There are about as many articles seeking to explain the Tea Party enthusiasts as there are columnists with an opinion on the matter, but while generalizations are good reference guides, the situation for local politicians and their fellow citizens may be a bit more complicated and nuanced.
Cultural Fear Factor
Andrew Sullivan represents one interpretation in his “Why They’ll Die On This Hill,” article. Here’s a bit of his analysis:
“The bewildering economic and social and demographic changes have created a cultural and existential panic among those most heavily concentrated in those districts whose members are threatening to tear down the global economy as revenge for losing two presidential elections in a row. They feel they have already lost and have nothing to gain from any constructive engagement with a president they regard as pretty close to the anti-Christ of parasitic minorities.”
Sullivan’s polite language softens the residuals of racial stereotyping which inform many Tea Party advocate’s thinking. Salon’s Joan Walsh took the point to its obvious extrapolation:
“You’ll read lots of explanations for the dysfunction, but the simple truth is this: It’s the culmination of 50 years of evolving yet consistent Republican strategy to depict government as the enemy, an oppressor that works primarily as the protector of and provider for African-Americans, to the detriment of everyone else. The fact that everything came apart under our first African-American president wasn’t an accident, it was probably inevitable.”
Andrew O’Hehir is more explicit:
“John Boehner and Mitch McConnell and Karl Rove and the other so-called Beltway pragmatists of the Republican Party have relied on angry white people for political victories for decades. They placated them and pandered to them and fed them an extensive line of bullshit, and absolutely could not afford to alienate them, but were scared of them the whole time. (Many Republican operatives will tell you, way off the record, that the Republican base is crazy.) Now those white insurrectionists have risen up and taken their former leaders prisoner, which carries a certain poetic justice. They “want their country back.” Failing that, they want to let the fire burn.”
Politics and Religion
While residual and institutionalized racism is no doubt an important factor toward an explanation of the Scorched Earth policy of the Tea Party, it still doesn’t quite cover Sullivan’s observation concerning “existential panic.” There are, no doubt, neo-Confederates for whom an African American President is an affront; and some others for whom any Democrat represents the prioritization of minority privileges — as these individuals see programs to alleviate poverty and advance opportunities; and there are still others for whom The Daddy State is an acceptable option — their need to believe authoritative voices outweighing their sense of individual agency. John Dean described this phenomena in “Conservatives Without Conscience,” back in 2006.
“According to Dean’s narrative, “postmodern conservatism” has, over the past decade, regressed to conservatism’s “earliest authoritarian roots.” Vanquished is the principled, libertarian-tinged individualist ethos that once drew Dean to the Republican Party. Gone are leaders of respectable character, of any personal conscience at all.
The 1994 Republican takeover of Congress was authoritarian conservatism’s national coming-out party, made possible by the newly honed muscle of the Christian right, which Dean believes has brought its self-righteousness into the political arena, poisoning the well of rational public debate.” [SFgate]
Dean’s description leads to yet another element in the mix, and for the moment it would probably be helpful to omit reference to the explicit theocrats (Dominionists) and consider those who simply believe in the righteousness of one political party. The element, of course, is either religion or perhaps religiosity.
Onward Religious Soldiers
Yes, there was definitely a “Southern Strategy” adopted by the Republican Party after the enactment of Civil Rights laws in the 1960’s. And, yes, there was a “Northern Strategy” as well — a narrative in which the Suburbs (good) were white and the Inner City (Black) was bad. However, we have to note that along with these came an alliance of conservative evangelical congregants and hard line Republican politicians. No political party could last 8 minutes without founding its platform on basic mores and values, but as a particular party becomes identified with specific mores and values it risks becoming constricted in its appeal in a nation with a plethora of religions within its borders. The second problem emerges when some thought is given to how we speak of religion and politics.
Politics is the art of the possible, it is pragmatic, and in a diverse society it is accommodating. Religion, unless it is to fragment into shards, contains within its structure the concept of heresy. A religion need not be confessional in format, but a belief system is necessary before an individual self identifies as a member of a specific faith — and there’s the operative word — faith. It is possible to have a rational argument about political issues — the efficacy of financial regulations, or the necessity of food inspection services — but it is not possible to have a truly rational discussion when political platforms become articles of faith. If a position taken on an issue is underpinned by apprehension rather than proof, it is predicated on faith not science, not even on observation.
Hence, for the religious Tea Party adherent there is nothing untoward about accepting (apprehending) that global climate change is a hoax. There is nothing wrong with dismissing other religious denominations’ definitions concerning the beginning of life. There is nothing awkward about believing that “freedom” means banks should be deregulated. Some or all of these tenets may be accepted as articles of faith. It doesn’t matter how many studies are issued by the IPCC on climate change — if the advocate doesn’t “believe” in it, then the science contained in the reports might be “secular elitism and liberal heresy.”
Flaying the Fragile
Imagine if all of our authors cited above are correct — that there are people in this country who are bewildered by the recent social, economic, and demographic changes; who have grown up with the notion that while members of ethnic minority groups can be good, that they themselves are somehow ‘better;’ and, who have been inundated with information from various and sundry media formats which validate and augment a sense of victim-hood, and isolation.
Their religious beliefs are under attack — there’s a War on Christmas? Their economic beliefs and their politics are informed by a religious connection which requires only that they conform to the orthodoxy of a political faith to be ‘saved’ from socialism, communism, secularism, or any other -ism coming down the pike.
They want their country back — that is — they want to feel comfortable again. There may be comfort in nostalgia, for an America that existed in scripted television shows (and nowhere else), or in a neighborhood long since altered demographically beyond recognition. Or, with an extended family long since dispersed from one coast to the other.
There may be comfort in listening to voices of authority — a priest, a pastor, a mentor, a leader. There may be comfort in the acceptance of doctrine and dogma, secure, timeless, incontrovertible. The need for such comfort implies a certain degree of fragility. Endless propagandizing tells them they are under assault — little wonder then that they seek comfort where they can find it.
Some will eventually recognize that change is inevitable; the fortunate will find out that it adds interest, anticipation, and animation. Others will not be so fortunate. For them, truly “the past is never dead, it’s not even past.” *
It’s altogether too easy to vilify them, marginalize them, even to ignore them — after all, they’ve been advised repeatedly that they are vilified, are victimized, are marginalized, and are being ignored. Sadly, this flaying of the already fragile will continue as long as there are people willing to take advantage of their capacity to accept things on faith, and to lead them down paths contrary to their own interests for the sake of the political or economic interests of others.
It’s not for me to pile on adding yet more flagellation, I’ll reserve that for those leaders, politicians, and media concerns which have been, and continue to, take advantage of the ignorant, dupe the credulous, and deceive their believers. They are the ones who would shut down the greatest democracy on Earth, and they are the ones who would bring turmoil and uncertainty into the most complicated economy this world has ever known. To call them charlatans would be entirely too polite.
* William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun.