Wishing the Tea Party Away? By Kyle Spencer
- The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History, Jill Lepore, Princeton University Press.
- The Big Sort: Why The Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, Bill Bishop, Mariner Books.
- Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America, Kate Zernike, Times Books.
Rowdy Tea Party enthusiasts catapulted to fame at outdoor events in April 2009, festooned in conical hats and leather knee-breaches, powdered George-Washington-style wigs, and woolen waistcoats (as if this sartorial display would provide the required proof of their allegiance to a past they had newly imagined.) They rallied on balding patches of grass along beat-up highways, and in government parking lots, displaying home-made signs that proclaimed their rage and disillusionment. “Don’t Tread on Me” became their oft-repeated motto. “Cut Taxes not Defense,” was another, providing a disturbing, visual aid for those unaware of the nonsensical logic that had taken hold of them.
Members of the political Left, repulsed by Tea Party ire, could hardly contain their disdain. There was their originalist interpretation of the Constitution to scorn, their a-historic understanding of what had really happened in 1773. There was what historian Jill Lepore describes in The White of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History as “their broadly anti-intellectual relationship to the past,” an odd, almost mystical belief that “we are there” and “they are here.” There was their overconfident snubbing of a political system that had been tweaked repeatedly since FDR’s New Deal to serve the common good. And there was their selfish hypocrisy which Matt Tabai wrote about in his scathing 2010 Rolling Stone piece in which he described blue-haired Tea Party activists showing up at a Sarah Palin event in Kentucky to protest against government spending, while they tootled around on expensive, “Medicaire-paid scooters.” And then of course, there was their distrust of the new president, which carried the faint - and sometimes not to so faint - odor of racism.
Unsure about what to do with this right-of-center-populist blob, the Left did something curious. It tried to convince the nation that Tea Party numbers were so negligible, it was as if the movement didn’t really exist at all. This, despite numerous 2009 polls – including one conducted by The New York Times and another by Quinnipiac – that showed that at the height of the Tea party fervor, a whopping 18 percent of the population allied itself with Tea Party mores. These people were vocal about the fact that they didn’t like taxes, didn’t like the TARP bail-out. And they were quite certain no one in Washington was listening to them. Still, Nancy Pelosi and her cronies on Capitol Hill took to the airwaves and our email inboxes to announce that what we were seeing wasn’t an authentic movement of enraged citizens, but a vibrant display of astro-turfing, a term coined in the 1980’s to refer to political uprisings that had not sprung from true grass-roots organizing– but from the epicenter of well-funded political think tanks and corporate boardrooms.
Stellar investigative work on the part of national news outlets found that, indeed, it was right-wing non-profit outfits like FreedomWorks, founded by former Texas representative Dick Armey, who were helping to grow the movement. According to Kate Zernik’s instructive book Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America, FreedomWorks had been trying to ignite just such a populist rising for years. Not surprisingly, Armey, one of the co-authors of the Contract with America, and his free-market buddies immediately jumped on the chance to join the groundswell. They offered Tea Party activists training workshops, talking points and money.
David and Charles Koch, the loathed billionaire brothers, who have been described as “Right-of-Reagan” also stepped in with cash. Over the years, they have delivered close to $200 million to hyper conservative candidates and their causes. It made sense, from their privileged vantage point to support a swath of the population who had somehow become convinced - Fox News gets a wink here - that the average American’s financial problems were intricately linked to excessive government involvement.
Admittedly, these fellows, jazzed by the crowd, were deeply implicated. But in a desperate twist born out of a genuine befuddlement over what to do, the Left didn’t just blame the Kochs of the world for supporting deranged Tea Partiers, it presented a dubious case that suggested they were the Tea Partiers. If one were to do a psychological analysis of sorts, one would have to assume that what was really going on here constituted a deep denial, rooted in both fear and dismay. For if it were true that all these people really believed this stuff they were spouting, it would also seem to be true that the Democrats, who believe the opposite, had done a crappy job, despite their 2007 victory, of getting their word out.
All said, it wasn’t actually Tea Party allies as much as Tea party anger, that uncouth, inelegant ire emanating from white, middle class Americans, that really unsettled progressives. When I talked to journalists about their stop-ins at Tea party events, I heard about the rage. And when I myself met with Tea party activists in Long Island, I too was struck by it. It was unsightly. It was hard to address, it was occasionally bigoted. And it was founded on a premise that we progressives, still high on the recent Obama victory, didn’t want to deal with, although it was a premise we ourselves would come to recognize as wholly true just a few years later: That Obama did not, in fact, really give a shit, not just about them, but about most of us.
Were some of The Tea party activists motivated by a disturbing racism? Yes. But there was something else at play here. And it had its roots in a class warfare that had nothing to do with race and a lot to do with who Obama could stand to be around.
At the time, though, there was nothing more repulsive to your run-of-the-mill leftie, than an angry white guy standing on a flatbed truck, hollering about government waste and wondering out loud if anyone in Washington gave a rat’s ass about him?
In retrospect, it would have been a good thing if The Left could have mustered up enough courage to address that oft-repeated question head on. Some words of encouragement might have helped, some reframing of the debate, some recognition that the economy did stink and many municipal governments did have outlandish tax rates, and that if you were anything but Uber rich, this could really be a pain in the ass, particularly if your house was under water. But that would have required a level of soul searching that no one on The Left was interested in doing. And it would have required a slew of other questions to be answered too. How had “the party of the people” allowed itself to abandon “the people?” How had the Dick Armeys of the world been able to hone in on the discontented? And why in the world had this angry mob been so readily able to accept the idea that less government was better than more?
In his book, The Big Sort: Why The Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, journalist Bill Bishop contends that over the past 30 years, Americans have slowly divided themselves into tightly-knit lifestyle pockets where we are unlikely to come in contact with anyone who does not share our ideological assumptions. In these herd-like clusters, dissent is discouraged and diversity of opinion isn’t just unwelcome it’s viewed as subversive. Bishops’ figures show that during the 1976 Carter/Ford election, 38 percent of American counties had a spread of over 20 percent. In 2004, during the Kerry/Bush election, that number had jumped to 60 percent, meaning that by 2004, in most counties most people were overwhelmingly in agreement. Were you likely to collide with a neighbor who differed politically? No, you were not. You were also unlikely to encounter someone who lived in a doublewide, if you did not; hunted, if you did not; or drank organic milk, if you did not. Bishop writes that in this environment, it is not surprising to witness “the inability of the leaders of the two political parties to find even a patch of common ground.”
It is equally unsurprising that members of The Tea Party could concoct a vision of the country’s economic well-being – no taxes, more defense, balance the budget while stimulating a stagnating economy, keep my Medicare, but I’m really opposed to “the welfare state” – that seemed wholly logical to them and completely insane to the rest of us. If Bishop is to be believed, Americans have chosen not to have conversations with people who don’t share what can be dwindled down to something fittingly bourgeois: their lifestyle choices. And it seems, so too, have our politicians. As a result, the radicalization of opinion doesn’t just run ramped, it flourishes. It also tends to offend.
In Mad As Hell, Zernike traces The Tea Party movement back to February 2009 when Keli Carender, a Seattle-based conservative blogger, organized a small rally to protest The Recovery Act.
But further into the book, readers will discover that the movement didn’t necessarily begin with Carender, but may have actually had its birth in San Francisco in April 2008, during an Obama fundraiser, when the future president spoke candidly about his views on residents of rural America by focusing in on those in small towns in Pennsylvania.
They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment. According to Zernike, Tea Party enthusiasts would seize on these words as proof of what they already knew: the president and his inner circle disdained them. As for Democrats, they didn’t blame Obama for his overly candid reflections. Instead, they were prone to chuckle and like him more. Hell, they couldn’t relate to those trashy, gun-toting rural Pennsylvanian religious zealots either?
Fast forward three plus years, past the bail outs, the lax treatment of maleficent bankers, the plan to let dubious mortgage lenders off the hook, the lame attempts to “put Americans back to work” and the tax breaks that huge corporations weasel out of us, to this summer’s searing piece in New York magazine aptly titled Obama’s Original Sin, in which The Left’s golden child – aka Frank Rich - writes of Obama’s betrayal.
The piece reads a bit like a memoir of a dysfunctional family in which the dutiful son realizes his father is really a selfish and self-absorbed fraud, despite his flowery claims to the contrary. For the thousands of left-leaning Americans who picked up that article and came to understand the collective truths which lay within its thin, glossy pages, it represented a hard-to-face wake-up call. We are all trashy Pennsylvanians now, implicated victims in a system that has screwed us in order to bolster the lifestyles of the richest of the rich, who it turns out the president rather likes.
With this established it makes sense that Tea Party rage is now bi-partisan. Down at Liberty Plaza, Occupy Wall Street continues to flourish. Purple-haired nomads in zombie Halloween costumes, survive on vegan meals donated by supporters, paint their cardboard signs and wonder: Does anyone in Washington give a rat’s ass about us?