The new New Yorker features Ben McGrath as its Reporter at Large recounting months of encounters with the burgeoning Tea Party movement across the United States. Inevitably, it's an impressionistic rather than analytic account of the phenomenon, and there's evidence of editorial uncertainty over how to present both the story and the movement it describes. The report is illustrated, New Yorker style, by a full-page Edward Sorel cartoon portraying a host of sign-waving little people led toward Capitol Hill by a giant flag-wrapped, sword-wielding Glenn Beck. But the caption reads: "Liberals saw the activists as caricatures -- mere tools of right-wing media figures like Glenn Beck. They were wrong."
McGrath seems to realize that the Tea Party movement might be better described in the plural as phenomena rather than a single phenomenon. He describes its motley nature in one paragraph as encompassing "footloose Ron Paul supporters, goldbugs, evangelicals, Atlas Shruggers, militiamen, strict Constitutionalists, swine-flu skeptics, scattered 9/11 'truthers,' neo-'Birchers,' and, of course, 'birthers,'..." It's unlikely that any one person holds all these views or all these affiliations at once. What, if anything, is the common thread? Are there fundamental points of belief that define a Tea Partier?
A reporter, especially one writing for a relatively literary magazine, is tempted to cull the most colorful quotes from his notes. Here, for instance, is a Kentucky man denouncing Republicans and Democrats alike: "Their constituency is George Soros." That reference to the foreign-born speculator inspires McGrath to comment on nativism and Richard Hofstadter's old (and I thought discredited) theory of the American "paranoid style." Here is Paul Dopp of New York state, interviewed during Doug Hoffman's congressional campaign, describing liberals: "For a lot of people, government is their religion. That's their place of worship, because they truly believe in the betterment of man." McGrath either neglected to ask whether Dopp didn't believe in the betterment of man, or neglected to include Dopp's answer in his article. And here is a Fresno man complaining about a water shortage in California's Central Valley, blaming it on "radical environmentalism." And here are Tea Partiers in New York City, singing what might become their anthem, including the line, "Our way of life is now under attack."
The main point of the article is McGrath's thesis that the Tea Parties can't be traced to any single inspiration or instigator and can't be blamed on radio talkers or Republican strategists. Despite Beck's propaganda and the activities of Freedom Works, McGrath defends the TPs from the "astroturf" charge, noting that "the blogosphere can make trained foot soldiers of us all, with or without corporate funding." He emphasizes the movement's decentralized flexibility, with New Yorkers repudiating liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava while Massachusetts members embraced liberal Republican Scott Brown. If there's a rule for all, McGrath says, it's "to respect local preferences and work selectively within the system." There's a limit to that strategy, of course, if the locality prefers liberal or progressive policies.
Nothing McGrath writes here dispels my impression that the Tea Parties are essentially anti-"liberal," but nothing in the article really lets us measure the extent or vehemence of that opposition. It would be better if a reporter would ask TPs some basic values questions, though some may be disinclined to answer. Do they believe that government can do nothing to improve the public's material quality of life? Do they admit any obligation to secure at least a minimal material well-being for all their fellow citizens. Do they claim the right to decide that fellow citizens who've committed no crimes deserve to live in misery, or not to live? Or do they claim that fellow Americans deserve misery, or worse, simply for failing to live up to some people's standard of competitiveness or productivity? We all know that they dislike or distrust "government," but what we need to know from Tea Partiers is what they think of people, or at least of fellow citizens, and what they think of community or civilization. We know that they're all for "freedom," but what does that mean, to them, in everyday life? We need to get past the jargon and the symbolism before we can know whether the Tea Parties are friends, enemies, or simply people we've got to live and compromise with, just as they have to compromise with those who may not agree with their ideals but are no less American for that.
Footnote on Populism: McGrath quotes historian Charles Postel for context on the purported populism of Tea Partiers. Postel says, "The original Populists were the ones who came up with the income tax. They were for the nationalization of everything. Their ideal of a model institution was the Post Office." But another historian, Sean Wilentz, suggests that populism is a matter of rhetoric and symbolism. "That basic kind of vocabulary, against the monarchy and the aristocracy, has informed every conceivable American dissident group in one way or another." Today, obviously, some see the government as the "monarchy" while previous populists saw "railroad speculators" and the like as the "aristocracy." The question for historians isn't so much why some Americans turned on the government their ancestors saw as their best defense against what FDR called "economic royalists," but why so many apparently stopped seeing the economic royalists as such.