On the eve of the November elections, we are suddenly awash in books, articles, and monographs about the Tea Parties. Some of these—I would single out Sean Wilentz’s historical piece in The New Yorker—deepen our understanding, but most of them don’t get it right. They are too quick either to dismiss or to stigmatize the Tea Parties. And the mistakes they make are not just academic; they contribute to a misunderstanding of what it will take for liberals and the left—not to mention the Obama administration—to turn around American politics after November.
Here are some of the most common misconceptions:
1) “The Tea Party is not a movement.” In a front page story in last Sunday’s Washington Post, Amy Gardner wrote that the Tea Parties are “not so much a movement as a disparate band of vaguely connected gatherings that do surprisingly little to engage in the political process.” As evidence, Gardner cites the lack of a common platform, the lack of a common national candidate, and the absence of a single dominant national organization. The Tea Parties, the author suggests, are a much weaker brew than commonly thought.
But many powerful movements lack one or more of these features. In their first years, the Populists (aka Farmers Alliance, etc.) lacked all these of these features. In 1892, they came together around a candidate and a platform, but that didn’t last. The populist movement of the 1880s and 1890s was basically a highly decentralized and fractious movement. Or consider the New Left of the 1960s, of which I can speak personally. There was a multiplicity of organizations: student, black, Chicano, feminist. And some of the organizations that claimed to have thousands and thousands of members were themselves disorganized and decentralized. I belonged to an SDS chapter in California, but we never—and I mean never—consulted the national office in Chicago. When some would-be Leninists tried to consolidate SDS into a cadre organization in 1969, it splintered and eventually dissolved.
The conservative movement that began in the mid-’50s also lacked a common platform and dominant national organization. The American Conservative Union was and remains a paper organization that puts on conferences. Conservatives coalesced around national leaders in 1964 and 1980, but in between these times, they were not committed to a single leader. It is easy to forget that in the 1980 election, some new right leaders backed John Connally against Ronald Reagan! And by Reagan’s second term, conservatives were feuding again. In other words, American politics has almost always had disorganized, decentralized movements like the Tea Parties—and they have had a significant impact.
I don’t want to read too much into Gardner’s analysis, but what I suspect in these cases is that the writer is imposing a continental European model of a political movement onto American politics. In Europe’s multiparty systems, movements cohere more easily into parties, but in America, the two-party system discourages the transition from movement to party except when the movement takes over one of the two parties.
2) “The Tea Party is a fascist movement.” Several authors have claimed that the Tea Party, far from being incoherent in its views, is really an American “fascist” movement. Sara Robinson from the Campaign for America’s Future cites the definition of fascism from a book, The Anatomy of Fascism:
...a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
“Sound familiar?” she asks. Not to me. The Tea Party isn’t a party, has not yet abandoned democratic liberties, and has not pursued “redemptive violence.” A few fights here or there, maybe, but not Brown Shirt violence.
The problem here is very similar to that of denying that the Tea Party is a “movement.” In both cases, the author is imposing abstract definitions that are rooted in European, not American, history. What I would say about the Tea Party is that like the European fascism between the world wars, it is a deeply reactionary movement. People often look backwards for solutions when faced with adversity. In continental Europe, that meant looking back to an authoritarian past—in the case of Italy, all the way to the days of the Roman Empire. In the U.S. it has meant looking back to an anti-statist past, when liberty was defined in opposition to government. That’s how the Tea Party movement sees it. It’s our American version of political backwardness, not of fascism.
3) “The Tea Party is racist.” I dealt with this argument at some length before, and I am not going to repeat what I wrote. But an extensive new study put out by the NAACP and the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights has appeared, and it requires a response. There is some new information about the Tea Parties in this study, but the basic thrust of it is to stigmatize the movement as incurably racist by associating it with people like David Duke. Now, I am not denying that there are “anti-Semites, racists, and bigots” in the Tea Party movement. Nor would I deny that there were people in the anti-Iraq War left who thought that the U.S. had it coming on September 11. But it is a mistake to reduce the Tea Party to a racist movement—the way one could justifiably reduce something like the White Citizens’ Councils of the 1950s (which claimed only to be for “states’ rights”) to a racist movement.
The Tea Party is an accretion of various movements of the past decades, including the Christian right and, as Wilentz shows, the older anti-Communist Right. But it fits above all into the framework of American populism, which has always had right-wing and left-wing variants, and which is rooted in a middle class cri de coeur—that we who do the work and play by the rules are being exploited by parasitic bankers and speculators and/or by shiftless, idle white trash, negroes, illegal immigrants, fill in the blank here. What’s important is that these movements, which gather strength in the face of adversity, can go either right or left. During the 1930s, they tended left rather than right. During Obama’s first term, they have gone primarily to the right. There are many reasons for this, but at least one has to do with how the White House has blamed Main Street and Wall Street equally for the financial crisis.
4) “The Tea Party is a conventional Republican group funded by big business.” My former colleague Michael Lind argues that the Tea Party is really a Republican offshoot. “Its adherents are angry for the same reason that Democrats were angry between 2001 and 2007: their party is out of power,” he writes. But I think that is too simple, as are the assertions that the Tea Party is a tool of big business. There are groups like Tea Party Express that were founded by Republican consultants and that have the apparent purpose of getting the Republicans back in power—but as The Washington Post study shows, many of those who identify with and are active in the Tea Party are new to politics and are moved by specific grievances rather than by an allegiance to the Republican Party. That was also true of Perot voters, from whom the Tea Partiers partly descend. They leaned Democratic in 1992 and Republican in 1994, but overall their primary allegiance was not to party.
There are also Tea Party sponsoring organizations like Americans for Prosperity that are funded primarily by big business. But again, as The Washington Post survey shows, most of the local groups are improvident; they’re not George W. Bush and his “pioneers.” What’s undeniable, though, is that those most likely to benefit from right-wing middle class insurgencies are not the embattled middle classes, but the business interests and the wealthy associated with the Republican Party. That was certainly true of the “Reagan Revolution,” which put an end to the movement toward income equality that had begun in the 1930s. So who benefits from these movements is not the same as who controls them on a day-to-day basis. That is likely to become apparent after this November’s election.
John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic.