So I figured it was time to make a foray into the weird, wacky, wonderful world of the tea parties. To coin a phrase, what’s up with that?
First, a shameless plug: in 2004 I published Rage on the Right, which examined the rise and relative decline of the 1990s militia movement. One of the things I pointed out was that movements/groups like the militias were embedded in American political culture and so while the militias themselves had declined precipitously by 2001, they weren’t “gone.” The values they express and the ideas they espouse “make sense” in the context of American political culture, and so long as that culture contains the unique stuff it does, groups like the militias, or other groups evoking similar themes, were sure to persist in the United States. Boys howdy was I ever right.
Second, an admission: I absolutely misperceived the tea party movement when it started. I saw it as filling the void in some fairly empty news cycles, largely astro-turfed by conservative think tanks and activists. That may have been true at the time—although I am by no means sure that it was—but it is certainly not true now. The tea partiers have captured some weltanschauung, and they are running with it, for better and for worse.
It seems to me that any foray into tea partydom needs to examine at least 2 things: what they want, and how they seek to act on their goals. The first, so far, is much less clear than the second.
The name “tea party,” of course, is intended to evoke images of the Boston Tea Party, the American rebellion against taxation without representation, and the rejection of central political authority over our lives, among other things. The name defines adherents as acting in the spirit of America’s original patriots against impending or active tyranny. It is, in fact, a brilliant piece of political branding.
And yet when you look at exactly what it is tea partiers want, the picture becomes much more muddled. Okay: lower/no new taxes. No federal government health care. Less government regulation = freedom, especially for businesses. Frankly, in the context of US political culture, these are fairly mundane and predictable. They might be “real” American conservatives, given that Republicans in the GW Bush era fell as much or more in love with big government than Democrats supposedly are. After all, if liberals are always “tax and spenders,” Republicans in the Bush era were “don’t tax but spend anyway.” The tea party movement may have its proximate cause in healthcare reform, but the broader context spreads blame to both parties.
But of course you can’t get something for nothing, and if you want to reduce taxes and regulations in one area, there’s going to be a price to pay somewhere else. So far, the tea partiers haven’t had to try to square the circle of their beliefs. For example, something around 70% of the federal budget goes to precisely 5 programs: defense, Social Security (an income transfer program from working persons to retired persons), Medicaid (healthcare for non-veteran senior citizens), interest on the national debt (which you have to pay if you expect lenders to keep loaning), and the bank bailouts—which are, at least hopefully, temporary. Everything else—roads, schools, parks, veterans’ benefits, food and drug safety, and everything usually called “welfare”—is in the remaining 30%. You could cut every program in those remaining 30% and the US would STILL have a deficit. You can eliminate Social Security now, for all people for all time, and the deficit would go UP because right now Social Security collects more revenue than it expends, and while the federal government is supposed to be saving this money for future use, it in fact has transferred the surplus revenues to the general budget since the surplus was created in 1986.
And, of course, Social Security is popular. So is Medicare—especially among retirees, some of whom inhabit the tea party movement. (My favorite tea party sign opposing heath care reform this summer demanded, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” Just amazing.) “Welfare” runs to about 8% of the federal budget, which is nowhere near enough to get rid of the deficit—and of course people might find increased pressure on them to give at their churches, synagogues and mosques to handle to influx of charity cases once welfare programs are eliminated.
Moreover, while I was among those angered by the bank bailout, especially by the early decisions that essentially sent $350 billion into the system that cannot be accounted for, I get why it was done, at least from the perspective of Keynesian economics. I get why the infusion of cash may well have staved off a depression. What I have not heard from the tea partiers is: what was their preferred alternative? In the moment of near-collapse, what would they have done and why would it have been better than the bailout? Frankly, I don’t think they have an answer to these questions—which is a problem if you want to do more than criticize what others are doing, and go out and do something yourself.
And then things get a little stranger. There is, after all, no such thing as the “Tea Party,” and there is no central party authority capable of vetting the many claims and demands of movement members. And many evoke conspiracy themes long-embedded in the wacko right of the American political spectrum. (Yes, there’s a wacko left, but it’s not relevant here.) Themes like there are secret government internment facilities under construction to imprison true Americans—e.g., tea partiers. Or that unknown forces—the ZOG (Zionist Occupied Government), or the Trilateral Commission, or what GHW Bush called the New World Order (which Glen Beck now cites in fear and trepidation)—seek to impose a universal government on Americans, thus voiding our national sovereignty. The whole Obama-is-a-Muslim-Kenyan-Indonesian thing works in this context, too. Most recently, notions of armed resistance have entered tea party activist rhetoric—in addition to carrying guns at rallies, some adherents claim the right to use force to prevent the federal government from destroying liberty. (A further shameless plug: there’s lots of analysis of this stuff in Rage on the Right.)
It’s going to be hard to win much if such memes become the face of the movement, and if adherents can’t come up with coherent plans for government action that might actually square with their stated goals.
As for tactics, they seem a little clearer: either the creation of an effective third party, or the takeover of the Republican Party from below. Of these two, the second is actually more likely: conservatives purged moderates from the Republican Party by taking over state-level offices in the 1970s and 1980s. The means to do so still exist: elect your people to precinct offices that determine who county officers are who determine who state level officers are who determine who national level officers are. Parties in the US work from the bottom-up, and since no one ever runs for precinct level offices, they’re not that hard to take over.
Meanwhile, it’s been since the Republican Party replaced the Whig Party in 1854-56 that a third party established a permanent presence on the American political stage. Since then, major parties generally coopt the position of emergent third parties, thereby reducing the raison d’etre of the third party. Notably, the Republicans of 1854 had an issue that the Whigs couldn’t coopt: they were abolitionists, whereas the Whigs weren’t. (The Democratic Party of the time was pro-slavery.) Low taxes and reduced regulations are not issues like slavery, so cooptation is more likely than permanent party status.
But it seems to me the tea partiers have a bigger tactical problem: electoral math. Ideological purity is emotionally satisfying, but usually isn’t a particularly effective electoral strategy in a system that elects people to office in single-member plurality districts. If 80% of Americans like Social Security (and the percentage is higher), then demands to cut taxes and cut programs runs into a simple problem: no meaningful cuts can take place unless Social Security and other popular entitlements are cut. The same is true for defense and Medicare and other big ticket items. Whatever the tea partiers may hope is true, the evidence is clear: Americans like social programs, They just don’t like paying for them. Which is why they elect people who expand them while cutting taxes … and borrowing money … annoying the tea partiers.
I am going to have material forever!
So, groups like the tea partiers are always going to be with us, even if (as is likely) the particular movement of the moment changes. We’ll see a few more cycles of their activism, and then it will decline as the circumstances that brought them to life change. But don’t worry: they, or their posterity, will be back. It’s America.