BERKELEY, Calif.—On the night before we are scheduled to address this conference, the Tea Party experts are treated to a meal at the Faculty Club. It sounds fancy, and it is, with the feel and décor of a Sundance ski lodge. Over craft beers, wine, and cheese, we discuss that favorite topic of liberal academics: What the hell happened to Barack Obama? Why does the right have all the energy that he and the left used to own?
"He got out in front of a movement that was already beginning to mobilize," says Hardy Frye, a professor emeritus of black studies who was an SNCC field director in Alabama and Mississippi. "I walked precincts! I saw people voting that I hadn't seen voting in 15 years. I said, 'This is a movement, he's going to win on this issues.' And I'm not the only one disappointed."
Frye shakes his head in disbelief. "What he needed was a job program that addressed the inner cities. It didn't even have to cost that much." He shakes his head again. "I think he really believes this bipartisan shit."
We sit down and we're given the full details for the conference: "Fractures, Alliances, and Mobilizations: Emerging Analyses of the Tea Party Movement." It's the first event of its kind hosted by Berkeley's two-year-old Center for the Comparative Study of Right-Wing Movements. The San Francisco Chronicle's Debra Saunders and I are two reporters invited to speak; everyone else is an academic, a think tanker, or a political researcher. One of the authors of the NAACP's report on "Tea Party Nationalism" is here, as is Nixonland author Rick Perlstein.
But the focus is going to be on the academics and the activists, on and off the stage. They want to know what the hell is going on. They are in Berkeley, where they are used to venerating left-wing activism and putting up sandbags against the once-a-decade conservative wave—Reagan (twice), Proposition 13 (about property taxes), Proposition 209 (about affirmative action), George W. Bush. The Tea Party, though? A bunch of people who reverse-engineer Saul Alinsky and yell "Keep the government out of Medicare" and have conservatives shouting down politicians and filling street corners?
On Friday morning we file in for the conference. Just outside are giant tubs of coffee and tea, and abstracts for papers that are in progress or completed.
Prospects for an American Neofascism. Initially the project would consist of a review of recent research on American right wing groups (including the Tea Party movement, the Minutemen, and the Christian right); and of trends in national and transnational political economy that bear on our subject (such as cyclical and structural economic crises, corporate/government interpenetration, and the explosive growth of the military/industrial/security complex).
A Macro-Micro Model of Participation in Political Action: The Tea Party and Cognitive Biases in Information Consumption and Processing. Hypotheses were tested using qualitative data obtained from interviews with two groups: protest participants from various Tea Party protests (protesting group, N-15) and non-protesting Tea Party "supporters" (supporting group, N=3). Results show that strongly held pre-existing beliefs (particularly economic and political individualist ideology) heavily impacted levels of dissatisfaction with government policy and choices of information consumed.
The research and analysis from the panelists is along those same lines. Why are people joining the Tea Party? Perlstein kicks off the conference with an analysis of conservative anger, tracing its history and discussing the "sluicing" that conservatives do to keep people angry by giving them stories that reinforce their fears. The audience, mostly academics and activists but some students, respond to quotes from Newt Gingrich and other Republicans with nervous laughter and gasps, the air-rushing-through-teeth kind that you only hear from audiences reacting to speeches. The plaintive questions start in.
"How is it that [the Tea Party has] read the Saul Alinsky handbook and progressives haven't?" gripes one activist. "It seems like a natural thing for progressives to take the lead here and say, look, this is in your interest. Especially when jobs and homes are being lost, that seems like a cakewalk."
"One of the most famous things Saul Alinsky did was—when O'Hare Airport wasn't hiring African-Americans—he held the 'shit-in,' " said Perlstein. "They waited until the big planes were getting in then monopolized the toilets. I can't see Barack Obama doing that."
"There is that U.S. DNA that goes all the way back and does provide the conceptual source for this lynch mob mentality," says Steve Martinot, who teaches at San Francisco State University. "And that is white supremacy. Shouldn't we be looking at the Tea Party through that?"
Perlstein moves around the question. "The thing that makes America different, and this is a very dialectical, paradoxical concept, is that we have a lot of democracy," he says. "The idea that everyone has an opinion worth hearing is both the glory and the tragedy of American democracy."*
But the social scientists are more ready than the historians to crunch numbers and prove that racial animosity is key to the Tea Party. It's cold comfort for people like Hardy Frye, but it does suggest that Obama's ability to form some grand populist coalition was always limited. The University of Washington's Christopher Parker shares his research-in-progress based on interviews in seven states that break down subjects into "true skeptics" of the Tea Party at one end and "true believers" at the other.
"If you look across the board here, true skeptics of the Tea Party, 49 percent agreed with the proposition that blacks ought to work their way up without any special favors," says Parker. "But if you look at the true believers, that goes to 92 percent. This is another indicator of racism, right: Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve. Forty-five percent of true skeptics disagree with this; almost 80 percent of true believers disagree with this."
This is useful stuff for the gathered academics. Many of them are currently contemplating Tea Party research projects of their own, and a few grad students buttonhole me for advice. Some are really starting from scratch. When Saunders asks how many audience members consider themselves Tea Partiers, one hand nervously goes up; when she asks how many have attended Tea Party rallies, a bit more than a dozen hands go up.
This crowd, steeped and marinated in radical politics, is struggling to understand the Tea Party. And part of their problem is that the wider world either doesn't think their analyses are novel, or derides them as slander. It's a strange place to be in. These are the people who watched Barack Obama spend a year fighting back against the charge that Bill Ayers had indoctrinated him in the ways of the Weather Underground. Then, once he came into office, they watched Obama enact an agenda that disappoints them every day but that the opposition—and sometimes the media—calls "socialist."
When they try to label and categorize the politics of these new, conservative radicals, they convince one another but don't break through to the rest of the country. Over lunch, Charles Postel, an award-winning historian of populism and a professor at SFSU, talks about an interview he taped for a PBS program, in which he debated the Tea Party with the National Review's resident historian, Richard Brookhiser. Postel tried to explain that the more out-of-nowhere ideas of the Tea Party, such as repealing the 17th Amendment, were inspired by the John Birch Society. Brookhiser wouldn't have that.
"He blew up!" sighs Postel. "He was saying the Birchers haven't done anything in 40 years!"
"They have a fully staffed office!" laughs Chip Berlet, a well-traveled political researcher with a cane propping him up before his scheduled March 2011 knee surgery. "They were at CPAC!"
"It got so bad that they just didn't use that part of the tape," says Postel. He and Berlet move on and discuss whether the right can actually be "populist." Meanwhile, political anthropologist Madeline Landau shares her own theory of how the right-wing populists took over.
"The second that the major financial institutions would not loan money was in my view the critical moment," says Landau. "All Obama needed to do was say to Wall Street, if you do not do this I'm going to create some regional banks."
Most of the scholars take a darker view, and provide more evidence that Obama was always going to be running uphill. Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory, presents data on the increasing partisanship of Republicans, who are more and more likely to despise Democratic presidents and deny them space to govern.
"The feeling thermometer scale goes from 0 to 100," says Abramowitz, pointing to a chart with a collapsing line. "Over time, you can see that Democratic presidential candidates getting less and less. By the last time period, you can see that the average rating is around 27 degrees. That's downright freezing."
But there's a tussle here. Was Obama's downfall inevitable? Was the rise of the Tea Party? "We need social citizenship," says Lisa Disch, a professor of political science and women's studies at the University of Michigan. "We don't need Democrats kowtowing to the language of the market—although I don't think Obama is kowtowing. He believes in it."
That puts the blame on Obama, but a moment later, Disch argues that the Senate and the Republican Party used the Tea Party's anger to undercut any progressive agenda Obama might have had. "You're not allowed to just say no to everything the president wants," she says, venting. "The Tea Party movement gives them the illusion they're speaking for the majority when they aren't."
The research, the race theory, the scholarly speculation—all of this is a good start, but it doesn't soothe academics who expect the Republicans to win a bunch of elections in 10 days. While they try to understand the movement, while they pass on New Yorker articles about the Kochs and the Birchers, the movement keeps on beating them.
"I wonder if we're likely to see a Timothy McVeigh situation," says Nicholas Robert, an attendee originally from Australia, who basically wonders if any Tea Partiers can be arrested. "It seems to be that we're being very polite. I wonder if there are any legal mechanisms—one that comes to mind are the provisions used to crush the Wobblies."
He gets no sympathy from the academics. "I think that's a dangerous road to go down," says Berlet.
Abramowitz finds me and whispers into my ear. "In Berkeley," he says, "you're seeing the other side of polarization."
Correction, Oct. 26, 2010: This article originally misquoted Rick Perlstein as saying, "... everyone has an opinion of about what they're hearing. ..." ( Return to the corrected sentence.)
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