David Coates

Tea-Party Time in America

The Tea Party folk are making a lot of running right now, and as they do so, we are learning more and more about them. What we are learning is partly surprising and partly disturbing; but either way it is fully important.

The surprising bit: that Tea Party supporters are wealthier and better educated than the average American, and are not disproportionately fearful of downward social mobility. The Tea party is not redneck heaven. “The 18 percent of Americans who identify themselves as Tea Party supporters tend to be Republican, white, male, married and older than 45.” Like the rest of us, most think the tax they pay is fair. Most send their children to public schools. Most support Medicare and Social Security. Most think Sarah Palin is not qualified to be president. Where they differ is in the scale and intensity of their dislike of Barack Obama and their pessimism about the direction the country is taking. Health care reform annoys them. Government spending annoys them. Their exclusion from decision making in Washington annoys them. “Ninety-two percent believe Mr. Obama is moving the country toward socialism, an opinion shared by more than half of the general public.” “More than 90 percent of Tea Party supporters think the country is headed in the wrong direction, compared with 60 percent of the general public.” (quotes and data from The New York Times, April 14, 2010)  But though extreme, they are not that a-typical. Polling by the Pew Research Center in April found just 22 percent of Americans trusting government in Washington, among the lowest score recorded in half a century. (at http://people-press.org/report/606/trust-in-government. And though they like to present themselves as a spontaneous grass-root movement of ordinary Americans, Tea Partiers are in truth sustained by some fairly conventional right-wing corporate money – not least money from the Koch family, ironically a family whose industrial fortune was initially consolidated by building refineries and training engineers for Stalinist Russia in the late 1920s and 1930s! (see Yasha Levine, The Roots of Stalin in the Tea Party Movement, posted on Alternet April 17,2010: available at http://www.a;lternet.org/story/146504/)

See also the excellent analysis by Adele Stan, Crazy? Stupid? Tea Party Supporters are Neither, posted on Alternet on May 4th, available at http:www.alternet.org/story/146707/

The disturbing bit: that leading Tea Party figures do hold such extreme views. Rand Paul is the recent example. Successful in the Republican Senate primary in Kentucky in May – defeating the candidate backed by the Republican Party establishment, and greeted as a pure unalloyed victory for the Tea Party by conservative commentator Charles Hurt, writing in the The New York Post – Rand Paul caused immediate controversy in the wake of his victory by questioning the wisdom of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and by condemning the President’s criticism of BP’s handling of the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico as “un-American”. This latter brought him into tension with the Libertarian Party from which he sprung – if everyone is responsible for their own actions, then why not BP too? The former quickly brought out the Rand Paul explanation: that in fact he would have voted for the 1964 Act, and overwhelmingly agreed with the intention of the legislation: that “his remarks didn’t reflect racism but a sincerely held libertarian belief that the federal government, starting in the Roosevelt era, gained powers that set the stage for decades of improper intrusion on private businesses.” (The Wall Street Journal, May 22-3, 2010). That view led Rand Paul to argue against government regulation of the banks. “When we had a crisis and things were teetering in the balance, people blamed capitalism, wrongly so,” he was quoted as saying. “It’s the government that needs to be regulated. It’s the Federal Reserve that needs to be restrained.” (Cited in The New York Times, May 19, 2010)

Additional Notes

(a)    Tea Party activists from across the country rallied in Washington DC on April 15 (tax day) to protest levels of taxation. But even the Cato Institute’s Director of Tax Policy studies, Chris Edwards, was hard pressed to find a tax hike under Obama: ‘The only tax I think that has been put in place so far is an increase in the federal cigarette tax.” (cited by Sam Stein, on The Huffington Post, April 15, 2010). Most Americans got a tax cut in fiscal year 2009.

(b)   All this in the context of the most polarized Congress in modern history. William Galston of the Brookings Institution, in a major new report, found that the overlap between the two parties in both the House and the Senate is now very low. ‘If one defines the congressional ‘center’ as the overlap between the parties, the center has disappeared.” (See William A Galston, Can a Polarized American Party System Be Healthy? Governance Studies at Brookings, Issues in Governance Studies Number 34, April 2010: available at http://www.brookings.edu/papers/2010/04_polarization_galston.aspx

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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