The right-wing populist Tea Party movement has politicians of both parties spooked. Democrats fear it will bring so many Republicans to the boil, and then to the voting booth, that they will lose control of Congress. Republicans fear the movement will frighten away moderates and leave their party an unelectable, ideologically extreme rump. The press, both alarmed and delighted by this political force that sprang from nowhere, is eager to prove its lack of elitism and left-wing bias by treating the Tea Party activists with respect. Journalists also sincerely appreciate having something new to write or talk about. It is in their interest to keep this story going.
A Harris poll released the last day of March reported that a third of all adults support the Tea Party, and slightly less than a quarter oppose it. Do they know what they are supporting, or opposing? The movement is not yet united on a single platform or agenda, like Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract With America, which started as a triumph and ended as an embarrassment. The lack of specifics allows anyone who is just existentially fed up (and who isn’t, on some days?) to feel right at home. No one will demand to know what he or she is fed up with. On Web sites and in speeches, Tea Party Patriots reveal a fondness for procedural gimmicks (like a ban on congressional earmarks), constitutional amendments (term limits, balanced budget), and similar magic tricks or shortcuts to salvation. Apart from a general funk, though, the one common theme espoused by TPPs is the monstrous danger of Big Government.
The Tea Party movement has been compared (by David Brooks of The New York Times, among others) to the student protest movement of the 1960s. Even though one came from the left and the other from the right, both are/were, or at least styled themselves as, a mass challenge to an oppressive establishment. That’s a similarity, to be sure. But the differences seem more illuminating.
First, the 1960s (shorthand for all of the political and social developments we associate with that period) were by, for, and about young people. The Tea Party movement is by, for, and about middle-aged and old people (undoubtedly including more than a few who were part of the earlier movement too). If young people discover a cause and become a bit overwrought or monomaniacal, that’s easily forgiven as part of the charm of youth. When adults of middle age and older throw tantrums and hold their breath until they turn blue, it’s less charming.
Second, although the 1960s ultimately spread their tentacles throughout the culture and around the world, politically there was just one big issue: ending the war in Vietnam. No such issue unites the Tea Party Patriots. You might guess from some of their materials on the Web that the repeal of health-care reform is the TPPs’ Vietnam, their towering cause. But even for devoted TPPs, stripping health insurance away from people who’ve just gotten it is unlikely to summon the same passions that the activists of the 1960s brought to stopping a misguided war. Not only do TPPs not have one big issue like Vietnam—they disagree about many of their smaller issues. What unites them is a more abstract resentment, an intensity of feeling rather than any concrete complaint or goal.
The antiwar movement also worked, sort of. As did the civil-rights movement that preceded it. Antiwar protests ultimately turned the establishment itself against the war, though extracting us from it still took years. By contrast, the Tea Party Patriots, I predict, are just the flavor of the month: the kind of story that the media are incapable of not exaggerating. The antiwar movement and the 1960s changed America in numerous ways forever. The Tea Party Patriots will be an answer on Jeopardy or a crossword-puzzle clue.
A final difference: although the 1960s featured plenty of self-indulgence, this wasn’t their essence. Their essence was selfless and idealistic: stopping the war; ending racism; eradicating poverty. These goals and some of the methods for achieving them may have been childishly romantic or even entirely wrongheaded, but they were about making the world a better place. The Tea Party movement’s goals, when stated specifically, are mostly self-interested. And they lack poetry: cut my taxes; don’t let the government mess with my Medicare; and so on. I say “self-interested” and not “selfish” because pursuing your own self-interest is not illegitimate in a capitalist democracy. (Nor is poetry an essential requirement.) But the Tea Party’s atmospherics, all about personal grievance and taking umbrage and feeling put-upon, are a far cry from flower power. There is a nasty, sour, vindictive tone to the Tea Party that certainly existed in the antiwar movement and its offspring, but never dominated the atmosphere created by these groups.