“Moocher Class” Warfare
How four decades of radical individualism diminished society and gave rise to the Tea Party.
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.
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