In the narrative that journalists have been writing of this strange political year, the midterm elections seem to be little more than the preordained climax for the story of the Tea Party. The months leading up to the vote have brought a succession of conquests: Brown in Massachusetts, Rubio in Florida, Angle in Nevada, Miller in Alaska, O’Donnell in Delaware. These battles have lit up the electoral map, each of them a new front in a political blitz. Reading Kate Zernike’s book, one gets the feeling that the movement will not be going away anytime soon, regardless of what happens this November.
Zernike, who has followed the movement for The New York Times, captures a grassroots uprising whose anger seems unflagging, a primal scream against liberalism and modernity that will not relent until Barack Obama—the incarnation of those forces—leaves office. Rushed to hit shelves in time for the fall elections, the book is a brisk chronicle of the people who have streamed to the protests, flocked to the polls, and elevated the Angles and the O’Donnells to political stardom.
Relying heavily on a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in April, Zernike offers a snapshot of the movement: older, whiter, more prosperous, more likely to be college-educated than the general public. Tea Partiers diverge from Americans in other ways, too. For one thing, they really, really do not like Barack Obama. At the time of the poll, 40 percent of Americans disapproved of the way Obama was handling his job (more recent polls put it at 50 percent); but for the Tea Partiers, that figure was 88 percent.
The protagonists of Boiling Mad are ordinary Americans who, almost invariably, had never done anything like this before. Their names mean nothing to most people, but their piqued activism is what makes the movement. A headless network bound by e-mails, blogs, and viral videos, the Tea Party recalls nothing so much as the decentralized Obama campaign, right down to the spirit of fellow-feeling that courses through the ranks. There is not a little irony in the fact that the methods of community organizing championed by Obama have been taken up by the organizers of the Tea Party. (The name “Alinsky” is uttered several times in the book.) No less ironic, but more grotesque, is the movement’s appropriation of the rhetoric and the iconography of the civil rights movement, culminating in Glenn Beck’s rally in Washington, D.C., on the anniversary of the March on Washington.
What they are against is entirely clear—or is it? Their bogeyman is the federal government. As Mark Lilla has remarked, “[The Tea Party’s] voice has only one Garbo-like thing to say: I want to be left alone.” And yet a healthy majority, 62 percent, still think that Social Security and Medicare are worth the cost. And despite some Tea Partiers’ claims of disinterest in social issues, Glenn Beck, Christine O’Donnell and others keep straying from the playbook. Try as they might to unify behind a libertarian message, there is no getting around the reality that the movement is as much Christian as it is Cato. As Zernike acknowledges, “the Tea Party was so many different things to so many different people—if they knew exactly what it was, at all...”
At pains to underscore how normal they are, the Tea Partiers in Zernike’s account are also diligent students, eagerly doing their homework to prepare themselves for democratic participation. Such civic earnestness would be admirable except for the misinformation being inhaled. The role of the movement’s media and its Washington figureheads in this miseducation cannot be overstated. Beck has spearheaded this pedagogical felony, spewing a steady stream of crackpot history and conspiratorial diagrams. Meanwhile, as Zernike documents, Tea Partiers across the country are filling classes run by political organizers who use august texts such as Beck’s Common Sense, Mark Levin’s Liberty and Tyranny, and The 5,000 Year Leap by Cleon Skousen. Skousen spent the 1960s writing about the Communist threat, and was disowned by conservatives of the time for being too crazy; he has now been resurrected as a Beck-driven bestseller.
While the grassroots anger and energy are genuine, one cannot ignore the role that conservative elites have played in the Tea Party’s rise. Much has been written of late about the Koch brothers and other benefactors who have made the Tea Party possible. Zernike’s account of FreedomWorks’s efforts underscores just how engaged the establishment has been in this anti-establishment revolt. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the movement as completely inorganic. FreedomWorks has been pushing the conceit of a new Tea Party since 2002. It was not until the perfect storm hit—the economic crisis, the bailouts, Rick Santelli’s catalyzing rant, all against the backdrop of the Age of Obama—that the metaphor finally took hold of the conservative imagination. Without authentic rank-and-file rage, the whole thing might still be a gleam in Dick Armey’s eye.
This engagement with Washington powerbrokers gives the lie to the pox-on-both-houses posture that many in the Tea Party assume. If all they cared about were deficits, where were they during the Bush years? Sitting contentedly at home, according to surveys. Indeed, Zernike’s claim that the Tea Partiers are “not just a group of especially conservative Republicans” is simply not credible. Her own newspaper’s poll does not support her: Tea Partiers have always or usually voted Republican 66 percent of the time, compared to 28 percent for the general public. A Gallup poll from July found significant overlap between the Tea Party and the GOP core. It is a new brand for the old base of an ever-more conservative party.
The question remains: where is this thing headed? An improved economy might peel off sympathizers, but the hardcore activists are not likely to be appeased. There is a deeper lament here, an implacable resentment. Race has something to do with it: from the slurs against black lawmakers, to Tea Party Express leader Mark Williams’s racist rants, to surveys of Tea Party attitudes, it has been hard to ignore the racial content of some of the Tea Party’s rhetoric and tropes. (Tea Party logic dictates, of course, that any racist in their ranks is, by definition, a “plant” to make them look bad.) Yet to dismiss the movement as little more than a racist freak-out would be an over-simplification. Mickey Edwards put it best when he described the Tea Party mentality: “All the things you grew up with, all the biases you had and believed were accurate, all the ways your daily life worked are being challenged. You don’t have to be racist to look at: there’s a black president, there’s a woman speaker, it doesn’t look the same.”
But more than just nostalgia for a whiter America fuels this tantrum. “I can’t believe this is the America I grew up in as a kid,” says one of Zernike’s subjects. Pages later, another one reminisces about her own childhood America: “People would talk to their neighbors, have block parties, there was less stress in life.” What is striking is that those testimonies came from a twenty-nine-year-old and sixty-six-year-old, respectively—childhoods spent decades apart, in Americas that looked different from each other. They eulogize not so much the common, long-gone America of their childhoods, but the state of childhood itself. The relentless hurtling away from the simplicities of youth is what the Tea Partiers rebel against. But the grown-up world, with its complications, compromises, and disappointments, is here to stay, which is a cruelty that no election can salve.
Elbert Ventura is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.