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Nov. 22 2009 - 10:42 pm | 168 views | 3 recommendations | 8 comments

The True Meaning of The Tea Party Phenomenon

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My first encounter with the tea party movement was as an undergrad at the University of Georgia. I’d heard about the Tax Day “Tea Parties” — a very ironic name, in my opinion, because the Boston Tea Party was actually protesting a lowering of a tax on a foreign, state-backed  corporation (the East India Trading Company), and the lack of democratic accountability over the move, not just taxes in general — and I decided to run over and see what all the commotion was about.

After a rowdy event where friends of mine were pushed, called racist names — a Korean friend I had was derided with the N-word, which is something that confuses me to this day — I was able to describe the event with only a brief phrase to someone who asked me about it later: “Those were the craziest people I’d ever met.”

Yet my feelings about the tea party phenomenon have changed since then. It’s not that I agree with them — on the contrary, I think the movement as a whole has devolved even further as far as seeking actual tangible goals, and if maintaining the most disturbing health care system in the world is one of them, I want no part of that — it’s that I’ve taken a greater interest in what motivates these people, and by doing so, I’ve learned that it simply isn’t productive to call these people crazy. Instead, they are byproduct of the politics of our time — the feeling of desperation common among so many Americans, and the crazy and cynical demagogues like Glenn Beck and Dick Armey who stand ready to exploit desperation.

What finally brought me to this conclusion in a way that I feel ready to write about it was something I saw this weekend. I had a visitor come in from outside the Beltway, and we went over to the Capitol to watch the sunset. As we sat there, we watched as a woman dressed in Uncle Sam colors carrying two brooms and banners with “CAPITALISM” splashed over them walked by. We exchanged bewildered looks, and as the person got closer, it became obvious that they were part of the tea party gang — they were there to protest the Senate vote to allow debate on health care (one of the bizarre elements of our system is that it takes sixty votes in the Senate to even agree to allow something to be debated).

As this person walked off into the distance, turning into a silhouette against the coming evening, I turned to my visitor and told them, “I don’t agree with them, but I admire the fact that she’s willing to do that.” Here we had someone who probably lives nowhere near the Capitol or Washington, D.C., willing to dress pretty ridiculously and carry around brooms outside the U.S. Capitol, knowing they’ll probably not impact much of anything at all. Something inside of me — maybe the part of me that took part in raucous and disruptive living wage protests at my University that were part of the movement that had our University Council pass, unanimously, a resolution outlining boosting the wages of all low-wage employees there — looked at what that woman was doing, however much I disagreed with it, as an expression of patriotism.

A few months ago, I had a chance to talk to a lot of tea partyers. The one overwhelming theme I found among all of them — other than their fiery and odd-among-the-developed-world hatred of the concept of taxation — was that they felt desperate. They felt like the government wasn’t listening to them, that the economy was plunging over a cliff, and that the only thing they could do was to pack their families into minivans and drive to Washington, D.C. to give us all a piece of their minds. Now, what they actually wanted was pretty awful — though there is little in the way of concrete goals of the tea party movement, from what I’ve seen, deregulating and cutting taxes seem to be two things that we can’t get enough — but something inside of me really felt for these people. They’ve seen, over the past three decades, their livelihoods fall apart. They’ve watched as their government became increasingly distant, and how the United States they grew up in has rapidly changed in ways few could’ve predicted (a mixed-race President with an Arab name, for starters).

Most of the tea partyers I’ve talked to aren’t just Randian selfish autobots or racists who want to see the President’s birth certificate. They’re people who see the same problems as most progressives do — their economic futures being ruined, the destructive feelings of a government that is unaccountable, the increasing tension between different geographical parts of the country — and they feel like they need to do something about it. The problem, in my view, is that the solutions to all of these problems just about any of us can see are being presented by lunatics (Glenn Beck and his radio host crowd) and cynics at the helm of corporate vehicles (Dick Armey and similar raiders come to mind) who are looking to exploit the feelings of desperation and helplessness of these people for their own means.

The reason the tea party movement has arisen is because the far right has managed to convince people that it isn’t the corporate lobbyists who’ve engineered the economic policies of the last 35 years who are responsible for the state of our economy — it’s those evil lefty bureaucrats and their allies in those all-powerful poorly paid community organizer outfits like ACORN. And the fact that people like Armey and Beck have managed to commandeer such a movement isn’t just about their evilness or the ignorance of tea party demonstrators — it’s also about the failure of those of us who are progressives to engage these people and bring them into a real populist economic movement against the right targets. Rather than mocking the largely white, southern demographic that makes up this movement, we should be trying to engage with it — no matter how difficult that is — to enlist it on our side. Because if there’s anything creeps like Beck and Armey are afraid of, it’s the people they’ve been duping all along pulling the curtain aside and realizing their predicament.

When we have the same people taking part in the tea parties marching on the offices of FreedomWorks and Cigna, then we’ll start to see real change in this country. If we’re simply going to dismiss the tea party as some crazy phenomenon and not look for its social roots, then we may have to deal with the Becks and Armeys of the world for a long time to come, and I’m willing to bet that their successors will be even worse.


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  1. collapse expand

    I totally agree that it’s a mistake to discount most of these people as crazy or a lunatic fringe. It’s true enough that Fox et al. have stoked the fires (and exaggerated their success at it.) But the resentment they have harnessed is real, and it’s the predictable result of 25 years of economic backslide for the middle class, and the sudden realization that the finance industry has rigged the game of accumulation through debt and they have been the losers.

    However it’s a mistake to act as though they have been the mere victims of mockery from the left. I hear this narrative often (especially after elections in which Republicans do well): ‘Large groups of very snotty people such as “Coastal Elites”, “Liberals”, and “San Franciscans” are helping the Republican party by driving hordes of middle Americans into their tent through the power of their sneering condescention at the Real American way of life. We make fun of their NASCAR, their accents, their guns and their Thomas Kinkaide paintings. And so they say to themselves “fuck Obama…I like the painter of light, and since he makes fun of that I’m voting Republican.” What Liberals need to do is stop mocking them and try to make friends since we share so many concerns.’

    The big flaw in this perspective is that it discounts the depth of their prejudices toward urban America. Conservative politicians win elections by openly sneering at the latte drinking liberals, and have been doing so since the Reagan years. A Democratic candidate for national office would be in a storm of controversy if he or she were to do the same thing to rural Americans. This is an urban vs. rural divide and the rural folks can hardly claim to be only on the receiving end of the bullshit.

    Zaid is dead-on when he points toward a general deterioration in the tea-partiers’ feeling of security. This is why they have, as insecure people often do, become inordinately defensive, often feeling like they must “respond” to attacks from liberals which, in fact, never even happened. The uproar over Obama’s “bitter” comments are an example.

    After the 2004 election we were subjected to the Cable News analysis that part of the reason Bush won was that small-town Americans were sick of being condescended to by urbane liberals like John Kerry. But Bush campaigned against Massachusetts and urban culture! It wasn’t because “heartlanders” were tired of all of the traditional rural vs. modern urban prejudice that they handed Bush his victory. It was because they and their candidate EMBRACED it.

    So, it’s not enough for us to stop treating them like they’re all nuts. We can make gestures and we can try to move the discussion toward policy issues of shared concern. But nothing liberals do is going to make these people stop resenting either the left, urban elites or Big Government. At best, the resentment can be re-channeled and aimed at greedy corporations and such. But to do that, the left must play the same cynical game of using these people just like the Republican party has. And even that isn’t likely to work so long as social issues such as gay marriage and abortion remain central to rural identity. So I’m not sure what there is to do besides try to put forth the best case we can for our political ideas and stand by and wait for the uneasy coalition between the social right and the free-market right to fall apart.

    • collapse expand

      RE:I totally agree that it’s a mistake to discount most of these people as crazy or a lunatic fringe.

      Well, tax raising democrats are lunatics, who but a lunatic would call for raising his own all ready high taxes?

      The frenzied tax raising of the democrats is no different than a lynching….and just like a lynching the leaders of the tax raisers, obama, pelosi, reid, will get away free, while their followers pay…

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      You make a lot of great points. It’s definitely something the GOP has used against progressives — the whole turning-the-table, those elitist liberals are out there fighting for themselves leaving Middle America behind meme — but I’ve seen plenty of progressives play into this very mindset, and it has had predictable results. We can’t let the right successfully define us; if they do that, then they capture the mantle of populism. And right wing populism can get very scary.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    You are getting some details, but missing the BIG picture.

    Our government has been drifting too far from the law. The Constitution states what the government is responsible for, and what is left to the states and the people. It guarantees personal liberty. The federal government is becoming dictatorial.

    My parents no longer tell me how to spend my money, or what to do. Nor do I dictate to my grown children. Why should the government take care of us?

    We believe in individuals helping individuals. The givers do so joyfully, the recipients gratefully. When the government redistributes wealth – takes from those who have, to give to those who have not…. the giver feels robbed, the recipient entitled. It is wrong.

    Furthermore, we believe in history. capitalism has created the greatest society – even our poor live far better than the middle class in most of the world. Socialism has been shown to fail everywhere it has been tried. So it may feel good. The promise of a paradise sounds great. It is pure theory. Has never, and will never work.

    Try watching a video called “make mine freedom” on youtube.com It is a 1948 video about how great a society the US has based on capitalism.

    Soooo the main points:
    - the US constitution still applies
    - capitalism works
    - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness

    We are promised equal opportunity, NOT equal results. Government interference, high taxes, and entitlements are destroying or culture.

    Try reading the Bill-of-rights. Perhaps you will understand.

    BTW. We disagree with OBMA’s policies, his race is irrelevant.

    • collapse expand

      To start with I want to point out I actually castigated people who would deride the tea party movement as a bunch of racists. Not only is that wrong, but it’s offensive.

      I actually checked out the video you mentioned — it’s located here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVh75ylAUXY), readers — and I have a question to ask you in response: do you know what the income tax rates were in 1948?

      I notice the cartoon didn’t mention the gigantic public investment and tough labor rules and protections that created our modern mixed-market economy — which is really what gave us our great prosperity, not a state-run model or the lassez faire extremism you hear preached by Dick Armey and the like (who by the way, certainly didn’t live that credo when he was in the government, handing out corporate welfare like dynamite at a pyromaniac convention).

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      Let me begin by stating-
      I consider myself a conservative. I fully support Ron Paul for President and I am all for smaller govt and less taxation. I might even go so far as to state that I agree with about 80% of the Tea Party’s platform. What I don’t like is how it has been hijacked by Christian Fundamentalists, FOX News puppets, and backward, knuckle-dragging individuals such as Beck and Palin and Bachmann. And I also find a deep hypocrisy and basic ignorance within the movement- Where was the Tea-Party when Bush and Ashcroft were running the US Constitution and Bill of Rights through a rusty, meat-grinder? Where were they when Bush doubled the size of Govt, engaged us in two insane wars that cost us trillions, and ran up the deficit to stratospheric levels? I guess this was all given a ‘free-pass’ somehow. I also think many in the movement are “simplistic people’ who are looking for easy answers to this country’s problems. If it were only that simple- It’s all Obama’s fault, and Democrats and illegal immigration. This type of simplistic, populist, reasoning is pure tripe. The US economy has been transformed into a “house of cards” for the last 30 years and I do not blame any one Political Party for that. I blame all of this country’s corrupt and inept leadership.
      Also, I do think there are a fair number of White Tea-Party members who are aware of this country’s changing demographics, and the fact that Whites will be a minority by year 2030. And this scares the absolute tar out of them. And people are trying to use the Tea-Party as a platform for their fear. I think this is where much of their rabid, anti-immigration anger stems from.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    About Me

    I'm a recent graduate of the University of Georgia who has found himself smack dab in the middle of Washington, D.C. working as a reporter-blogger for ThinkProgress. I'm here to do what so many young people set off to their nations' capitals to do: change the place for the better.

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