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Inside the Tea Party: why these culture wars are personal

Stop looking at the polls giving Barack Obama a clear lead over the Republican 2012 presidential field. Stop dismissing the “crazy” backlash against climate science, evolution and cyclical economics as unelectable. They only tell a small part, possibly the wrong part, of the story of how the Tea Party’s wildfire success has fundamentally changed US politics and sown the seeds of its own undoing.

Soon after arriving in the US I was adopted by a loud and proud Tea Party couple, the Guernseys of Annapolis, Maryland. They stuffed me full of home-cooked turkey and pumpkin pie — extra helpings — as if I’d returned from a famine region rather than a G20 country outperforming the US on most development indices. All it took was one night of sharing stories about our respective countries, and I don’t think we agreed on a single topic, but Neil stood up and made it official: “It’s settled; now you’re family.” Americans … that’s how they roll.

Obama marked his first 100 days in office, and the Guernseys returned from a Tea Party rally on Washington’s National Mall along with some 200,000 placard holders in funny costumes and almost as many Fox News cameras, or so it seemed. They were opposing the only thing the still-popular president had had time to do: spend $151.4 billion of the GFC-busting stimulus.

In hindsight the bulk of the $787 billion stimulus wasn’t spent near soon enough to rebound the economy like it was supposed to. But no multitude of egg-head economists asserting this could beguile the self-evident link between spending (Bush’s wars and Obama’s stimulus) and the recession those same egg-head economists kept saying was over.

Don’t they know how tough we’re doing it? And he wants to spend even more!” That was the hourly echo heard on Fox News from hosts such as  Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck who helped organise and promote the rally. But not Neil, although he did watch those shows daily. Neil’s biggest gripe was that the mainstream media, and he jokingly pointed a finger at me, only filmed their rally from the side so only a faction of the crowds that stretched back several blocks were seen on television. He pulled out a long souvenir poster that had been pieced together from photographs taken from several points along mall. The full effect almost made the mall’s towering Washington monument look small. All he wanted was a little respect.

If there’s one courtesy that Tea Party supporters should get automatically is for media commentators to stop reflexively calling them Republicans without asking first. Of the dozens of Tea Party-aligned voters I interviewed in eight states, not scientifically sampled and skewed to military communities, only four people were registered as Republican (in most US states a voter must register as Republican or Democrat in order to vote in that party’s primaries). The remainder were split, Independent and Libertarian. A few had long histories of voting for Democratic presidents and reviled George W Bush even more than Obama. More than anything else they had in common, their interest in politics was very new and rather late in life.

Before the 2010 mid-term election primaries cemented the Tea Party brand as a wholly owned subsidiary of GOP Inc, alongside the Evangelical and national security hawk divisions, there was genuine hesitation and debate about fielding their own candidates and under what banner. The Republican Party was a damaged brand, tarnished by Bush’s unpopularity, effectively leaderless, no federal powerbase at all, and undisciplined messages from a field as wide as Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz, Sarah Palin during her investigation-plagued final months in state office, and between gaffs and other expenses-related humiliations, RNC chairman Michael Steele.

A few clever operatives running organised groups such as the Tea Party Patriots/Nation/etc. took advantage of the situation and with the help of Fox News and SarahPAC absolutely routed the moderates and the unprepared in Republican primaries. With their efforts, providing a message and an enthusiasm base, the GOP would not have had a chance of picking up the seats it did in 2010.

Don’t mistake Tea Party activists for conventional GOP rank and file though; on election night itself, volunteers at the Tea Party Patriots’ HQ were as green around the edges as they were green to campaigning. I ended up having to explain to one elderly supporter, about to throw away her “Pat Toomey for Senate” sign in disappointment, that the results on the screen were only one Democratic district, not the final result. I don’t think she’ll be back next time volunteering for incumbent Republicans. She may not even vote.

Professors David Campbell and Robert Putnam took a more scientific methodology to surveying the Tea Party base in their book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, finding atrocious bigotry mixed in with a range of anti-science views and strong prohibitions on social progressiveness, and concluded they were merely extreme Republicans: “The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government,” the pair wrote for The New York Times last week. 

It’s true most Tea Party supporters don’t believe in climate change, although it could hardly be called a get-out-the-vote issue, like the marriage amendments were for religious conservatives in 2004. I found huge contrasts on social issues, which is probably why the movement stayed out of it. At one libertarian dinner with Defence workers, who opposed the same government spending that ultimately fund their wages, the consensus was that “towel heads” should be profiled so US airports could get rid of the privacy-violating nude-imaging scanners. Other statements about gays, Arabs and Muslims would not be permitted under Australia’s state anti-vilification laws.

The last election didn’t go far enough for them; every incumbent from the Pelosi-era and the Bush-era were responsible for the big government problem and should all be kicked out. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, an upset Tea Party win, was their hero, and he’s currently helping his father Ron Paul’s long-shot presidential bid.

Another contender former Utah governor and Obama’s Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, who shares none of those views, lashed his opponents for, if nothing else, being unelectable.  He won’t be nominated. But it’s curious to see what issue even he would not rock the boat over: raising taxes. So it is fair to say the entire GOP, less the two Republican senators for Maine who crossed the floor to vote for the stimulus, are 100% signed on to the core Tea Party philosophy. Who really gave way for who in this arrangement? Left in its wake is the merging of two incongruent realities: the Tea Party, a popular anti-establishment movement with deep libertarian roots, is now a fairly unpopular establishment party that must pander to social conservatives’ desire for control.

As such it’s somewhat unclear how many of those original 200,000 protesters on the National Mall will stick with a party that has to make deals and compromises and looks so much like the government they were protesting. Without their enthusiasm it’s even less clear how 2012 will look.

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  • 1
    Peter Ormonde
    Posted Tuesday, 23 August 2011 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Excellent observations Harley ….

    Seems like it’s still true: power corrupts.

    It forces nasty compromises like eventually saving the largest economy on earth.

    I hope the Guernseys don’t feel too milked by this inevitable vote farming.

  • 2
    Andrew McIntosh
    Posted Wednesday, 24 August 2011 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    None of this inspires any confidence. Every article I’ve read about the Tea Party movement and every indication I’ve got from contacts in the US do not paint a very positive picture of these people as a whole. Not only their regressive and in some cases bizarre politics, but the fact that they refuse to engage in any kind of dialogue with anyone they are opposed to. It’s the sheer lack of compromise I find disturbing as it strikes straight to the heart of a pluralistic democracy; the ability to have sides, to debate and engage and to come to the kind of compromises that make a more stable society. The US needs a pro-democracy movement.

  • 3
    Caruben
    Posted Thursday, 25 August 2011 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    More evidence that it really is only a matter of time before this empire implodes.

    Can we really believe that their already stagnant economy - in the face of rising oil demand/prices, 0% interest rates and increasing environmental disasters - will recover enough to pull them out of the debt trap in time?

    Political paralysis and division on this scale and with so much debt is a recipe for disaster whichever way you look at it. The question is how long do they/we have left?

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