The Fightin' Side of Tea


We've seen two serious surveys of Tea Party opinion recently, one from the Winston Group and one from CBS and The New York Times. They certainly aren't the last word on the subject, and there's still a lot to be learned about a movement whose very identity is up for grabs. But these polls are what we've got, and the comments on the results are rolling in, notably in a symposium published yesterday on the New York Times site.

One essay there comes from the liberal historian Rick Perlstein, who dismisses the demonstrations as "the shrieking of a small minority." I can't endorse that opinion, but in the course of making his case Perlstein does raise an important point. Such movements, he writes, "accompany every ascendancy of liberalism within U.S. government":

"When was the last time you saw such a spontaneous eruption of conservative grass-roots anger, coast to coast?" asked the professional conservative L. Brent Bozell III recently. The answer, of course, is: in 1993. And 1977. And 1961. And so on.

This is true. And if the topic is Tea Party opinion, those recurring eruptions present a natural experiment.

Take the much-discussed subject of race. It's often noted that the Tea Parties didn't really take off until Barack Obama became president, even though the Bush administration pushed through some egregious interventions in the economy. The standard explanation for this is that many Tea Partiers are more alarmed by big government when the Democrats are in power than when the White House is held by a Republican. But some have suggested that the real issue here is Obama's skin color.

The way this usually plays out is (a) someone zeroes in on a Tea Party type who has expressed something racist, and then (b) everyone argues about how typical he is. It might be more fruitful, though, to try to compare the levels of prejudice in the Tea Parties and in those previous surges in conservative activity. Having been an adult engaged with politics both in the 1990s and today, I can report confidently that racial resentment was much more apparent in the right-wing activism of two decades ago than now, even though the president who took office in 1993 was white. You don't see a lot of people trying to rally the troops by invoking racial quotas these days, for example. There's much less of a racial edge to the discussions of welfare, too. The majority of the racism that you do see on the right today is aimed at Mexicans. That's bad, but it doesn't fit the "they hate Obama because he's black" narrative.

To judge from the historical record, the '90s right was in turn less racist than the right-wing surge of the '70s. (One rarely-noted fact about the Clinton era is that prejudice grew less popular not just in the mainstream right but on the radical right. There's a marked difference between the militias of the '90s and the far-right groups of the '80s and earlier.) I'd argue that this reflects a long-term decline in both overt and coded anti-black sentiment throughout American society. Other shifts on the right represent short-term changes. In the '90s, for example, grassroots conservatives reacted to the end of the Cold War by becoming much more suspicious of both military action abroad and the national security state at home. You can find such views in the Tea Parties today, thanks largely to the Ron Paul contingent, but the War on Terror has restored a lot of those old hawkish reflexes.

Back to the New York Times symposium. The worst entry comes from Alan Wolfe, who trots out the old "status anxiety" explanation for right-wing sentiment that was popular in the middle of the 20th century and has been rejected by most serious historians and social scientists since then. (For some background on the rise and fall of that school of thought, read Leo Ribuffo's "What Underlies Obama's Analysis of 'The People'.") But while I wouldn't look to Wolfe for insights into the Tea Parties, his comments do offer a glimpse into the mindset of a certain sort of Tea Party critic. Consider this passage:

These are not farmers thrown off the land by mechanization or workers stripped of their livelihood through globalization. In the great game of social mobility there are more winners among them than losers.

Yet despite their relatively comfortable private positions, these people are anything but content with the public life of their country. Ninety-two percent of them think the U. S. is on the wrong track. Over half of them (53 percent) are angry, but there is no agreement about them about what they are angry about.

They are no great fans of any particular leader because they distrust all leaders. Such response might make sense if we lived in a society that allowed little room for economic advancement, suspended elections when its ruling class did not like the results, or possessed no Bill of Rights. But we actually live in a country that people attracted to the right claim to love.

Last month David Brooks suggested that the Tea Parties resemble the New Left. I don't know about that, but the Tea Parties' critics sure can sound like the New Left's foes. Up until that last sentence, Wolfe's words are indistinguishable from an angry conservative complaining about those overprivileged kids burning down the campuses, circa 1970. They love our milk and honey/But they preach about some other way of living/When they're runnin' down my country, hoss/They're walkin' on the fightin' side of me.