The Right's New Left
The Tea Party movement has two defining traits: status anxiety and anarchism.
Anti-elitism defined in cultural terms is hardly a fresh theme for Republicans. But here, too, the Tea Partiers take it to a new level. The most radical statement of individualism is choosing your own reality, and to some in the Tea Party, the very fact that experts believe something is sufficient to disprove it. The media's insistence that Barack Obama was born in the United States, or that he is a Christian rather than a Muslim, merely fuels their radical skepticism. Other touchstones of the movement's separate reality include the view that Obama has a secret plan to deprive Americans of their guns, that global warming is a leftist hoax, and that—this is Christine O'Donnell again—there's more evidence for creationism than for evolution.
Nostalgia, resentment, and reality-denial are all expressions of the same underlying anxiety about losing one's place in the country or of losing control of it to someone else. When you look at the surveys, the Tea Partiers are not primarily the victims of economic transformation, but rather people whose position is threatened by social change. Because racial bias is unacceptable both in American political culture and in an individualist ideology, Tea Partiers don't say directly what Pat Buchanan used to: that moving from a predominantly white Christian nation to a majority nonwhite one is a bad thing and should be stopped. Instead, their resistance finds sublimated expression through their reality distortion field: Beck's claim that Obama "has a deep-seated hatred of white people"' or Dinesh D'Souza's Newt-endorsed theory that Obama is a Kenyan Mau Mau in mufti, or the prevalent Tea Party opinion that policies like Obamacare and the stimulus are merely mechanisms for transferring income from the middle class to the minority poor and illegal immigrants—i.e., socialism. Of no previous movement has Richard Hofstadter's depiction of populism as driven by "status anxiety" been so apt.
For the Republican Party, the rise of the Tea Party is the essence of mixed blessing. The political problem is how to co-opt the movement's energy and motivational anger without succumbing to its incoherence and being tainted by the wacko voices within it. This is something the Democrats were fundamentally unable to do in relation to the New Left in the 1960s, and the Tea Party's radicalism threatens the GOP in a similar way. We've seen party elders confront this challenge week by week through the primaries, with senior figures within the GOP furiously recalibrating their visceral horror at the nutball purity of a Rand Paul or Sharron Angle into expressions of support and encouragement. Liberals may be humoring themselves in seeing it as good news for them, but for the moment it's fun to watch slippery conservative politicians—Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich—scramble aboard the tiger.
As mobs go, Republicans will find this one will be especially hard to lead, pacify, or dispel. The Tea Party is fundamentally about venting anger at change it doesn't like, not about fixing what's broken. Turn the movement's rage into a political program and you've already betrayed it.
A version of this article appears in this week's Newsweek.