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