Tea Party Follow-up

So after my last Tea Party post, I’ve been trying to track down more information about the movement. One interview does not an investigation make. Here’s what I’ve dug up:

The Tea Party consists of fellow citizens whose participation is welcome. I reject treating them as dupes of shadowy corporate lobbies or as racists. (Since racism is intermingled with ideology and economics in the United States, no movement is simply innocent–but I would need a lot more evidence before I would uniquely indict the Tea Partiers on that score.) All that said, their brand of politics seems the opposite of what we need. They interpret standard economic policies–like a stimulus during a recession–as signs of immanent tyranny, thus turning our mainstream debate into a struggle for our national survival. That creates a very difficult environment for governance and problem-solving–even if one happens to favor a smaller role for government.

The point is that the Tea Party movement is not nearly as exogenous as it seems. It is a movement of a certain type of Republican-leaning independent. […]

There is a distinct ideological dimension to the Tea Partiers; they are “fed up” with both parties, but they are, quite plainly, more “fed up” that the Republican establishment does not seem to embrace their emotional valence. If they’re satisfied, they’ll vote Republican.

If they’re disatisfied, they won’t vote Republican. (They won’t vote for Democrats in either case.) I would hazard a guess that Tea Partiers, though they exist in marginal districts, tend to be more numerous in heavily Republican districts. So perhaps we overstate the degree to which Tea Party enthusiasm, per se, translates into Republican political success in the midterms.

Both movements are built on the assumption that the people are pure and virtuous and that evil is introduced into society by corrupt elites and rotten authority structures. “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains,” is how Rousseau put it.[…]

Because of this assumption, members of the Tea Party right, like the members of the New Left, spend a lot of time worrying about being co-opted. They worry that the corrupt forces of the establishment are perpetually trying to infiltrate the purity of their ranks.

Because of this assumption, members of both movements have a problem with authority. Both have a mostly negative agenda: destroy the corrupt structures; defeat the establishment. Like the New Left, the Tea Party movement has no clear set of plans for what to do beyond the golden moment of personal liberation, when the federal leviathan is brought low.

In my book, that’s a pretty good recommendation.

As I’ve said, the Tea Party is largely up for grabs: there are at least three factions each trying to unify the coalition. The Tea Party Nation put on the Nashville convention, but that was boycotted by other factions. If you spend enough time on Google, you’ll come across I am the Tea Party Leader. Who’s in charge? The Youtube generation, Time’s 2006 Person of the Year: You.

It’s this internal factionalism that distinguishes the Tea Party from other conservative movements: under a generic historical allusion, resentments, ideologies, and ideas are duking it out for recognition and perhaps control. This Time Magazine piece captures some of that localism and resistance to unification: Why the Tea Party Movement Matters.

One of the worst things about the latest incarnation of conservatism was the weird attachment to strong authority figures, whether it be Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Bill O’Reilly, or George W. Bush. That over-trusting attitude towards older white men created a scary resemblance between conservatism and authoritarianism, which isn’t a particularly conservative doctrine. The Tea Party as it currently stands seems to have more in common with traditional conservative and modern progressive efforts in its rejection of centralized authority, representative strongmen, and traditional masculinity.

Of course, much of this analysis depends on parsing the relationship between the Tea Party and Glenn Beck: he seems at once an uncharismatic leader and a drama-queen sideshow. A lot of this got organized through his 9/12 Project, and he certainly represents the most emotionally manipulative side of the movement. We’ll see if he succeeds in dominating the whole thing and redirecting the energies into the post ’94 Republican neo-con/theo-con/paleo-con convergence. My claim is simply that this is far from fait accompli. Based on what I’ve been reading lately, I’m beginning to think he lost control as the movement grew larger after the heavily publicizes 9/12 rally, but it’s clear he plays an important role still from his bully pulpit on Fox. Some of the same goes for Sarah Palin, but it seems important that CPAC voted for Ron Paul.

Right now, I’m thinking of the Tea Party in line with early-20th Century Progressivism. Of course, that’s ironic, since the movement seems to combine a distaste for a particular brand of Progressive “expertocracy” with strands of nativism and small government rhetoric. But much like the early Progressive-era policies of the Wisconsin Republican Party, the real evil for many Tea Party members is “The Curse of Bigness,” centralization, and the experience of alienation from supposedly-democratic governance. Also like the Progressive movement, the title ‘progressive’ or ‘Tea Party’ itself has become so overused that it no longer identifies a unified or directed ideology or movement. Though the largest Tea Party organizations are run by GOP PACs and Republican-affiliated consulting firms, the majority of ordinary members don’t know about or endorse that affiliation. Instead, they’re fleeing the Republican party in search of authenticity, like the Green Party on the left. In this sense, the efforts to ‘astroturf’ the movement might still be undermined by an actual grassroots movement of disaffected citizens.

The Bush Jr. administration wasn’t very small-c conservative, after all, but he campaigned and won on ‘compassionate conservatism’ and non-intervention in foreign affairs. It might not have seemed a credible claim to Democrats and left-leaning Independents, but many people voted for Bush Jr. on that basis. That’s what they want, and they deserve honest representation. What’s more, that kind of principled conservatism seems to promise a much better loyal opposition partner for the Democrats than the current Republican party. I’m no conservative, but I do believe that it is possible that a new and differently organized iteration of the conservative faction would be better for both public deliberation and for the country as a whole.

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