Some weeks ago, I read The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, by Theda Skocpol, a Harvard Professor, and her grad student Vanessa Williamson. (It is difficult to tell exactly what the division of labor between them was: Terri Gross inteveriewed Williamson about the book. The authors did a lot of on-line research, Williamson reported to Terri Gross that she watched months of Fox News, and they attended Tea Party meetings in Arizona, Virginia, and their own Massachusetts. Their arguments are quite interesting.
The Tea Party is composed mainly of older Americans. (The authors are not interested in generations and made no distinction whatever between Silents and Boomers, who had they been given the chance would together have elected John McCain last time out.) Many of them have been economically successful and many of them are highly educated. The authors were careful not to make any blanket accusations of racism, although they repeat again and again that the average Tea Partier views the presence of Barack Obama in the White House as an almost unimaginable affront. What distinguishes them from other Americans, they believe, are their values. Sadly, however, the main emotion behind their activism seems to be resentment--resentment of millions of anonymous Americans whom they believe are getting benefits to which they are not entitled.
Essentially, Tea Partiers seem to be older white Americans who feel they have been rewarded for playing by the rules, and who feel that society now rewards people who do not. The targets of their resentment certainly include minority groups but they are hardly limited to them. The most disturbing finding, indeed, is that much of their resentment is directed against the youth of America, whom they regard as lazy, spoiled, and unwilling to work as hard as they did--none of which, in my opinion, is true. We are, sadly, at a moment of extreme generational inequality. Never have older Americans been so much better off than younger ones. This is one of many respects in which we have totally reversed the situation of half a century ago. The Tea Partiers are afraid of losing their benefits. (We shall return to this later: they are not, for obvious reasons, anxious to cut back on Social Security and Medicare.) They evidently do not want to face the idea that they might have to pay higher taxes to put younger people to work--exactly what Franklin Roosevelt forced his contemporaries and the middle-aged Lost Generation to do in the 1930s. They also resent immigrants, of course, even though immigrants are doing a great deal to make their lifestyles possible.
Meanwhile, the Tea Party has been "adopted," as it were, by leading national conservative organizations, particularly Karl Rove's FreedomWorks and the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity. The authors suggest, however, that these groups have quite a different agenda, involving the drastic downsizing of government and most of all, the transformation and cutting back of Social Security and Medicare. It is not clear exactly how these voters will respond to things like the Ryan Medicare plan, which passed the House with the vote of every single Republican. Meanwhile, however, they will surely do everything they can to elect Mitt Romney, because hatred and fear of Barack Obama remains their single biggest unifying force.
The scariest aspect of the book is that many Tea Partiers, helped by Fox News, truly live in an alternative reality. Many Tea Partiers genuinely believe that Obamacare institutes death panels and ends Medicare. They buy line, so beloved of Limbaugh and Hannity, that half the nation pays no taxes. (It is true that many less well-off Americans pay no federal income tax, but everyone with income pays payroll taxes.) Some of them think that bike paths are part of a plot to create world government--and lest this be dismissed as a harmless fantasy, may I point out that the latest Transportation budget cut funding for bike paths dramatically.
At the moment we lack any "vital center" in this country. The Supreme Court decision at least opened up the possibility that one might emerge, by allowing the law to go forward--although it also can be read vastly to cut back the federal government's power to regulate the economy. We lack a vital center because we lack an intellectual center. The Tea Party, the book makes clear, wants to prevent us from attaining one. Its members have written off everyone who does not agree with them.