With the breakdown of negotiations on a so-called grand bargain on the debt limit demanded by President Obama, liberal commentators have sought a convenient scapegoat to account for the impasse. Not surprisingly, they have begun by rounding up the usual suspect: the Tea Party. Its intransigence, so the line goes, has sunk this great deal.
For two years now, “Blame the Tea Party First” has been the Democrats’ favorite mantra. “Firsters” invoke the Tea Party to make sense–for themselves–of the otherwise inexplicable fact of large-scale public opposition to President Obama, and they hold the Tea Party responsible for many of the nation’s deeper problems, from incivility in our discourse to an inability to set aside intransigent partisanship.
Generosity in describing one’s foes is a rarity, especially among conspiracy theorists. But Firsters have carried their animus against the Tea Party to unprecedented heights by failing to credit it with what is today right before everyone’s eyes. Without the Tea Party, there would be no debt limit negotiations going on, just as there would have been no budget reduction deal last December. Without the Tea Party, President Obama would not be posing as the judicious statesman, but would be pushing –as in truth he still is–for more stimulus and further investments in high-speed rail. Whatever pressure now exists to treat the debt problem derives directly or indirectly from the explosion of energy that has been generated by the Tea Party.
In lambasting the Tea Party movement for its stubborness, Firsters have silently acknowledged what for two years they had all but denied. Instead of being in fact a front for racism or opposition to abortion, the “baggers,” as they have been derisively called, are genuinely insistent on cutting spending and containing the growth of government. Everything is less complicated than it seems. Supporters of the Tea Party are who they said they were.
A stroll down memory lane provides a reminder of the Firsters’ shifting characterizations of the Tea Party. About the only constant in their analysis has been its political opportunism. The baggers have been charged with seven deadly sins.
1. They are uneducated poor racists. All honor for this accusation goes to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who referred to the grassroots movement as “astroturf,” comprised of swastika-carrying radicals. Since then others have joined in: Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson saw “no coincidence” in “the birth of a big, passionate national movement — overwhelmingly white and lavishly funded — that tries its best to delegitimize… the first African-American president.”
2. They are uneducated poor dupes. In this description, the racism is not denied, but it is almost beside the point; the real issue is that Big Money has been manipulating the ignorant and gullible masses. Paul Krugman, the Nobel-prize- winning economist turned film-critic, offered this helpful advice to Tea Party activists in the New York Times,: “This is not the movie you think it is. You probably imagine you’re starring in ‘The Birth of a Nation’ but you’re actually just extras in a remake of ‘Citizen Kane’…[in which Kane] just puts politicians on his payroll.”
3. They are privileged whites who don’t want to pay their fair share. As poll evidence started to show, Tea Party supporters were not as poor or as dumb as was initially thought. On the contrary–for this CBS/NewYork Times Poll, at any rate– they were older, wealthier, and better educated than the general public. Never mind. Firsters just adjusted the image, having it that these people just wanted to protect their own, indulging, as Harold Meyersson would have it, in a “politics of racial resentment and the fury that the country is no longer only theirs.”
4. They are folks with understandable concerns, but they don’t comprehend what will solve our problems. This is probably the most sympathetic and patronizing treatment of the Tea Party, and it gained ground as the size of the Tea Party itself became apparent. It had to be treated now with some delicacy. Yes, Firsters acknowledged, these are mostly good and decent people–they may even care dearly about their children–but they need some guidance. In the time-honored tradition of legislators to revise and resubmit their remarks, Nancy Pelosi now began to find common turf with the Tea Party: “We share some of the views of the Tea Partiers.” The president let it be known “that there are strains in the Tea Party that are troubled by what they saw as a series of instances in which the middle-class and working-class people have been abused or hurt by special interests and Washington, but their anger is misdirected.”
5. They are just the old-conservatives rebranded. This is the Ecclesiastes argument, that there is nothing new under the sun. Although slightly angrier than other conservatives, and maybe just a little bit more libertarian, in fact they are pretty much “full spectrum” conservatives concerned not only with fiscal issues but social issues. They offer nothing different than the Republican Party of old. According to a New York Times sketch of the movement, “They do not want a third party and say they usually or almost always vote Republican.” Almost six in ten went so far as to hold a favorable opinion of former President Bush.
6. They are parts of a fragile and conflicting coalition. This charge, like the last one, brought some consolation, as it indicated that the movement was weaker than thought and would not be able to withstand the test of holding together in real votes. Scholars took the lead on this characterization, with a team led by Harvard Professor Theda Skocpol arguing that the “affection of grassroots Tea Partiers for major programs like Social Security is at odds with the policies pushed by many of the elite national organizations that fund their protests.”
7. Supporters are historical fetishists, concerned with quaint and outmoded things like the principles of the Revolution and the Constitution. E.J. Dionne, one of the first Firsters, has been long lecturing the Tea Party folks that they have been serving the wrong part of history, 1773, rather than the Constitution, which was a pro-government document. He recently lectured his “friends in the Tea Party” that they are “drawing all the wrong conclusions” which will lead to “some remarkably foolish choices.” Jill Lapore, professor of history at Harvard who has written a full length book on the movement, goes a step further than Dionne, condemning the movement for the folly of an “originalism” that would seek to apply directly the ideas of yesteryear, even if correctly understood, to today. She would evidently throw out of court, as would Dionne, the originalism of one Tea Party supporter who had the temerity to offer this application of the Founders’ political system: “I’m sick and tired of them wasting money and doing what our founders never intended to be done with the federal government.”
Despite the accident of its name, the Tea Party is not a political party, but a political movement, according to Peter Berkowitz, “one of the most spectacular grass roots political movements in American history.” A feature of such movements in American politics, whether on the Left or the Right, is that they are unformed and inchoate. Their boundaries–who is in and who is out–remain ill-defined, as there is no authoritative organizational structure that exercises control of the “members.” It’s therefore almost always possible for interested investigators to find, somewhere, what they are looking for. So the Tea Party movement has had its share of ideologues (Ron Paul) and flakes (Christine O’Donnell)–although the same might be said, respectively, of the Democratic Party’s Sheila Jackson Lee and Anthony Weiner.
Given the porousness of the movement, any serious analysis demands perspective and discipline, qualities that in political commentary today are in short supply. What Firsters have instead provided is a grab bag of charges from which they pick the one that best fits the need of the moment. On some days it may be that the Tea Partiers, as Michele Bachmann so colorfully expressed it, are a bunch of “toothless hillbillies coming down out of the hills,” on others that they are some country-club Republicans teeing up for a round of golf. One moment the movement is weak and fragile, another it has captured the Republican Party, which, according to David Brooks, “has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.” Where these characterizations do not undermine themselves by contradiction, they often amaze by their absurdity. In the most malicious and persistent charge–that of racism, which serves as a prophylactic to protect O’bama from any criticism–the evidence offered is a small number of African Americans in the movement. But how many African Americans, already the most liberal group in America, should one expect to join a movement opposing Barack Obama? And of course when one does, like Herman Cain, and upon a strong showing in a debate wins the respect of the hordes of racists, he immediately becomes subject to the most unseemly attacks by those free of any hint of racial prejudice.
In this week’s controversy, Firsters are promoting the narrative of Barack Obama as the great statesman of the hour, willing to go the extra mile for a great bargain. Somewhere and sometime, according to this fantastic account, Obama experienced an 11th-hour conversion to spending restraint. Only no one–no one–has seen or knows what he wants. It is the phantom of the budget, staged with wondrous smoke and mirrors and accompanied by the old refrain, now growing stale by repetition, of Obama worship. We are witnessing the sorry spectacle of high-minded commentators, who only recently were chanting in unison for greater transparency in our politics, and who now bite like a school of perch at the cheap plastic lures and leaks being tossed out by White House flaks. These are men and women without an ounce of pride in either themselves or their craft.
At the end of the day, the choice the nation faces is pretty clear–even if both sides will at one day face a point of reckoning. One side wishes a more constrained federal government and greater austerity in our welfare programs. It will hold or cut these programs to the point where it finds it cannot go much further, at which time other remedies may need to be considered. If one wants a model for this approach, it is necessary to look no further than the policies of some of the red-state governments (or Great Britain). The other side wishes a federal government at and beyond the level of 2008 and beyond the current level. If one wants a model for this approach, the blue-state of Illinois or California will do just fine. This side will continue to maintain and expand government, cutting national defense to the bone and adding more “revenues,” up to the point it becomes literally unsustainable. That point has not been reached yet.
This is the choice the nation faces. As of 2011, it has not been definitively made. Perhaps 2012 will be the year of the Tea Party.
James W. Ceaser is professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. John York is a graduate student in politics at the University of Virginia.