The Tea Party? Get over it already
In their discussion of the Tea Party as ‘delirious’ and ‘unhinged’, liberals like Bill Clinton are exposing their own snobbery.
Since the ‘Tea Party’ movement in the US first emerged in early 2009, it has not been all that difficult to recognise its composition, outlook and reason for existence.
From the first demonstrations, to the townhall protests against the healthcare reform bill in summer 2009, to the Tea Party convention in February 2010, it has been obvious that the organisation’s make-up does not represent a cross-section of America. Tea-Partiers are mainly older, white Americans. The high proportion of the grey-haired is a notable contrast to the throngs of young people who campaigned for the election of Barack Obama in the November 2008 election.
It is also obvious that the Tea Party is a minority movement. Its protests are typically noisy, but not mass events. The Tea Party convention could only get about 600 people to attend. It is also not a monolithic, single organisation – there are various entities claiming the mantle of leadership (Tea Party Nation, Tea Party Express, Tea Party Patriots).
It is also clear that the Tea Party members’ main message is about reduced taxation and deficit spending. The Tea Party takes its name from the Boston Tea Party of 1773, when colonists protested against British government taxation without having representation in parliament. The immediate catalysts for this protest movement were the bailouts in 2008 and the stimulus package in February 2009. At the same time, beyond the message of limited government, it is hard to see any coherence to Tea Party views.
Finally, it isn’t all that hard to comprehend what the Tea Party represents. In one respect, it is understandable that the dramatic, unsettling changes in the country – from the election of a Democratic president and Congress to the financial crisis and the extreme measures taken to try to deal with that crisis – would lead to various reactions, including opposition to the bailouts.
But the form that this opposition has taken reflects our times, too. It is notable that the Tea Party emerged as a response to the Republican defeats of 2008, but took the form of a movement outside the party, some members would even say in opposition to the party. In this sense, the emergence of the Tea Party represented the fragmentation of the traditional Republican Party constituency. Candidates around the country are now taking on the Tea Party label, but the main effect is to divide the Republican electorate. (Witness the decision by Charlie Crist, the Florida governor and Republican, to run as an independent after trailing in the polls in the Republican primary against Marco Rubio, who is seen as the Tea Party candidate.)
Moreover, there has always been an anti-party, anti-politics strain to the Tea Party. It is ironic that the group has ‘party’ in its name, since it is clearly not a party, and is arguably anti-party. The incoherence of views beyond the anti-tax message, the generational differences, the calls for ‘taking back our country’ – all suggest that the Tea Party is neither coherent nor really just about policy; rather it is the product of disarray amongst Republicans and the confused, anti-political times we live in.
So, the Tea Party may be novel in some respects, but it is not that difficult to recognise its limitations. But the discussion of the Tea Party in the American media has always been out of proportion to its size and true influence. From the conservative side, it is understandable why they would want to hype up the Tea Party. Fox News and right-wing talk radio, in particular, have promoted the movement in an attempt to refresh conservatism after its recent setbacks. But what is less obvious is why liberals are so preoccupied, even obsessed at times, with the Tea Party.
Given that the Tea Party is relatively small and skewed towards older Americans, liberals could have ignored or downplayed it. Instead, they exaggerated the Tea Party’s numbers and influence. They portrayed the organisation as a growing mass movement and a dangerous threat, especially after Scott Brown’s victory in the special Senate election in Massachusetts in January, which was credited as a Tea Party-backed win.
Or, given that the Tea Party’s overriding message was limited government, liberals might have countered that by making a case for activist government and deficit spending, especially in times of economic crisis. But instead, the liberal media has depicted the Tea Party as a collection of cranks, proto-fascists and racists. The favored approach was to mock. Rachel Maddow, the MSNBC commentator, referred to ‘tea tantrums’. Somewhat bizarrely, the liberal-left resorted to sexually derogatory language, calling the movement ‘tea-baggers’ – this even became mainstream, with CNN’s Anderson Cooper adopting the term as a convention. Most of all, gatherings of protesters were seen as dark and dangerous gatherings of violent, racist people. Reports of Tea-Partiers carrying guns or a sole person shouting a racial epithet were claimed to represent the entire movement.
On 15 April, known as ‘Tax Day’ in America as it is the deadline for filing federal income taxes, the New York Times published the findings of its poll about the composition of the Tea Party. The survey is probably the most detailed analysis of the demographics and attitudes of the Tea Party.
The survey essentially confirmed the picture of the Tea Party I have been describing. It found that only a small minority – 18 per cent – identified themselves as Tea Party supporters. Given that what it means to be a ‘supporter’ is uncertain, this 18 per cent is arguably an overstatement in itself. The survey also found that Tea-Partiers tend to be ‘Republican, white, male, married and older than 45’. They are also generally more educated and have higher incomes. They are more likely than average Americans to have an unfavourable view of President Obama (84 per cent vs 33 per cent); to disapprove of Congress (96 per cent vs 73 per cent); and to rate the national economy as bad (93 per cent vs 77 per cent).
In other areas, however, Tea Party backers were in line with typical American views: most send their kids to public schools, and many do not believe Sarah Palin is qualified to be president. And the survey also highlighted the contradictory mish-mash of opinions: despite being anti-taxation, most describe the amount they paid in taxes as ‘fair’; and despite Tea-Partiers’ anti-government rhetoric, a majority thinks that Social Security and Medicare are worthwhile.
Liberals treated the Times’ findings as surprising revelations. But just by looking at the Tea Party, anyone could have easily reached the conclusion that they were small in number and consisted of generally older Americans. The media have been exaggerating the strength and influence of the Tea Party, yet the Times poll did not lead to any self-criticism about the tons of coverage devoted to this minority group. Liberals in the media seemed to respond with ill-concealed glee to the apparent conclusion from the poll that Tea-Partiers were out-of-step with the average American. But they did not question why they have been obsessing about such a small group.
And it remains to be seen whether liberals will give up their preoccupation with the Tea Party, and their prejudices about its members. For example, a few days after Tax Day and the Times poll, on 19 April, former president Bill Clinton gave a clear hint that he thought anti-government protesters like the Tea Party were potentially violent. 19 April was the anniversary of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and Clinton used the occasion to warn that the Tea Party types could lead to a repeat:
‘As we exercise the right to advocate our views, and as we animate our supporters, we must all assume responsibility for our words and actions before they enter a vast echo chamber and reach those both serious and delirious, connected and unhinged… Fifteen years ago, the line was crossed in Oklahoma City. In the current climate, with so many threats against the president, members of Congress and other public servants, we owe it to the victims of Oklahoma city, and those who survived and responded so bravely, not to cross it again.’
This statement says more about Clinton, and the liberals who share his outlook, than it does about the Tea Party itself. Rather than put a positive case for government, liberals attack those who call for a limited role for the state. And that attack takes the form of claiming that anyone who protests against the expanding role of government is a half-step away from being ‘delirious’ or ‘unhinged’, from committing an act of mass violence. It seems that liberals need the Tea Party as a bogeyman, because of their own lack of confidence about solving the major economic and social problems that exist today.
It’s clear that the Tea Party expresses more of a general discontent than a specific counter-ideology or alternative policy strategy. Yet this discontent with politics is shared by a wider group than the Tea-Partiers. In mocking and vilifying the Tea Party, and not putting forward a positive case, Democrats at best ignore the underlying discontent, and at worst exacerbate it. They may not have the last laugh.
Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his new blog, The American Situation, here.
Previously on spiked
Sean Collins looked back at Obama’s presidency one year on from his inaugeration. He also criticised the US political class’ obsession with scandal. In 2008, Helen searls discerned the rise of tribal politics in the ascendancy of Sarah Palin. Nathalie Rothschild called Sarah Palin a gift from God for East Coast comics. Frank Furedi felt Palin had been turned into a twentieth-century witch. Or read more at spiked issue USA.
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