The New York Times’ article on Tea Party ‘founder’ Keli Carender, struck me as an interesting corrective to much of the treatment of the movement as either a Fox News ‘stunt’ or a wing of the Republican Party run by the same old white men with a few token non-males and non-whites. Carendar is apparently a bit of a libertarian:

“Well,” she said, thinking for a long time and then sighing. “Let’s see. Some days I’m very Randian. I feel like there shouldn’t be any of those programs [Medicaid and Medicare] that it should all be charitable organizations. Sometimes I think, well, maybe it really should be just state, and there should be no federal part in it at all. I bounce around in my solutions to the problem.”

Progressives have largely ignored this movement, because of its association with organizations like the John Birch Society and those who deny that Barack Obama is an American citizen. But I’m struck by how much the Tea Party is beginning to coalesce as a a group of bipartisan deficit hawks, fiscal conservatives, and libertarians.

The Tea Party doesn’t have settled leadership or a national platform, and its members have largely rebuffed attempts by some in the old guard of the Republican Party to define it. It also seems significantly younger than the Republican Party. In the same light, it doesn’t seem that all of the people currently flirting with the Tea Party movement would recognize themselves in the image of potentially violent disenfranchisement described by Frank Rich, who identifies an ideological affinity between the Tea Party and Joe Stack, the terrorist who flew a private plane into the IRS building in Austin, TX:

…most Tea Party groups have no affiliation with the G.O.P. despite the party’s ham-handed efforts to co-opt them. The more we learn about the Tea Partiers, the more we can see why. They loathe John McCain and the free-spending, TARP-tainted presidency of George W. Bush. They really do hate all of Washington, and if they hate Obama more than the Republican establishment, it’s only by a hair or two. The distinction between the Tea Party movement and the official G.O.P. is real, and we ignore it at our peril.

Now Rich is convinced that Tea Party members is a nascent hate group, but I’m not persuaded. Certainly there are hate groups out there, and some of them have put out feelers, trying to determine whether the Tea Party might grant them some legitimacy, as it has done for the John Birch Society. But the membership doesn’t know what it is, yet.

Because I teach college students at a pretty expensive private university, I asked this morning if anybody would be willing to talk to me about the Tea Party. I’ve just concluded a discussion with one Tea Partier, not necessarily representative, but very interesting.

  • Student X is a junior, majoring in anthropology and wants to “research human rights” by going to graduate school in the humanities or law. Her senior thesis is going to be on linguistic determinism, Sapir-Whorf and Chomsky. Her family is Republican. Her boyfriend is libertarian.
  • She attends Tea Party rallies because she believes that the stimulus bill was irresponsible and the economy would have righted itself without adding to our considerable debt. She calls the Tea Party a coalition of “fiscal conservatives.”
  • She believes that President Barack Obama is a citizen and describes herself as “socially quite liberal,” which means that she “supports gay marriage.”
  • Her biggest concern is that: “When I’m 40, the government will be bankrupt.” She claims that disagreements in politics are about fundamental values, not facts, so if she prefers “liberty to equality” that’s not a claim that anyone can “disprove.”
  • As a 20 year-old, she wasn’t old enough to have a say or an opinion on the war in Iraq, but it generally troubles her. Her primary concern in class is human rights, not the economy or even domestic politics: perhaps that’s a safer position to take with an obviously liberal professor.

I was mostly in listening mode, because I didn’t want to start an argument but rather gather more data. It was enlightening. She’s smart and a good student generally. From here on out, Student X is the face of the Tea Party for me.

What a lot of progressives are ignoring is the upside to the Frank Rich argument: the nascent Tea Party movement isn’t going away, and it’s not the same as the Republican Party. Everybody who thinks that they have the political world all figured out has to remember that there’s a new generation every decade trying to figure out the same set of problems under all new circumstances. Every year there’s a new set of freshman who think Ayn Rand is hot shit and don’t understand how it can be just for the government to tax us to spend money on the welfare of others. Every year every one of us becomes a little bit more the establishment to be ousted rather than the radicals doing the ousting.

The Tea Party is a new partisan configuration under the sun: undefined and largely un-coopted by an established set of elites. The Republican has long struggled to unite the economic policies of low taxes, free trade, deregulation with the social policies opposing abortion, gay marriage, and drug use. Ever since the Democratic Party began borrowing Republican’s economic policies, the Republicans have become increasingly irrelevant. The Tea Party could change all that by disturbing the traditional alliance between libertarians and conservative religious folks, between neo- and theo-conservatives. It could turn into anything, especially for the generation who doesn’t remember the fall of the Berlin Wall or Iran-Contra or Nixon or Vietnam. Some Tea Partiers could vote for Obama and then swing wildly in a new direction if the mood hits them because all they want is CHANGE but they don’t know what it is they want to change or how.

These are folks who’re getting their history of the Progressive Era from Glenn Beck, whose first vivid memory was planes crashing into the World Trade Center, and who spent their teens having daddy issues with George W. Bush: “I love him, he makes me feel safe!” “I hate him, he violates my privacy!” The thing about daddy is you can never stop yourself from loving him in the end, and Frank Rich is trying to warn us that we’re harboring right-wing terrorists in our midst, some of whom may simultaneously support a strong executive branch and a return to traditional values. Frank Rich is worried about fascism: he’s fearful that this new generation will decide that their lowered expectations for the future can be blamed on the Chinese or free trade or the welfare state. That’s certainly a possibility. Joe Stack proves that this kind of populism can be prone to violence. However, that doesn’t mean that the label ‘Tea Party’ is the best way to talk about a group of militias, dominionists, and white supremacists who have been resisting the New World Order since the first President Bush took office. It may instead be a new avenue for principled conservatism and enlivened political culture.

If it is going to be this new form for conservatism, a healthier conservatism than the form the Republican Party has taken over the last two decades, then it will be because both liberals and conservatives take it seriously and don’t prejudge it. I disagree that the stimulus bill was poorly executed or that it is the principle cause of our public debt woes. I disagree that programs like Medicare and Medicaid ought to be left to private charity. But I’d much rather have that debate than some of the debates that the Bush-era Republican Party thought were needed: torture, pre-emptive warfare, warrantless wiretapping, and the unitary executive.

Remember: the 20th Century didn’t get off the ground until World War I began in 1914. The 19th Century didn’t take on its characteristic traits of industrial revolution and civil foment until the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1814. We ain’t seen nothing yet.

It’s going to be an interesting decade.