15 May 2010

The Tea Party "Menace"

Analyses of the Tea Party movement remind me of the blind men and the elephant -- and not only because you want to scream out the obvious fact that they're Republicans at heart. Each analyst focuses on details of subjective significance, whether to portray the TPs positively or pejoratively. The latest contestant is John B. Judis, writing in The New Republic, which helpfully advertises his piece on the cover as "The Tea Party Menace." Judis identifies three defining ideas that unite TPs: an "obsession with decline" that they blame on "evil forces and individuals"; a "staunch anti-statism" (duh!); and "a tradition of producerism that dates back to Andrew Jackson."

That last one is the most novel element in Judis's analysis. He defines producerism as the idea that "workers should enjoy the fruits of what they produce and not have to share them with [those] who didn't actually create anything." Like the anti-state strain, Judis identifies this as a mentalist that has drifted over time from "left" to "right." Producerism was originally hostile to bankers and speculators, but modern producerists see enemies elsewhere.

While the Jacksonians and Populists had largely directed their anger upward, conservatives directed their ire at the people below who were the beneficiaries of state programs -- from the 'welfare queens' of the ghetto to the 'illegal aliens' of the barrio.

I don't dispute that something has changed, but Judis doesn't really explain how or why it changed. It also may not have changed as completely as he suggests. Populist producerism saw entrenched wealth limiting its opportunities, and to an extent Tea Party producerism does also. Judis mostly underplays the TPs' hostility to Wall Street, though he notes that "These men and women look uneasily upward at corporate CEOs and investment bankers [as well as] downward at low-wage service workers and laborers, many of whom are minorities." He believes that populists in general break left or right based on "whether they primarily blame those below or above for the social and economic anxieties they feel." He believes that TPs belong to the "right" or Republican side because, as he sees it, they blame minorities and poor people for the country's current troubles.

Do the TPs really have to make the choice Judis assumes? It seems that a lot of them blame both Welfare and Wall Street for the current crisis, and the anti-statism that Judis rightly recognizes may not require them to choose between rich and poor in conventional right-vs-left fashion. American politics has superimposed the fundamental left-right conflict between workers and bosses upon an older, pre-Marxian conflict about state power. As historically conscious conservatives recognize, it was not un-conservative in the past for politicians to institute social-welfare policies, as Bismarck did in 19th century Germany, in order to preserve the overall social order. But that was aristocratic conservatism, and the social order it aimed to preserve placed aristocracies above an increasingly resentful bourgeoisie. Opposed to this kind of conservatism was a mentality radical for its time, and arguably still radical today, that sees the state as a distinct class of oppressors with whom the bourgeoisie (or entrepreneurial class) imagines they can do quite well without, a parasitic cohort not above resorting to demagoguery to rally the shiftless rabble to its side. That sounds like the Tea Party mindset. The TPs are not taking the side of the rich against the poor; as producerists, they see themselves as the virtuous middle class and the rightful majority who should rule the country.

The main point of Judis's article, which justifies its billing as a description of a "menace," is his prediction that the Tea Parties will not break up as quickly as other analysts think or hope, unless the economy improves dramatically in the near future. As long as the economy merely limps along, the TPs will flourish on the "conservative producerism [that] has most deeply resonated during economic downturns." Judis also believes that the TPs can become a larger force in politics than their arguable ancestors in the Christian Right because they "do not have the same built-in impediments to growth." That is, they don't have the same kind of deal-breaking litmus tests that the Moral Majority types allegedly imposed on otherwise-likely allies. "Even the wackiest Tea Partiers wouldn't demand that a candidate seeking their endorsement agree that ACORN fixed the election or that Obama is foreign-born," Judis explains. I'm not so sure about that. To the extent that Judis himself claims that the TPs are influenced by ideas handed down from the John Birch Society through the medium of Glenn Beck, it may become necessary to be true believers in their demonologies to earn their trust. It's certainly in their opponents' interests to make such a claim, and Tea Parties should have to account for the crackpots in their midst. But I lean toward a more optimistic estimate of their longevity or lack of it. Let's assume a lot of TPs are the same people who applauded the Contract With America in 1994 and carried Newt Gingrich to the Speakership that year. Since then, the Republicans have fallen away from the true doctrine so badly that the Tea Parties had to convene to correct them. But where were they between 1995 and 2008? The watchdogs were clearly asleep or at least distracted in those years, and I suspect that a triumph similar to 1994's will render them nearly as complacent and deferential as before. They may get agitated when they see a stranger in charge of things, but they also get all too trusting when one of their own is in place. If I'm right about this, it may almost be worth the trouble to let them have their victory as soon as possible, so they go back to sleep. I don't mean to disparage vigilance, but misplaced vigilance (aimed at the mere idea of the state, for instance) may be worse than none at all, counterproductive rather than merely unproductive.


Anonymous said...

I really don't think most of these teabaggers consider themselves entrepreneurs. They don't seem to be small business owners. What they seem to be is tradition-bound right-wingers who feel the need to blame some group for the problems this country is facing and so they blame a) those in no real position to defend themselves (ie, the "poor" and "alien") and those they see as benefitting from government largesse (ie big business, minus the defense industry). The bottom line is, they are scum and nothing more.

Samuel Wilson said...

You don't think that they consider themselves the salt of the earth, the people who play by the rules and don't ask for breaks and actually create the country's wealth? You don't have to agree with them but you can't deny that there's some element of "producerism" in their attitude. If they aren't entrepreneurs they probably wish they were and probably identify with what they deem to be entrepreneurial values -- rightly or wrongly.