The Tea Partiers were the spoilers at the progressives’ take-back-the-government party that started in 2008. Barack Obama had been in office barely a month when the first Tea Party protests began. By the end of the Administration’s first summer, angry Tea Partiers had overwhelmed the congressional town hall meetings called to debate the new health-care reform proposals. The Tea Party-fueled midterm election was not simply a pendular swing back to the pattern of divided governance that has dominated national politics for most of the last four decades. Not even in the 1994 Republican Party victory in the House of Representatives had a midterm election so effectively canceled out the election before it. The 2010 midterms were a negation election in which Obama’s overwhelming 192 electoral-vote margin evaporated.
It wasn’t supposed to have happened this way. As the financial system’s fragile mortgages, exotic derivatives, and sheer bets fell in a heap in 2008, the collapse should have brought long-term rewards for progressives. The crash of 1929 had been an event of much the same sort: an implosion of a recklessly leveraged financial system that cascaded through the rest of the economy, destroying jobs and ruining household equity. These had been the conditions of the New Deal’s birth and of the labor movement’s rise that helped give it votes and backbone. The crash of 2008, however, has produced only a financial reform act so complex that no one yet knows whether it has any teeth at all, a cautious extension of health insurance coverage whose fate hangs on the Supreme Court, and unprecedented political deadlock.
The differences between the political circumstances of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession of 2008 have, in retrospect, become more evident. Franklin Roosevelt’s unexpected fortune was to arrive in office after three years of futile hope that, given new confidence, business would revive itself. That gave him a virtually blank slate for policy departures that few presidents have ever possessed. Obama, in contrast, inherited the crash of 2008 at the worst possible time, when the unraveling of the assumptions of the status quo had barely begun. He had no choice but to sustain the stabilization policies handed off to him by Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke, the very success of which transferred the banking and mortgage systems’ massive risk and volatility to the government that rescued them. There has been barely enough time for a new labor movement to organize. Instead there has been the Tea Party, brimming over with anger, not at the banks and financial institutions that precipitated the collapse, or at the Republican Administration that inaugurated their rescue, but at the haplessly complicit Administration that finished the work.
And there is something more besides. Franklin Roosevelt inherited a Progressive Era debate over the relationship among individuals, society, and government that was already four decades old when he came into office. A sense of their interdependence had largely pushed aside the nineteenth-century conceit that each individual stood utterly alone as master of his fate. The question on the New Dealers’ minds, however naïvely they sometimes answered it, was how best to articulate social action and individual energy to promote the welfare of all. By contrast, Obama inherited four decades of public discussion in which the importance of society has steadily diminished in favor of individual choice, personal identities, markets in goods, and markets in selves. This time the ideas with the loudest megaphones came not from the solidaristic left but the libertarian right.
Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson’s small but densely informative The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism is the best effort we have to date to make sense of the Tea Party phenomenon. Members of the Harvard program in Government and Social Policy, where Williamson is a graduate student and Skocpol is a distinguished faculty member and prominent writer on public affairs (and a member of this journal’s editorial committee), they were independently pursuing inquiries into the politics of health-care reform when the Tea Party protests erupted. Curious, they began interviewing activists in the Greater Boston Tea Party and, from there, local Tea Party activists in Virginia and Arizona. Bypassing the big rallies and the fiery placards that catch the television journalist’s eye, they visited Tea Party members in their homes and sat in on local meetings, checking their one-on-one impressions against the polls and local Tea Parties’ web presences.
These labors give us a profile of local Tea Party activists that is, in most respects, hauntingly familiar. In the early days of the Tea Party protests, journalists frequently swallowed the line that Tea Party activists were an altogether new force in politics: a bipartisan uprising of political innocents equally outraged at the banks and the Administration, a movement that was as big as the two established political parties and destined to overwhelm them. In truth, it is much smaller. A core of perhaps 200,000 people show up at the nation’s 800-odd local Tea Party groups, Skocpol and Williamson estimate. According to an aggregate of recent polls, about 13 percent of the voting age population say that they are a part of the Tea Party; a total of 20 percent to 30 percent of voters claim that they support it. That makes the size of the Tea Party movement not very distinguishable from the other conservative movements that, from the Barry Goldwater campaign in 1964 through the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, have risen and collapsed on the American political right.
And to a great extent, they are formed of the same people. Skocpol and Williamson’s interviews found very few political naïfs, and even fewer disillusioned Democrats. Local Tea Party members are overwhelmingly conservative Republicans, many of them with years of conservative political activism in their past. They are overwhelmingly white, disproportionately male, and disproportionately old. Reorganized, re-energized, and modestly secularized since the 1990s, they represent not something new but “the latest iteration of long-standing, hard-core conservatism in American politics.”
This remobilization of the conservative right was not triggered by the crash or the bailouts. An occasional sign at a Tea Party rally vents anger at the banks and the corporate elite, but for the most part the rank and file do not see them as the problem. In their hours of interviews, Skocpol and Williamson write, none of the Tea Party members blamed business or the super rich for the nation’s troubles. It was the Democratic sweep of the presidency and Congress in 2008, and what they feared that portended, that galvanized them into action. Like many of their right-populist predecessors, they live not so much in the present as in a swirl of nightmare scenarios of the future. They worry about tax increases. They fear that any increase in the government’s presence in the medical system will mean the end of the Medicare benefits they defend and feel entitled to. They worry that, under the pretext of a global warming crisis, the government may reach into their very homes and take control of their thermostats. When a squandering, tax-drunken government runs out of money, they are convinced that its next move will be to seize their 401(k) retirement accounts.
They detest Obama not so much for who he is (though their encoded racism is not far below the surface) but for what he represents about the changes they feel have destroyed their America and, still more, for the secret designs they are sure he harbors. “Barack Obama came right out and said he wanted to transform America,” one interviewee told the authors. “He’s actually not what he seems to be,” another insisted. A friendly Arizona couple confided that they had been stockpiling food and ammunition to carry them through the “frightening time” they were sure lay ahead. Filling in the blank slate of Obama’s “yes, we can” rhetoric with fears like these, it’s no wonder that they want so desperately to nullify the election of 2008.
If their nightmares of the future are familiar from the John Birch Society and the Armageddon scenarios of the Christian right, the moral economy of Tea Party activists also has a familiar pattern. Trying to pin down their attitudes toward “government” or worry through the apparent contradiction between their anger at government assistance for some and the ample benefits they receive themselves is to misunderstand their political universe altogether, Skocpol and Williamson insist. The Tea Partiers’ world is split by a stark moral duality between those who have earned what they have and the “moochers” who freeload on the rest. This was the chord that journalist Rick Santelli struck in the CNBC outburst that helped spark the Tea Party protests, railing against the government’s plan to bail out insolvent mortgagers at the expense of those who had been more prudent. Tea Party activists condemn illegal immigrants as law-breaking handout seekers; 15 years after the closing down of the Great Society’s most important welfare program, they are still angry at welfare recipients. “I differentiate between entitlements and welfare,” one explained: between the freeloader’s handout and the entitlements she feels certain she has earned through her Social Security and Medicare taxes. “I am not rich,” another protested, “but I am working hard to get there, and when I do, I would prefer that the moocher class not live off my hard work.” They see economic redistribution as the peril of their times, and they are certain that it has started with themselves.
How did a group imbued with this sort of moral Manichaeism get swept up by the pro-business program that now dominates the Congress that the Tea Party movement helped elect? A common charge on the left—that the Tea Party was purely an Astroturf phenomenon, centrally contrived and manipulated—does not hold up against Skocpol and Williamson’s more complex portrait. No paid organizer called the local activists and set their efforts in motion. And while the role of Fox News in trumpeting the emerging protests and shaping their slogans and message cannot be exaggerated, the work of practical organization was locally generated. These activists called one another, constructed MeetUp sites, and compiled e-mail lists. When the big, deep-pocketed institutions—Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks and the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity—together with the upstart claimants for the Tea Party brand, the Tea Party Patriots and the Tea Party Express, moved onto the scene to organize the national rallies and to dominate as the movement’s television spokespersons, they were playing catch-up to the grassroots surge.
The top-down and bottom-up dynamics of the Tea Party movement, Skocpol and Williamson suggest, were connected in a more intricate way than the Astroturfing model implies. The big business funders needed the passion of the movement’s local organizers, their paranoia, their consuming anger at establishment politics, their uncompromising sense of urgency, and their willingness to disrupt the political status quo. At the same time, they needed to keep that anger pitched at such a level of generality that they were free to write into legislation a program that mirrors not the moral accounting of the local activists but the interests of big business. “End the deficit,” “lower taxes,” “seal the borders,” “balance the budget,” “eliminate the handouts”—these are the bridgework, the open-ended slogans that allow the wealthy funders and politicos to position themselves as articulators of the sentiments and passions of the grassroots, even as they press for specifics that the activists either oppose, like Paul Ryan’s plan to transform Medicare, or do not care about, like the special-benefit riders that now routinely festoon House majority bills. Some local Tea Party members do their best to pore over the complex details of legislation, but it is an unequal game and over time, Skocpol and Williamson suggest, the locals have been losing control.
But even this shrewd insight is insufficient to explain the way in which the unprecedented political stalemate of our times was created. Part of what is missing from Skocpol and Williamson’s narrative are the millions of voters who have never ridden a Tea Party Express bus or attended a Tea Party meeting but who have enough sympathy with the cause to vote for candidates who embrace it. How has their unease at the unraveling of the economy been kept from turning upon the financial institutions whose sudden breakdown triggered the crisis in the first place?
One answer lies in the very scale of the crisis and the measures mobilized to meet it. Even before the most recent revelations of the extent of the Paulson-Bernanke bailouts, the size of the public funds and credit that were mobilized in the early months of the crisis was mind-numbing. It did not help that Dodd-Frank, the legislative response to the instabilities of finance capitalism, was in its own way so complex as to be almost equally ungraspable. The Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 that set the banking system on its post-New Deal course was 37 pages long; Dodd-Frank runs to almost 850 pages.
What is too large to grasp or feel is ripe for radical simplification. Rick Perry waving aloft a tax return no bigger than a postcard, the House majority refusing to budge on the debt ceiling, Michele Bachmann insisting that the rules governing a family’s household budget and those of the United States’s ought to be exactly the same—these are not economic statements but emotional-conceptual ones. A government no bigger than the moral imagination can grasp is the message today’s conservatives proclaim. That response, sharpened by the very magnitude of the post-2008 events, is central to the program and emotional intensity of the conservative revival.
And it is the supply of radically simplified answers that has been libertarianism’s gift to the present moment. In the 1930s, the labor movement’s all-for-one and one-for-all understanding of the realities of an individual worker’s lot in industrial society helped give a social frame to the New Deal’s experiments. Now, in a post-mass-production age, the mental mindset of self-made oil tycoons and free-market economists sets the course. Here, too, one wishes that Skocpol and Williamson had framed their research project more broadly. The Koch brothers, whose group Americans for Prosperity has played such a key role in sustaining and channeling the Tea Party’s outrage, have been pressing libertarian ideas on the polity, with mixed success, since the 1970s. What enabled them to leap so successfully into the opening the Tea Party provided was not just the scale of the government response to the crash. It was the steady shrinkage through the 1980s and 1990s of the progressive vocabulary for a society made up of something bigger than private selves and private choices. It was an “age of fracture,” I have argued elsewhere, in which the very words for social relationships were recast around micro, market models. Notions that were politically marginal in the Reagan years—privatization of Medicare and Social Security, wholesale charterization of public schools, the return of public responsibility for the poor to the efforts of private charity, employment of for-profit soldiers in the public army, fully self-correcting markets—are all live ideas now. The contraction of the public imagination preceded the Tea Party and opened the way for its political effects.
In the face of this, Skocpol and Williamson remain relatively sanguine about the political future. Civic engagement, they insist, cannot in itself be an unworthy thing. Tea Party activists are old, and the passions they represent are much more firmly lodged in older than in younger voters. Fox News voters are disproportionately old as well. Ultimately, they remind us, they must pass from the scene.
But nothing guarantees the return of the stronger, denser progressive vocabulary that was once common in political discourse. In the crisis to date, progressives have rallied vigorously in the face of cutbacks to benefits and union rights. But without a larger rationale than preservation of the status quo, the battle between the progressives’ and conservatives’ senses of moral entitlements can only intensify the current stalemate. The Occupy Wall Street outcry against the extraordinary privileges of the 1 percent carries important traction, but the underlying economic and moral philosophy behind progressive taxation goes almost wholly unarticulated. Social Security persists, but in most Americans’ minds its benefits have become almost completely unhinged from the risk-pooling, social insurance arguments that framed it. Franklin Roosevelt talked about the interdependence of individuals’ economic fates in the face of collective crisis. Obama’s “we,” by contrast, has been much less clearly defined. He talks about “fairness,” a “fair shot,” and a “make or break” moment for the middle class. They are important terms. With luck they may help inch the marginal tax rate of the wealthiest Americans back to its 2001 level. But if progressives cannot find a language of more concrete and encompassing interdependence than this, if they cannot explain more articulately and persuasively how our economic lives are entangled, from the poorest and most marginalized to the very top of society, they will exhaust the moral and intellectual capital that early twentieth-century Progressives bequeathed to them without replenishing it.
While progressives struggle to defend benefits, business conservatives refigure the corporation as a great altruism machine, a cornucopia of endless job creation if only regulatory meddlers got out of the way. That, too, is an illusion—but one that has a magnetic pull in a society that has forgotten what it once knew about the business cycle. We wait for Obama to give a fireside chat on macroeconomic fundamentals that begins to match the clarity and simple honesty of his 2008 Philadelphia speech on race. So scared are Obama’s handlers of the image of an elite university professor that they have run away from one of his largest natural advantages. Glenn Beck played the professor’s role to terrific advantage. He made sense of the world to millions of Tea Partiers, mapping on his blackboard how absolutely everything fit together. Ross Perot did the same. Obama does not need Beck’s blackboard or Perot’s charts, but he needs to explain more. He needs to be fed fewer slogans and sound bites. He needs to start giving lessons in how a modern, interdependent economy and society actually work, why market competition does not always produce a fair outcome, why public goods and public regulation matter, and why the fate of the 1 percent, the poor, and the Tea Partiers who feel themselves squeezed in between are, in sober fact, dependent on each other.
In the material that Obama’s speechwriters prepare for him, phrases that were once a common part of progressive politics still surface. “We have a stake in each other’s success,” Obama declared in Osawatomie, Kansas. That’s a powerful moral-intellectual claim that even frightened persons can get their heads around. But if it is not articulated more effectively than it has been in the crisis so far, the privatized nightmares that the Tea Party promotes will continue to haunt our politics.