A Tea Party Taxonomy

By Weisberg, Jacob | Newsweek, September 27, 2010 | Go to article overview

A Tea Party Taxonomy


Weisberg, Jacob, Newsweek


Byline: Jacob Weisberg

The insurgent movement is indeed something new in American politics--but what, exactly?

After its primary victories last week in Delaware and New York--following ones in Kentucky, Arizona, and Alaska--we have no choice but to take the Tea Party seriously. Come 2011, we are likely to have mama grizzlies in the House and Senate, and the movement's gravitational pull is capturing traditional Republicans by the day.

So who are these people and what do they want from us? A series of polls, as well as be-ins like Glenn Beck's Washington rally last month, have given us a picture of a movement predominated by middle-class, middle-aged, white men angry about the expansion of government and hostile to societal change. But that profile could accurately describe the past several right-wing insurgencies, from the California tax revolt of the late 1970s to the Contract with America of 1994, not to mention the very Republican establishment that the Tea Party positions itself against. What's distinctive about the Tea Party is its anarchist streak--its antagonism toward any authority, its belligerent self-expression, and its lack of any coherent program or alternative to the policies it condemns.

In this sense, you might think of the Tea Party as the right's version of the 1960s New Left. It's a community of likeminded people coming together to assert their individualism and subvert the established order. But where the New Left was young and looked forward to a new Aquarian age, the Tea Party is old and looks backward to a capitalist-constitutionalist paradise that, needless to say, never existed. The strongest note in its tannic brew is nostalgia. Tea Partiers are constantly talking about "restoring honor," getting back to America's roots, and "taking back" their country.

How far back to take it back is one of the questions that divides the movement. The tricorn-hat brigade holds the most extreme libertarian view: a constitutional fundamentalism that would limit the federal government to the exercise of enumerated powers. The Roanoke Tea Party, for example, proposes a Freedom for Virginians Act, which would empower the state to invalidate laws it deems unconstitutional. It's been settled business that you can't do this since the Supreme Court decided McCullough v. Maryland in 1819, but never mind. Beck, a century more modern, feeds his audience quack history that says the fall from grace was the progressive era, when Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson introduced socialism into the American bloodstream.

Other than nostalgia, the strongest emotion at Tea Parties is resentment, defined as placing blame for one's woes on those either above or below you in the social hierarchy. This finds expression as hostility toward a variety of elites: the "liberal" media, "career" politicians, "so-called" experts, and sometimes even the hoariest of populist targets, Wall Street bankers. These groups stand accused of promoting the interest of the poor, minorities, and immigrants--or in the case of the financiers, the very rich--against those of middle-class taxpayers.

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