The Tea Party is once again making news in the election cycle, this time with stories of American slavery denial, a party-wide affinity for Newt Gingrich, and the launch of the party’s pet vessel, the S.S. Beaver in Gloucester Harbor. In light of this (and in fair anticipation for Herman Cain’s rebuttal to the State of the Union address tonight), I thought it wise to go ‘back to basics’ with a refresher on America’s nascent third political party.
Below are a few key excerpts from an interview with Anthony DiMaggio, author of The Rise of the Tea Party: Political Discontent and Corporate Media in the Age of Obama (Monthly Review Press, 2011), aimed at giving you and yours a crash course on the Tea Party movement.[Portions of this extended interview have been omitted for the sake of brevity. You can check out this content in its entirety on the MRP blog here: monthlyreview.org/press/interviews/thoughts-on-the-tea-party/]
MRP: Do you consider the Tea Party to be a real grassroots movement or purely orchestrated by elite institutions? Or a little of both?
AD: I think the rage driving the Tea Party—at least with regard to the 25 percent of Americans who claim to sympathize with it—is quite real and very understandable. The Tea Party is largely comprised of white, over 40-50, middle to upper income Americans who have generally done pretty well for themselves over the years, but are being pressured by the neoliberal attack on working Americans. They’re rightly angry at being excluded from the tremendous economic prosperity that has taken place over the last three decades. As corporations have grown enormously more profitable, and worker productivity and the size of the economy have grown dramatically, the median family wage has stagnated… In short, the American middle class has been getting squeezed for decades, and the Tea Party “rebellion” (on some level) is a manifestation of real public anger at this phenomenon. That anger is understandable, even predictable.
[However, this] anger gets manipulated by a small group of partisan and media elites who are essentially Republican Party operatives. This is the dirty little secret of the Tea Party; it’s not really a social movement, but a cluster of elitist interest groups operating locally and nationally, which is quite lacking in participatory elements, and largely driven by a top-down approach, determined and dictated by Republican partisan officials and business elites of the Koch variety.
MRP: How would you describe the ideological outlook of the Tea Party?
AD: It’s the same group of Americans—the 20-25 percent of the public—who are essentially Bush dead-enders. Ideologically speaking, I describe the Tea Partiers as packaging old wine into new bottles. On one level, there is an extremely strong overlap between the Tea Party and the traditional religious right that emerged in the 1980s; on a second level, the Tea Party is representative of the same extreme economic right that has long supported deregulation and an assault on the social welfare state. There is nothing controversial about these claims, as public opinion polling (and analysis of these polls) demonstrates these points very clearly. I document these basic patterns in more detail in Crashing the Tea Party (co-authored with Paul Street).
A major problem with the Tea Party, in terms of “building a bridge” between its members and Occupy Wall Street, is that very few Tea Partiers (only 15%) even blame Wall Street for the current problems we are facing today. While their rage at the stagnation of American prosperity is very legitimate, their attribution of responsibility for this stagnation is so childishly naïve, staggeringly ignorant, and disturbingly proto-fascistic that it makes working with them difficult, if not impossible… what we need now are legitimate criticisms of the bi-partisan, pro-business system, not fantastic propaganda that actively misinforms and confuses the public. Tea Party supporters increasingly cling to romantic and ignorant notions that if we could somehow return to the “good old days” of “free market,” deregulatory capitalism, we would put ourselves back on the path to prosperity. They seem totally unwilling or unable to recognize that it was this very deregulation, and the corresponding assault on the welfare state, that put us on the path to economic ruin. They want the Republican Party to move further to the right, failing to recognize that this right-ward drift is the primary cause of America’s problems, not the solution to them.
MRP: What is the state of the Tea Party today, and what can we expect from them in the coming years?
AD: The Tea Party hit a plateau as of mid to late 2011. As of October 2011, about one quarter of Americans consider themselves to be Tea Party supporters. This number has barely changed over the last year. Opposition, however, has increased by somewhere between 10 to 25 percentage points among the general public within the same period… [T]he Tea Party has had its day in the sun, now it will likely continue at least through the 2012 elections (perhaps further), greatly mobilizing and energizing the conservative base. It is unlikely to do much else, however, since its support base is no longer growing, and public opposition has increased significantly.
Still, the Tea Party has been an incredibly important phenomenon for a few reasons: 1. It was instrumental in derailing what could have been historic health care reforms in the form of a public option (or even universal health care); 2. It has demonstrated that the only way the Republican Party can get back into power is through the manufacturing of false populism from the top down. The Republican Party is so unpopular today that it can only gain power by default, fostering anger against the Democratic Party, and sitting back and falling into electoral victories due to growing public disenfranchisement with the Democrats. I expect the Tea Party will serve as a lesson for the future. Expect plenty of other false populist narratives and “movements” to emerge on the right in coming years, in line with the predictions of progressive William Greider, who warned of the ever growing “rancid populism” of the right which now seems to be standard fare in American political discourse.
What are your thoughts on the future of the Tea Party? Leave a comment – we’d love to hear from you!
Again, check out the full interview on the Monthly Review Press blog here: http://monthlyreview.org/press/interviews/thoughts-on-the-tea-party/