There’s an old story, probably apocryphal, that’s often told about Adlai Stevenson. Supposedly, at one of Stevenson’s campaign stops, a woman yelled to him “You have the vote of every thinking person!” To which, the story goes, Stevenson replied “That’s not enough, madam, we need a majority!“
It’s the sort of story that resonates with any one who has any interest whatsoever in politics, at least now that Stevenson is so far back in history that he has ceased to have any power to divide people politically. Everyone always feels like their side–right though it undoubtedly is–is also an oppressed minority, overwhelmed by hordes of uninformed imbeciles motivated only by the propaganda of shadowy elites.
This is the view that is held both by the members of the Tea Party and by most of the people who oppose them. And I suppose this is so because it is partially correct–and necessarily so, given the way politics works in this country.
The Tea-Party is, as I have said before, a re-branding of the Republican party to make it seem more fresh and exciting, but most of all to dissociate it from the unpopular George W. Bush and his administration.
Now, this does not mean the Tea Party is quite the same thing as the Republican Party; obviously, from day one they have sought to purge anyone who shows any signs of compromising with the Democrats from the party’s ranks. They appear to be insistent on ideological purity.
Many Democrats have tried to label the Tea Party as an “astroturf” (fake grass-roots) operation, citing Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks organization and the work of the Koch Brothers. And they are to some extent correct, though I suspect every large movement and every mass demonstration has some wealthy backers, if anyone cares to check.
But what does the Tea Party, as an organization, want? Most people who are sympathetic to them have said they are a sort of Libertarian movement, which claims to want smaller government. Those who oppose them say that they are racists. The Tea Partiers deny this, saying they only oppose “Big Government”.
Data about what the members of the Tea Party think about certain issues are at odds with the slogans they yell. As I noted earlier, a majority of Tea Partiers think free trade is bad for the country. This is not exactly a Libertarian position. Yet they continue to argue for capitalism, and despise governmental attempts at economic intervention.
So from all this we are to gather that they are clamoring for a free market, nothing more. Yet so often they are found not talking about this stuff at all, but about “restoring honor to the country” and “American exceptionalism” and “taking their country back”. They are always dressed in super-patriotic garb, always waving the flag and talking of the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. This is all complemented by a dose of fundamentalist Christianity–often with the implication that the Christian God blessed America specifically as the “greatest nation”.
This is, as I’ve said many times, nationalism. Not necessarily ethnic nationalism, as so many will infer. It may well be a completely non-racist, non-ethnically prejudiced nationalism, but nationalism it is nevertheless. The “Restoring Honor” rally held by the Tea Party’s much-beloved Glenn Beck was a cry for a return to National Greatness. The American exceptionalism talk means just what it says.
And the hatred of Obama? I think that much of it is not racially motivated. If you listen to the Tea Partiers, a chief complaint of theirs about Obama is that he supposedly “apologizes for America”. They want a President who will speak only of the greatness of America, a view which focuses solely on the positive things it has done. (At this point, they usually make some reference to the phrase “Shining City upon a Hill“.)
I believe Obama damned himself completely in the eyes of these Nationalists when he said, in response to being asked if he believed in American exceptionalism: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” This type of subjective thinking is wholly, dare I say it, foreign to the religious nationalist’s worldview.
“It’s a mistake to cast the Tea Party as anything like a unified, cohesive movement — which makes them easy prey for the very people they should be aiming their pitchforks at. A loose definition of the Tea Party might be millions of pissed-off white people sent chasing after Mexicans on Medicaid by the handful of banks and investment firms who advertise on Fox and CNBC.”
The second sentence is accurate to an extent–though some would couch it differently–but the first part seems blind to the fact that virtually everything the Tea Party movement does is filled with symbols of Americanism and references to American history–not necessarily accurate history, of course, but some romanticized version of it. The underlying theme of it all is a longing for National Pride and National Greatness.
So, the rank-and-file Tea Partiers are nationalists. They want to protect American jobs through protectionist measures, punish illegal immigrants, deny any mistakes made by America through history, and above all restore “National Greatness”. This is the will of the majority of Tea Party participants.
But, it must be remembered, these are only the foot soldiers, not the generals. “Theirs not to reason why“, they simply are carrying out the strategy laid out by the other aspect of the Tea Party: the businessmen who finance the whole thing.
This is where the Libertarian strain comes from. The people who fund the Tea Party have no interest in “National Greatness” either for the United States or for any other nation. They just want to be able to make deals to do business with China, or to keep costs down by not having too many environmental standards to comply with at their factories.
This is not the sort of thing most people would get on board with–largely because, as often as not, capitalism works in opposition to nationalism. (For example: sending American jobs over to China? No American nationalist could ever sign off on that, even if an economist justified it with Ricardian comparative advantage.)
Hence, the need to on the one hand spread the Capitalist system while on the other giving the Nationalistic streak in the party something to distract it from the details of how the system works. Much better that the Nationalists should be told the government that is regulating the capitalists is “anti-American” than to try to defend the decidedly non-nationalistic behaviors of capitalism itself.
The late Conservative political scientist Samuel P. Huntington wrote of the “Davos Man“. Named for the site of the World Economic Forum, Huntington said such people “have little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the élite’s global operations”.
This is, of course, exactly the sort of thing that Glenn Beck and his followers are always talking about, hinting at dark conspiracies to destroy the American way of life by international socialism. And, I suppose there is a kind of truth to it; though it isn’t really a secret conspiracy. (If it were, we wouldn’t hear about it.) The point, though, is that there are also international capitalists who have just as little interest in national loyalty, but who are willing to exploit it for their own sake.
This conclusion is somewhat unsatisfying, mostly because, as I said at the beginning of this post, it is precisely the kind of thing that everyone concludes about the opposing side, no matter who they are. And furthermore, it is because this is the sort of thing that naturally arises in our system of politics. The same sort of dynamic exists in the Democratic Party; and I’m sure if one looked one could find contradictions between the intellectuals at the top and the working-class rank-and-file.
If one is sympathetic to the overall goals of a party, one calls it a “compromise”, and hails the miraculous union of these viewpoints. But if one is unsympathetic, it is a “contradiction”, and a bizarre cabal with one side pulling the others’ strings.
In any case, however, this is my conclusion as to the structure and philosophy of the Tea Party. Feel free to critique it.