After its primary victories this week in Delaware and New York—following ones in Kentucky, Arizona, and Alaska—there is no longer any question about whether to take the Tea Party seriously. Come 2011, we are likely to have Mama Grizzlies in the House and Senate, and the movement’s gravitational pull is sucking in traditional Republicans by the day. While the Tea Party doesn’t control the GOP, it’s likely to remain the largest force acting on it for some time.
So who are these people and what do they want from us? A series of polls, as well as be-ins like Glenn Beck’s Washington rally last month, have given us a picture of a movement predominated by middle-class, middle-aged white men angry about the expansion of government and hostile to societal change. But that profile could accurately describe the past several right-wing insurgencies, from the California tax revolt of the late 1970s to the Contract with America of 1994—not to mention the very Republican establishment that the Tea Party positions itself against. What’s new and most distinctive about the Tea Party is its streak of anarchism—its antagonism toward any authority, its belligerent style of self-expression, and its lack of any coherent program or alternative to the policies it condemns.
In this sense, you might think of the Tea Party as the Right’s version of the 1960s New Left. It’s an unorganized and unorganizable community of people coming together to assert their individualism and subvert the established order. But where the New Left was young and looked forward to a new Aquarian age, the Tea Party is old and looks backward to a capitalist-constitutionalist paradise that, needless to say, never existed. The strongest note in its tannic brew is nostalgia. Tea Partiers are constantly talking about “restoring honor,” getting back to America’s roots, and “taking back” their country.
How far back to take it is one of the questions that divides the movement into segments. The tricorn hats and powder horns carried by Revolutionary re-enactors point to the most extreme libertarian view: a Constitutional fundamentalism that would limit the federal government to the exercise of enumerated powers. The Roanoke Tea Party, for example, proposes a “Freedom for Virginians Act,” that would empower the state to invalidate laws it deems unconstitutional. It’s been settled business that you can’t do this since the Supreme Court decided McCullough v. Maryland in 1819. Beck, a century more modern, feeds his audience quack history that blames the fall from grace on the Progressive Era, when Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson introduced socialism into the American bloodstream.
Others in the Tea Party fetishize the pre-lapsarian state before the New Deal, or before the Great Society, or simply before Obama. There is also a more evangelically inclined Tea Party splinter focused on repudiating the sexual revolution. But calls for any new restrictions on personal conduct seem like an aberration. Delaware Senate nominee’s Christine O’Donnell objection to masturbation, which she helpfully points out is a selfish activity, is at odds with the movement’s fixation on individual choice in matters social as well as economic. Self-pleasuring must remain a form of protected expression for those who reject any infringement on personal autonomy as a step on the road to serfdom.
Other than nostalgia, the strongest emotion at Tea Parties is resentment, defined as placing blame for one’s woes on those either above or below you in the social hierarchy. This finds expression in hostility toward a variety of elites: the “liberal” media, “career” politicians, “so-called” experts, and sometimes even the hoariest of populist targets, Wall Street bankers. These groups stand accused of promoting the interests of the poor, minorities and immigrants—or in the case of the financiers, the very rich—against those of hard-working, middle-class taxpayers. Beck and Sarah Palin, the fun couple that headlines the Tea Party, express their feelings of victimization at the hands of their betters and lessers on a daily basis—he in his histrionic vein, she in her preening one. Both hedge their resentment in a careful way that often walks the line of bigotry but seldom states it directly.
Anti-elitism defined in cultural terms is hardly a fresh theme for Republicans. But here, too, the Tea Partiers take it to a new level. The most radical statement of individualism is choosing your own reality, and to some in the Tea Party, the very fact that experts believe something is sufficient to disprove it. The media’s insistence that Barack Obama was born in the United States, or that he is a Christian rather than a Muslim, merely fuels their radical skepticism. Other touchstones of the movement’s separate reality include the view that Obama has a secret plan to deprive Americans of their guns, that global warming is a leftist hoax, and that—this is Christine O’Donnell again—there’s more evidence for creationism than for evolution.
Nostalgia, resentment, and reality-denial are all expressions of the same underlying anxiety about losing one’s place in the country or of losing control of it to someone else. When you look at the surveys, the Tea Partiers are not primarily the victims of economic transformation, but rather people whose position is threatened by social change. Because racial bias is unacceptable both in American political culture and in an individualist ideology, Tea Partiers don’t say directly what Pat Buchanan used to: that moving from a predominantly white Christian nation to a majority nonwhite one is a bad thing and should be stopped. Instead, their resistance finds sublimated expression through their reality distortion field: Beck’s claim that Obama “has a deep-seated hatred of white people“’ or Dinesh D’Souza’s Newt-endorsed theory that Obama is a Kenyan Mau Mau in mufti, or the prevalent Tea Party opinion that policies like Obamacare and the stimulus are merely mechanisms for transferring income from the middle class to the minority poor and illegal immigrants—i.e., socialism. Of no previous movement has Richard Hofstadter’s depiction of populism as driven by “status anxiety” been so apt.
For the Republican Party, the rise of the Tea Party is the essence of mixed blessing. The political problem is how to co-opt the movement’s energy and motivational anger without succumbing to its incoherence and being tainted by the wacko voices within it. This is something the Democrats were fundamentally unable to do in relation to the New Left in the 1960s, and the Tea Party’s radicalism threatens the GOP in a similar way. We’ve seen party elders confront this challenge week by week through the primaries, with senior figures within the GOP furiously recalibrating their visceral horror at the nutball purity of a Rand Paul or Sharron Angle into expressions of support and encouragement. Liberals may be humoring themselves in seeing it as good news for them, but for the moment it’s fun to watch slippery conservative politicians—Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich—scramble aboard the tiger.
As mobs go, Republicans will find this one will be especially hard to lead, pacify, or dispel. The Tea Party is fundamentally about venting anger at change it doesn’t like, not about fixing what’s broken. Turn the movement’s rage into a political program and you’ve already betrayed it.
A version of this article appears in this week’s Newsweek.