The Tea Party is the most maligned major political movement of our time. But it has been maligned for all the wrong reasons. I am happy to report, though, that if the Tea Party learns from its mistakes, it can still be a powerful force for good.
What does everyone get wrong about the Tea Party? When Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel described it as a collection of “mean, racist people,” he was doing little more than bluntly restating views that are widely held on the left. When Tea Party conservatives counter such charges of racism by noting the popularity of African-Americans like Ben Carson, Allen West, Herman Cain, and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, they are routinely dismissed. One scholar, University of Washington political scientist Christopher Parker, went so far as to attribute the rise of conservative black candidates and activists to Tea Party prominence to the triumph of tokenism. Yet when you delve into Parker’s data on the racial attitudes of white voters toward blacks, as Robert VerBruggen and Cathy Young did a few years back, you’ll find that the views of whites who support the Tea Party and those who don’t are not that far apart. It turns out that whites who have negative attitudes about minorities tend to also have negative attitudes about other whites. You’d be on much firmer ground calling the Tea Party cranky than you would be calling it racist.
The Tea Party right is accused of more than just bigotry. In The Tea Party and the Making of Republican Conservatism, Harvard sociologist and political scientist Theda Skocpol and her co-author Vanessa Williamson observe that Tea Party conservatives will often distinguish between government transfers that flow to deserving productive citizens (like themselves) and those that benefit people they see as undeserving freeloaders (unlike themselves). Their work dovetails with the oft-heard notion that the Tea Party’s anti-government rhetoric is hypocritical, and that any “deservingness” distinction its members make is both bogus and transparently self-serving. But this distinction was absolutely central to FDR’s New Deal and Bill Clinton’s commitment to help those who “work hard and play by the rules.” Few serious people deny that means-tested programs can make it hard for poor families to climb the economic ladder, and there is nothing hypocritical about believing both that these programs should be made more work-friendly and that the safety net for older Americans should be protected.
Finally, the Tea Party has been assailed as inauthentic, a faux grassroots, “astroturf” movement financed by shadowy elites who have essentially duped an army of cranky retirees into doing their bidding. You hear this not only from left-liberals like Chris Hayes, the MSNBC host and author of Twilight of the Elites, but occasionally from Republicans like Ann Coulter who are looking to defend GOP incumbents facing Tea Party challengers. The fact that wealthy campaign donors are far more likely to support establishment Republicans over Tea Party conservatives in GOP primaries tells a different story.
Yes, the spending habits of some Tea Party organizations should be cause for embarrassment, a beat that Slate’s David Weigel has on lock. But is this really a Tea Party-specific problem? I would argue that the presence of hucksters who use politics for personal gain is simply a long-standing tradition.
So what is really wrong with the Tea Party, then? It’s that it has so far failed to live up to its populist convictions.
If the Tea Party were to fight crony capitalism as hard as it fights wasteful spending, and if its members were to train their anger on the Wall Street-Washington axis that deserves so much of the blame for our stagnant economy, it would be the most constructive and powerful political force of our time. There is still time for the Tea Party to change course. But if that’s going to happen, we first have to understand where the movement first went wrong.
The Tea Party emerged in opposition to President Obama’s call for fiscal stimulus and for the creation of a new health entitlement program. Yet it also represented a backlash against entrenched, moneyed Republican elites. And Republican elites had it coming. They had grown unresponsive to the real needs of rank-and-file Republican voters throughout the 1990s and the 2000s. During George W. Bush’s second term, his domestic policy efforts centered around an ill-timed effort to modernize Social Security—an idea that had almost no popular resonance—and an effort to create a guest-worker program that seemed tailor-made to serve the interests of big business. Though the Bush White House did tepidly advance a few health reform ideas, it didn’t put them front and center, despite the fact that large numbers of low- and middle-income Americans were at risk of losing their insurance and millions of others were forced to get by without any health coverage at all. The Iraq quagmire reinforced the sense that the GOP establishment had lost its way. It’s no wonder that grassroots conservatives were furious, and ready to revolt.