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.
Some people think that what unites the Tea Party Patriots is simple racism. I doubt that. But the Tea Party movement is not the solution to what ails America. It is an illustration of what ails America. Not because it is right-wing or because it is sometimes susceptible to crazed conspiracy theories, and not because of racism, but because of the movement’s self-indulgent premise that none of our challenges and difficulties are our own fault.
“Personal responsibility” has been a great conservative theme in recent decades, in response to the growth of the welfare state. It is a common theme among TPPs—even in response to health-care reform, as if losing your job and then getting cancer is something you shouldn’t have allowed to happen to yourself. But these days, conservatives far outdo liberals in excusing citizens from personal responsibility. To the TPPs, all of our problems are the fault of the government, and the government is a great “other,” a hideous monster over which we have no control. It spends our money and runs up vast deficits for mysterious reasons all its own. At bottom, this is a suspicion not of government but of democracy. After all, who elected this monster?
This kind of talk is doubly self-indulgent. First, it’s just not true. Second, it’s obviously untrue. The government’s main function these days is writing checks to old people. These checks allow people to retire and pursue avocations such as going to Tea Party rallies. This basic fact about the government is no great secret. In fact, it’s a huge cliché, robably available more than once in an average day’s newspaper. But the Tea Party Patriots feel free to ignore it and continue serving up rhetoric about “the audaciousness and arrogance of our government,” and calling for the elimination of the Federal Reserve Board or drastic restraints on the power of the Internal Revenue Service.
“I like what they’re saying. It’s common sense,” a random man-in-the-crowd told a Los Angeles Times reporter at a big Tea Party rally. Then he added, “They’ve got to focus on issues like keeping jobs here and lowering the cost of prescription drugs.” These, of course, are projects that can be conducted only by Big Government. If the Tea Party Patriots ever developed a coherent platform or agenda, they would lose half their supporters.
Principled libertarianism is an interesting and even tempting idea. If we wanted to, we could radically reduce the scope of government—defend the country, give poor people enough money to live decently, and leave it at that. But this isn’t the TPP vision. The TPP vision is that you can keep your Medicare benefits and balance the budget by ending congressional earmarks, and perhaps the National Endowment for the Arts.
What is most irksome about the Tea Party Patriots is their expropriation of the word patriot, with the implication that if you disagree with them, you’re not a patriot, or at least you’re less patriotic than they are. Without getting all ask-notty about it, I think a movement labeling itself patriotic should have some obligation to demonstrate patriotism in a way other than demanding a tax cut. In their rhetoric, the Tea Party Patriots do not sound as if they love their country very much: they have nothing but gripes. Yes, of course, these are gripes against the government, not against the country itself. But that distinction becomes hard to maintain when you have nothing good to say about the government and nothing but whines to offer the country.
Times are tough, and some sympathy is due. Still, times have always been tough for many folks for one reason or another, and people didn’t always resort so quickly to all-purpose bellyaching, did they? But in recent years inchoate rage against the government has almost become part of our civic religion: the short list of values we all do share. To say, “Yeah, the government’s okay by me,” or even to express gratitude for a country that sends you a Social Security check and pays your medical bills, actually does seem almost un-American. Our new national motto is from the movie Network: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” And what is “this”? Ask not.