Jonathan Chait

Tea Parties And The Conservative Imagination

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The Tea Party has played an outsized role in the conservative imagination. The reason, I suspect, is that it provides a vehicle for conservatives to indulge their fantasy about representing the true American public. The Tea Party helps conservatives wipe away the memory of the Bush administration and the election of President Obama. The people were somnolent, and now they have awoken, announcing in their righteous fury that they demand conservative policies. If the GOP had failed in 2006 and 2008, it was only in its wishy-washiness. The Tea Party is not just an expression of a riled-up conservative base but the voice of the people.

Hence you have Pete Sessions announcing on Meet the Press, "When I look at the Tea Party movement I see one third Republicans, one third Democrats, and one third independents." This is, of course absurd:

But it comports with the fervent desire on the right to imagine this movement as some representative cross-section of public opinion.

Likewise the numerous attempts to insist upon the sheer authenticity of the movement. Policy Review, the publication of the right-wing Hoover Institution, has a bizarre essay about the Tea Parties as a populist revolt:

For better or for worse, the profound cultural changes in American life during the past half century are testament to the enormous influence exercised by our cultural guardians. Ideas, customs, and traditions that no longer find favor in the eyes of the cultural elite have been stigmatized as out-of-date and old-fashioned, while an array of progressive policies have received the imprimatur of elite prestige. In fact, about the only segment of the population that has remained resistant to these progressive policies are the crowds that assemble at Tea Party rallies, holding up their handmade posters. It is the Tea Partiers’ indifference to the whole idea of intellectual respectability that renders them immune to the prestige pressure that molds and shapes the ideas and opinions of those who do care about being intellectually respectable. To put it another way, the Tea Partiers can escape the otherwise all-pervasive influence of our cultural elite because they are the people who Gramsci called marginalized outsiders.

Of course, the Tea Party movement has benefited from the sponsorship of Freedomworks, a well-funded pro-business lobby, and Fox News, the largest news cable station in America. To be sure, the Tea Parties also represent an authentic strain of popular thought. They haven't been conjured out of thin air. But the insistence upon viewing the Tea Parties as pure expressions of populist anger -- "handmade signs!" -- is fantasy cloaked as analysis. The right-wing viewpoint of the Tea Parties has the loyalty of some chunk of the electorate, but those same views are hardly unrepresented among the elite. There is no shortage of well-funded think-tanks, lobbies, magazines, astroturf lobbies and so on magnifying and shaping the message of the movement.

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