Friday, February 19, 2010

Me and the Tea Party...

I knew I didn't know very much about what the Tea Party stood for , only a significant list of things it opposed. This is hardly surprising because it is a very diffuse and dynamic political phenomenon. That's why this even-handed piece in the much-abused NYT is very helpful.
The Tea Party movement has become a platform for conservative populist discontent, a force in Republican politics for revival, as it was in the Massachusetts Senate election, or for division. But it is also about the profound private transformation of people like Mrs. Stout, people who not long ago were not especially interested in politics, yet now say they are bracing for tyranny.
These people are part of a significant undercurrent within the Tea Party movement that has less in common with the Republican Party than with the Patriot movement, a brand of politics historically associated with libertarians, militia groups, anti-immigration advocates and those who argue for the abolition of the Federal Reserve.
Urged on by conservative commentators, waves of newly minted activists are turning to once-obscure books and Web sites and discovering a set of ideas long dismissed as the preserve of conspiracy theorists, interviews conducted across the country over several months show. In this view, Mr. Obama and many of his predecessors (including George W. Bush) have deliberately undermined the Constitution and free enterprise for the benefit of a shadowy international network of wealthy elites.
Loose alliances like Friends for Liberty are popping up in many cities, forming hybrid entities of Tea Parties and groups rooted in the Patriot ethos. These coalitions are not content with simply making the Republican Party more conservative. They have a larger goal — a political reordering that would drastically shrink the federal government and sweep away not just Mr. Obama, but much of the Republican establishment, starting with Senator John McCain. [More worth reading]
Throughout the article and from other reports, I was most struck by the emotion - mostly anger and sense of loss - prevalent in TP testimonies. As Jonathon Haidt might suggest, their "elephants" seem to be in charge.
If the rider and the elephant sounds like the basis for a Disney buddy film, you’re right on track. Haidt describes the rider/elephant dynamic: “I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I'm holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn't have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I'm no match for him.”

The rider couldn’t do without the elephant, because “the mind performs hundreds of operations each second, all but one of them must be handled automatically," but, likewise, the elephant depends on the rider for its chance for evolutionary success. For it’s the rider that "allows people to think about long-term goals and thereby escape the tyranny of the her-and-now, the automatic triggering of temptation by the sight of tempting objects."

As Haidt notes in the block quote above, the elephant and rider (or automatic and controlled processing systems) correspond to different areas of the brain. The distinction does have basis in the way different parts of our brain are active when we are emotional and rushed versus detached and deliberate. [More]

The flash point was, I think a delayed realization of the profound occurrence represented by a young, black president. I'm not sure this was essentially racial, just so different and seemingly unlikely as to shake the presumptions many people had about this country. Should Hillary Clinton have been nominated and won, and pursued essentially the same agenda I somehow doubt the reaction would have been as intense, despite its own historic aspects.

But as I said before, I will be looking for evidence this group has any idea about how to govern, other than trying to scale up local meetings to a national level. Nor do I find their naivete to be in their favor. The relative lack of interest in macroeconomics or science means they will tend to favor simplistic solutions to effective ones. I'm not sure they can comprehend what their goals would really accomplish, such as getting rid of the Federal Reserve.

Nor do I think there is enough common outrage to form a viable political force. Some are worried about unlawful detention first, others a global warming hoax. Above all, the people profiled in the article seem to me easy prey for demagogues and blatantly false information.  while their beliefs are their business, convictions that do not match up with the real world soon are eroded by time.

In fact, I think this movement may be a powerful, but short-lived historical footnote.
Barstow's piece is well worth your time if you haven't already read it. Click here. I hope that someday he writes a companion piece focusing just on the ideology that he talks about in this interview. Some of it is well worn, and some of it is new, and it would be fascinating to tease these strands out. On the one hand, you have the perfectly sensible belief that "both parties have been complicit in this giant charade that has done enormous damage to ordinary Americans" — something that even most readers of this blog might largely agree with — and on the other hand you have exotic worries about FEMA concentration camps and Interpol agents arresting U.S. citizens on their own soil.
I'm still not sure where this is going, but my sense is that we've seen this movie before. The tea party movement is basically a modern day John Birch Society, and eventually they'll either wither away or implode. These kinds of groups tend to get increasingly conspiratorial over time, and that limits both their growth potential and their influence. Republicans are pandering to them now, but I wonder how much longer they'll keep it up?
In fact, given the way that politics has been speeded up in virtually every way over the past few decades, the tea party implosion might come faster than we think. Having Fox and Glenn Beck behind them has obviously helped the movement grow far faster than, say, the John Birch Society could grow in the 60s, but it also means that they might hit their peak a lot sooner too. Eventually even conservatives are going to tire of Beck's gold buggery and wacky conspiracy theories, and they'll likely tire of the tea party movement too. And it will all happen at fast forward speed. [More]

Their open contempt for the intelligentsia and established wealth means they will likely not have those inputs to aid a rise to national impact, I would guess. And the growing economic decline of most of their members as they support institutions and laws that promote inequality will not provide them with much than more anger.

Anger is good for destruction, but makes building tough to do, and until TPers can find the time to outline solutions that have some shred of credibility (Balance the budget!) on the issues facing us I think many of us will simply avoid them.

There is better work to do, IMHO.


Old and Intolerant said...

It is time to update your bio. The claim that you are a right leaning libertarian is silly coming from someone who uses NYT and Mother Jones as authoritative sources for views on the Tea Party movement. Try the WSJ and National Review for a little balance. A note on your income equality hobby horse, I much prefer income inequality to the inequality of power that will be necessary to solve it. I'm not smart enough to make the word fair and neither is anybody else. By the way, that is probably a libertarian view.

Anonymous said...


You had to know that this kind of post would bring strange comments out of the woodwork. Good post though. I agree, being angry is not an adequate qualification, boring details on how to govern are necessary and those who cannot provide details should not be taken seriously. The old and intolerant will fall by the wayside and over time the tolerant and flexible will be the ones who continue on.

Anonymous said...

"Tolerance" What a wonderful word the problem with it is that eliminates absolute right or wrong which has given rise to the state of "Anger" in America today

Anonymous said...

There are no absolutes except to those who are prone to self delusion and rigid conformity. The current state of anger is part delusional and in part a desperate yearning for things past. But ready or not, change happens and even though it is a difficult thing to deal with, it happens even if we are not ready to accept it.

Anonymous said...


I do not find your naivete to be in your favor.

Since you have expressed Marxist economic views on this site in the past, I'm surprised you don't have a better handle on the tea party. It is essentially a post-Marxist movement of "value creators" in conflict with "value transferors." The creators are entrepreneurs, workers, artists, innovators, etc., who produce something of value. The transferors are people who use the law, politics, emotional appeal, e.g., pablum about "inequality," etc., to transfer others' wealth to themselves. (In the old Marxist constuct, creators were labor, and transferors were capital.)

The movement coalesced in full view of millions exactly one year ago when Rick Santelli let fly from, ironically enough, the floor of the CME. Funny how the NYT, in its kook-heavy narrative, forgot to mention this. The problem must be that he forgot to mention gold, black helicopters, or secret detention camps. And he didn't cry.

John, it is sad to watch a stout yeoman such as yourself carry water for parasite philosophy. There are times when helping people does not really help. I figure that you know this deep in your bones, but for some reason your old brain is too interested in being a contrarian. You got any amateur phsychological evolutionary explanations for that?

John Phipps said...


Feel free to label me how you wish (no offense taken), but "stout yeoman"?

Sheesh, a guy puts on a few pounds over the winter...

BTW, you guys are gonna love the income tax post coming up.

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