The Flummoxing Tea Partiers

David Boaz at Cato discusses the fact that the Tea Party phenomenon—and it is a phenomenon—continues to “freak out” commentators on the Left. He writes (preserving his links and italics):

With a few rare exceptions like [Jonathan] Rauch and John Judis, non-conservative intellectuals are just freaked out by a mass movement against big government. Jill Lepore, Sean Wilentz, E. J. Dionne, Frank Rich — they just can’t imagine that real middle-class Americans could honestly oppose President Obama’s tax-and-spend agenda and march in the streets against it — just like, you know, they did against the war and stuff. It’s got to be racism, billionaires, extreme libertarianism, extreme authoritarianism, the John Birch Society, something. And so they tell the president that the Tea Party is reminiscent of “the Know-Nothings and Father Coughlin.” Why oh why can’t we have better historians?

As I have had occasion to remark in the past, I don’t think that the Tea Party’s motivations are all that mysterious. Vast and expanding government debt to finance vast and expanding government intrusion into people’s lives: that is pretty much it. So I share Boaz’s bemusement at commentators’ professed inability to comprehend.

One thing I think Boaz might be missing, however, is the possibility that these commentators, or at least some of them, might perfectly well understand what motivates the Tea Partiers—which is precisely why they accuse them instead of uncontrolled and irrational anger, racism, inhumanity toward others, and assorted other moral vices.

Expanding spending and centralized control are necessary parts of and deeply integrated into their political worldviews. They are willing to engage opposition on this or that policy, on this or that spending level increase; but a generalized opposition to debt and control is something that questions their premises, and so something they are far less willing to entertain. Premises are also far more difficult to justify, especially to skeptics. Much easier, then, to demonize one’s opposition by suggesting their views have roots in despicable motives.

Perhaps some of the commentators to whom Boaz links are genuinely flummoxed by the Tea Party phenomenon. But I think it is more likely that they are surprised by its strength and durability, have recognized the size of its threat to what they hold dear, and thus have decided to discredit it as best they can.

Time will tell whether the whether their strategy will work. Indeed, we should know in roughly fourteen days, give or take.

9 thoughts on “The Flummoxing Tea Partiers

  1. I’m sure it’s both myopia and fear–and I think there’s a lot of carry over from the Bush years–a habit of knee-jerk vitriol.

  2. Then there are those of us who are flummoxed by the obviously tendentious claims by Tea Partiers to be opposed to intrusive government programs and expanding government debt. Either the Tea Partiers are incredibly mature 18-month olds with no knowledge of recent history (say, 19-72 months ago), or they’re lying through their teeth. Let’s just say that the timing of this burst of outrage over such things is remarkably coincidental.

  3. The idea that the Tea Partiers oppose Vast and Expanding government intrusion into people’s lives is pretty well refuted by their nearly complete approval of the national security state and their lack of interest in traditional civil liberties issues. AFAICS, Tea Partiers are just right-wing Republicans.

  4. THERE MAY BE A PERSONAL AND HIDDEN REASON FOR THE HISSY FITS EXHIBITED BY THE USUAL LIST OF “MODERATES” AND LEFTISTS OF THE CHATTERING CLASSES.NO LESS THAN MARX HIMSELF HAS STATED THAT THE PROLETARIAN MASSES WILL,OF COURSE,BE LED BY THE ESPECIALLY GIFTED AND ANNOINTED ”VANGUARD OF THE PEOPLE”.OUR WOULD-BE BETTERS SEE IN THIS THE HINT THAT THEY WILL,OF COURSE,BE ENROLLED IN THIS,THE SPECIAL CHOSEN,THE “COURT JEWS”,AS IT WERE.AND THERE,BLOCKING THE ROAD TO SOCIAL JUSTICE,ARE THE STUPID INGRATES,CRETINS ALL,NO DOUBT.NOT THAT SOCIAL JUSTICE DELAYED IS SOCIAL JUSTICE DENIED.BUT IF IT IS BLOCKED NOW,HOW WILL OUR SENSITIVES AND EXQUISITES BE ABLE TO MARCH AT THE HEAD OF THE MOB?WHY SHOULD SOME OTHER,LATER,SAVANTS ACCUMULATE THE GROUP JOY, AND SELF-CONGRATULATORY PLAUDITS, RATHER THAN OUR PRESENT CROP OF FERTILIZER-STUFFED “SUITS”?

  5. There are certainly a number of Tea-Partying Republicans who have joined the movement as a purely partisan proposition in light of the current administration. They will deny, up and down, that Bush was a big spender or that he enlarged government. For that, these particular people are certainly hypocritical (and I know from having many conversations-turned-arguments with them).

    On the other hand, I’ve run across a good number of Tea-Party people who openly oppose Bush’s past policies – and of that breed there are some that always did and some that have come to do so in retrospect. There are a good handful of people with genuinely libertarian sympathies and lots of Republicans with “I have seen the light” moments attached to their newfound label.

    I’m not sure how to gauge the exact motivations of a group like this. I think the truth is that it’s an extremely varied group of people. What is amazing to me is how politically diverse the group actually is. You have both free trade people and protectionists; pro-union and anti-union; open borders and closed borders; pro-war and anti-war. It really is a pretty large mix of political motivation.

    Interestingly, I think it’s especially hard to get a finger on the pulse of this group more than almost any other in recent memory. It hasn’t really manifested itself as a formal party. And people generally deny being a part of the movement even if they have great sympathies for the cause – and I think that’s largely the result of the fact that their interests are so varied. Anti-war people don’t want to be lumped in with the pro-war faction of the group, the secularists don’t want to be lumped in with those who have religious agendas, etc. I rarely hear anyone come out and say that they are a member of the “Tea Party”, even when it’s more than obvious that their support leans that way relatively speaking.

    Where they do seem to be united (whether it’s feigned or not…and I’m not sure, again, how you would be able to tell) is in their opposition to government spending in general. It will really be interesting to see if someone will manage to get a hold of the reigns and sound the war cry in the next election season. I have a feeling that whatever coalition they have could either fragment or completely unravel if their platform starts to get too specific on anything outside of federal government spending.

  6. Everett,

    Your hypocrisy argument sounds good, superficially at least, but it doesn’t hold up to serious thought. Voters display their dissatisfaction differently depending on who is in power. When they vote for someone who disappoints them, they react less aggressively than those who voted against a politician who disappoints them. Dissatisfied with Bush, the people who would become Tea Partiers stopped voting (2006-8). Dissatisfied with Obama, many of the people who voted for him are looking to stay home this November (2010).

    If you’re interested in facts about this, you might read this article in PS from a prof at U Michigan (gated, unless you’re at a university): http://0-journals.cambridge.org.wncln.wncln.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=7528316&fulltextType=RA&fileId=S1049096510000065

    Alternatively, here’s an analysis at Mark Blumenthal’s polling site (now part of HuffPost) from three of my old colleagues in grad school which points to TP’ers being the right wing equivalent of the NetRoots–committed partisans who try to remake their party after an electoral defeat–reaffirming the comparison between TP’ers in 2007-2010 with the reverse dynamic in anti-war protesters. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/guest-pollster/wolf_downs_and_ortsey_whos_you_b_727562.html

    Um, without a preview function I’m not sure whether those links will come out alright, so apologies if my comment turns out to be a mess.

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