The Bigger Picture
Published on September 1st 2010 in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
In addition to the concerns I expressed in previous columns about the Tea Partiers lack of viable solutions, anti-immigrant prejudice and thinly disguised racial biases, I am also concerned because the Tea Partiers’ distrust of government institutions and their unwarranted confidence in their own abilities are characteristics typical of many other Americans. So today I will discuss some of the dangerous assumptions embodied by these classic American psychological traits.
This year’s Tea Party movement bears more than a passing resemblance to both its 19th century forerunner, the Know-Nothings and its 20th century predecessor, the Dixiecrats. Like those earlier movements virtually all of its members are either employed or retired, white, middle class, a bit older as well as less likely to have ever been unemployed than the average American.
The other important characteristic of the Tea Partiers is that, much like their Know-Nothing and Dixiecrat forbearers, they are motivated by their anger and fear that they are losing ground to ‘them.’ To the Know-Nothings ‘them’ were immigrant Catholics, for the Dixiecrats ‘them’ were people of color and for the Tea Partiers ‘them’ are those who support the policies of President Obama, the non-white son of a black African immigrant and a white American liberal.
In the aftermath of the liberal activism that characterized the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s, most of the electoral energy in American politics over the last 3 decades since then has emanated from the populist right instead of the liberal left. The anti-abortion movement began to take shape in the latter part of the 1970’s as did the Howard Jarvis’s anti-property tax and Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority Christian crusaders. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1982, followed by the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 and George Bush’s elections in 2000 and 2004 effectively turned right wing populism into mainstream politics.
But in the wake of a needless and ruinous war in Iraq, record government spending and budget deficits followed by a financial meltdown on Wall Street, right wing populism lost the support of many independent voters and finally ran out of steam. This provided an opening for a new and different type of politician named Barack Obama, who promised Americans he would shake up the political establishment and change the way things were done in Washington DC. As a result, many of independent voters who had once supported Reagan and Bush voted for Obama because they were disgusted with Bush and Republicans in Congress who supported his policies.
Like the Know-Nothings and the Dixiecrats, supporters of the Tea Party movement also claim to be independent of and equally disgusted with the political establishment of both the Democratic and Republican parties. Indeed when those 19th and 20th century Tea Party ancestor movements splintered, equal numbers of their supporters either joined the Democratic or the Republican parties. But in a July 2nd Gallup poll, 8 out of 10 Tea Partiers identified themselves as conservative Republicans. This suggests “that the Tea Party movement is more a rebranding of core Republicanism than a new or distinct entity on the American political scene.”
But a common thread running through the past thirty years of right wing electoral victories was a distrust of big-government and a desire on the part of many Americans to rely more on themselves and less on government to solve many of America’s problems. These sentiments were a consequence of the failure of the Great Society programs of the 1960’s to reduce crime by eradicating the poverty that was often seen as the root cause of many of America’s social ills. So the fear of big-government expressed by Tea Party supporters isn’t a new or recent fear any more than their unspoken fear of ‘them’ Hispanic immigrants and blacks.
What concerns me about this latest Tea Party movement is that with the exception of the Know-Nothings and the Dixiecrats, previous populist movements in America have used their populist rhetoric in an effort to seize political power so that they could exercise it for their common benefit. The 19th century anti-slavery abolitionist and 20th century women’s suffrage, civil rights and anti-war movements were all notable examples of such populist movements.
Even Ronald Reagan’s right wing anti-big government populist rhetoric was based on the policy ideas of intellectuals like economist Milton Friedman, business and technology guru George Gilder and libertarian political scientist Charles Murray so the policies Reagan implemented when he became President were based largely on ‘real’ ideas and concepts. But although the supporters of the Tea Party movement speak with fondness and reverence about President Reagan, they are noticeably devoid of any ideas about what to do if they seize power.
Unlike Reagan, today’s primarily Republican Tea Party conservatives prefer the populist rhetoric of anti-intellectuals like Sarah Palin and cynical conservative talk show pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, all of whom are experts at exploiting and manipulating the non-intellectual supporters of the Tea Party movement. Theirs is a new and virulent strain of populism based on the same American libertarian bias as previous movements, but one that is much more childish and selfish. It appeals to individuals who are convinced that they could achieve the material success they desire but the government is preventing them from doing so. They don’t have a constructive political agenda, so their only recourse is to disparage ‘them’ in an attempt to preserve what they believe is their God given right to do whatever they please.
Before America’s entry into World War II, Winston Churchill addressed concerns that England’s situation looked bleak without the help of America by saying he wasn’t worried and that he knew America would eventually enter the war on England’s side because:“Americans will always do the right thing ……. after they have exhausted all the alternatives.” My hope is that Churchill’s observation is still true and that the Tea Party movement is just another one of those alternatives Americans have to exhaust before they decide to do the right thing.