After its primary victories last week in Delaware and New York—following ones in Kentucky, Arizona, and Alaska—we have no choice but to take the Tea Party seriously. Come 2011, we are likely to have mama grizzlies in the House and Senate, and the movement’s gravitational pull is capturing traditional Republicans by the day.
So who are these people and what do they want from us? A series of polls, as well as be-ins like Glenn Beck’s Washington rally last month, have given us a picture of a movement predominated by middle-class, middle-aged, white men angry about the expansion of government and hostile to societal change. But that profile could accurately describe the past several right-wing insurgencies, from the California tax revolt of the late 1970s to the Contract with America of 1994, not to mention the very Republican establishment that the Tea Party positions itself against. What’s distinctive about the Tea Party is its anarchist streak—its antagonism toward any authority, its belligerent self-expression, and its lack of any coherent program or alternative to the policies it condemns.
In this sense, you might think of the Tea Party as the right’s version of the 1960s New Left. It’s a community of likeminded people coming together to assert their individualism and subvert the established order. But where the New Left was young and looked forward to a new Aquarian age, the Tea Party is old and looks backward to a capitalist-constitutionalist paradise that, needless to say, never existed. The strongest note in its tannic brew is nostalgia. Tea Partiers are constantly talking about “restoring honor,” getting back to America’s roots, and “taking back” their country.
How far back to take it back is one of the questions that divides the movement. The tricorn-hat brigade holds the most extreme libertarian view: a constitutional fundamentalism that would limit the federal government to the exercise of enumerated powers. The Roanoke Tea Party, for example, proposes a Freedom for Virginians Act, which would empower the state to invalidate laws it deems unconstitutional. It’s been settled business that you can’t do this since the Supreme Court decided McCullough v. Maryland in 1819, but never mind. Beck, a century more modern, feeds his audience quack history that says the fall from grace was the progressive era, when Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson introduced socialism into the American bloodstream.
Other than nostalgia, the strongest emotion at Tea Parties is resentment, defined as placing blame for one’s woes on those either above or below you in the social hierarchy. This finds expression as hostility toward a variety of elites: the “liberal” media, “career” politicians, “so-called” experts, and sometimes even the hoariest of populist targets, Wall Street bankers. These groups stand accused of promoting the interest of the poor, minorities, and immigrants—or in the case of the financiers, the very rich—against those of middle-class taxpayers.
Anti-elitism is hardly a fresh theme for Republicans. But here too, the Tea Partiers take it to a new level. The most radical statement of individualism is choosing your own reality, and to some in the Tea Party, the very fact that experts believe something is sufficient to disprove it. The media’s insistence that Barack Obama was born in the United States, or that he is a Christian rather than a Muslim, merely fuels their belief to the contrary. Other touchstones include the view that Obama has a secret plan to deprive Americans of their guns, that global warming is a leftist hoax, and that—according to Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell—there’s more evidence for creationism than for evolution.
Nostalgia, resentment, and reality denial are all expressions of the same underlying anxiety about losing one’s place in the country, or of losing control of it to someone else. When you look at the surveys, the Tea Partiers are not primarily the victims of economic transformation, but rather those whose position is threatened by social change. Because racial bias is unacceptable both in American political culture and in an individualist ideology, Tea Partiers don’t say directly what Pat Buchanan used to: that moving from a predominantly white Christian nation to a majority nonwhite one is bad and should be stopped. Instead, their resistance finds sublimated expression through the reality-distortion field: Beck’s claim that Obama “has a deep-seated hatred of white people” or Dinesh D’Souza’s Gingrich-endorsed theory that Obama is a Kenyan Mau Mau in mufti. Of no previous movement has Richard Hofstadter’s depiction of populism as driven by “status anxiety” been so apt.
For the Republican Party, the rise of the Tea Party is the essence of a mixed blessing. The political problem is how to co-opt the movement’s energy and motivational anger without succumbing to its incoherence and being tainted by the wacko voices within it. This is something the Democrats were fundamentally unable to do with the New Left in the 1960s, and the Tea Party’s radicalism threatens the GOP in a similar way. We’ve seen party elders confront this challenge week by week through the primaries, with senior figures within the GOP furiously recalibrating their visceral horror at the nutball purity of a Rand Paul or Sharron Angle into expressions of support and encouragement. Liberals may be humoring themselves, but for the moment it’s fun to watch slippery conservative politicians—Newt, Mitt Romney—try to scramble to ride the tiger.
As mobs go, Republicans will find this one will be especially hard to lead, pacify, or dispel. The Tea Party is fundamentally about venting anger at change it doesn’t like, not about fixing what’s broken. Turn the movement’s rage into a political program and you’ve already betrayed it.