in the short run, their irrationality will make it impossible to govern. I suggest that, to hasten their demise, we need to take them very seriously--from Glen Beck to that angry guy with the hostile sign.
The writer was a history major and eschews all hot beverages.
Broder, John M. "Climate Change Doubt is Tea Party Article of Faith." New York Times, October 20, 2010.
Hofstadter, Richard. "The paranoid style in American politics." Harper's, November 1964.
Lakoff, George. Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Moore Jr., Barrington. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Beacon Press, Boston, 1966.
Taibbi, Matt. "How corporate interests and Republican insiders built the Tea Party monster." Rolling Stone, October 15, 2010.
Wilentz, Sean. "Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party’s Cold War roots." The New Yorker, October 18, 2010.