Featured Post

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Sunday, July 08, 2012

The Tea Party

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.


Anonymous said...

You mention Fox News. If we go back before cable TV (early 80s) and satellite TV, and internet we see a boring news feed of 3 networks wtih Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather or PBS for the intellectual crowd. The possibility of "living in your own little Idaho"


has become real. I however go to work and see people from Africa, Asia, Turkey, Balkans, Russia, South America but lots of them go home and read internet or see TV or read newspapers in their own languages and take vacation "back home" when possible (this is same in USA for immigrants certainly). So integration is slower for new immigrants (38 million in USA are immigrants= 13%) due to cheap travel and sat. TV and the older local population becomes more inflexible by nature of aging and remains attached to ever more insular views on everything. Remember the "Know Nothing Party" of the 1850s at a time of large imiigration and. Add to the stress of social change (sexuality/civil rights/women`s rights and constant technical change plus the revolution of opened markets of China and Eastern Europe) and we see people drowning in uncertainty, overloaded with emotional and other information that the can't "Grok". If a boomer was a "really cool dude" back then tuned out of the scene for a while and went to live somewhere where he was not in the middle of the action of foreigners and technology and sexual freedom then he is now out of touch. So this is a reactionary force in truth.

Bozon said...


Many thanks for this insightful squibb on their book.

You point at the end that we lack a vital center because we lack an intellectual center.

I dare say here this has almost always been the case. It was institutionalized, it seems to me, but i am open to criticism on that.

Nonetheless, I have been reading Collins The sociology of Philosophies, a study of global intellectual change.

He talks about the limited attention space occupied by intellectuals, discusses the material bases underpinning litellectual networks, and many other interesting things.

Is it possible that we have had an embarrasment of riches re support for intellectual positions; perhaps even institutionalized too many intellectual slots, to use some of his lingo?

Even made it impossible for a dominant intellectual position to emerge and flourish?

Just some random thoughts on your essay here.

All the best,

Bruce Wilder said...

I wonder if you are familiar with Bob Altemeyer's work on the political psychology of authoritarians. His 2006 book, the Authoritarians, is available as a free download; just google it.

Concentrating a lot of frightened, authoritarian followers, unalloyed, into any political grouping, he finds, is a recipe for disaster. As a proportion in a varied admixture, authoritarian followers strengthen a social organization, but isolated, they attract as leaders people oriented, as the political psychologists would say, to social domination -- demagogues bent on cynical manipulation in common language: so, Dick Armey, Karl Rove and the Koch brothers.

FDR had both the advantage and disadvantage of the crazy quilt politics of the early 20th century Democratic Party, which put a lot of people with the political attitudes of authoritarian followers into the Democratic Party, including the legacy of populism and the industrial and trade unions. One of the reasons, we lack a "vital center", as you put it, is that liberalism and neoliberalism, with control of the Democratic establishment, is hostile to authoritarian followers. It is all a liberal can do, to refrain from yelling, "racist!" Populist economic policies -- trade protection, control of borders, etc., trigger an allergic reaction in many liberals. The neoliberals just want to find clever ways to scam them further.

I expect many of the most adamant Tea Partiers are actually economically privileged, and not as uncomfortable with a pro-plutocratic economic agenda, as a wider, poorer audience might be. The great bulk of those, who, in earlier generations, because they were marginalized in the economy, responded in desperation to populist appeals, are simply ignored by our political system. Some may kid themselves that Obama is not even more pro-plutocratic than George W. But, mostly, they have no hope in politics, and they are right to have no hope.

Anonymous said...

Along with the disparity in wealth between older and younger Americans, there seems to be a, dare I say, zeitgeist of self-interest however misguided it may be. In fact, it is misguided precisely because elite actors have defined the terms in which instrumental reason masquerades as practical reason and, transitively, distorts the technical aspects of how a democratic society should debate important policy issues. I think this goes beyond Habermas' communication action -- we are living in a Habermasian Hell from which an escape seems nearly impossible. Given the power of the media to extend fictions and conspiracy theories, and the lack of critical thinking among the vast majority of not only America but the world, I can only predict that intellectuals are in for a rough ride. Again, sadly, we learn that ignorance is bliss. ;-) Kevin of Arabia