The Tea Party’s Disruptive Anti-Government (and anti-tax) Politics

by Linda Beale

The Tea Party’s Disruptive Anti-Government (and anti-tax) Politics

The New York Times ran an interesting piece by Kim Messick on the Tea Party’s psyche yesterday: Messick, The Tea Party’s Paranoid Aesthetic, New York Times (Aug. 10, 2013).  It’s worth trying to understand this political group’s understanding of itself, since it ” is a political movement … that tries to shape the decisions of political actors — voters,legislators, pundits — into maximum coherence with its own agenda.”  Id.  Its agenda is much influenced by the corporate funding that supports it but there is clearly something that holds the group together.  Messick says that they so identify their own ideas and values with the country that they see any divergence from those values and ideas as literally “unAmerican” and any evidence that the country supports things they do not support as evidence of a vast conspiracy causing the undoing of the true America.

In the case of the Tea Party, the content, though mostly political, is often religiously inflected. (A 2011 study ranked the predictors of Tea Party affiliation. The strongest was being a Republican. The second strongest? Believing that religion should play a larger role in politics.) There are invocations of God and His justice, historical interpretations (of the Constitution, say, or some program or proposal), evaluations of candidates for  office, and policy recommendations. (“Affordable Care Act bad! Tax and spending cuts good!”) These elements are then assembled in various ways to communicate the message an advocate finds appropriate for a given audience or occasion. I want to argue that we can discern in these messages a kind of master narrative, a collection of meanings that expresses the Tea Party’s sense of American history and of its own place within that history. It is this “story line,” I think, that explains the powerful appeal of the Tea Party movement to so many of its adherents, as well as its endorsement of a uniquely intransigent approach to the conduct of political affairs.

The key, says Messick, is Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter‘s description of paranoia in American politics (originally set forward in a 1963 essay):

The central image is that of a vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life. One may object that there are conspiratorial acts in history, and there is nothing paranoid about taking note of them. This is true… The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a ‘vast’ or ‘gigantic’ conspiracy as the motive force in historical events. History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is… an all-out crusade. The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms— he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values.  Id.

So Messick surmises that the intransigent, destructive tendency of the Tea Party to fight “to the death” against any policy or idea that it disagrees with stems from this paranoid identification of its own values as the only true American values, and any divergence from those values as a betrayal engendered by conspiratorial Others whose efforts to destroy the ‘real’ America must be stopped at all costs.

Tormented by difference, unable or unwilling to abide the fluidity of American identity, some persons anchor it in the racial, ideological, or ethnic features of their own community. This community then becomes “normative” for the nation as a whole; any threat to the former, any challenge to its prestige or authority, is automatically a threat to the latter.


The Tea Party’s paranoid aesthetic conveys this narcissistic view of itself and its role in our politics and history. … This is the message paranoid narcissism ceaselessly delivers to its devotees. “The Others are irreligious, unproductive, licentious, treacherous. You are the rock on which this nation was built and you are the foundation on which it will rise again. You.  It’s all about you.”


[W]hen our identity is at risk — as it always is for the paranoid narcissist — there can be no room for compromise. The very suggestion is absurd: it amounts to the claim that we should accept being only partly ourselves. For the Tea Party, intransigence is another name for self-preservation.

If Messick is correct, we can count on this group to place itself and its own values above all else, to be willing to destroy in order to avoid having any bit of its view of the correct American way being undone.

On tax issues, the Tea Party’s ideas seem to be sharply influenced by the assumptions of personal decisionmaking and market “freedom” espoused byChicago School economists.  Because Tea Party adherents define “freedom” in a unique way that disregards at least a century of developing understanding of the role of government in supporting the freedom of individuals to live a decent life, their views  on taxes tend to be anarcho-libertarian in nature–they see taxation itself as “theft by government” rather than the reasonable contribution of each citizen to the furtherance of a civilized society that supports all members and ensures that the basic institutions for a decent life are available to all.  This is perhaps the most threatening aspect of this religio-political group–their fervent ideological belief that they have the one view of the way America is supposed to work, and that progressive income taxation is anathema to that view.

It is not clear how one counters such religio-political fundamentalism.  Anyone who has ever tried to have a rational discussion of religious faith with a fundamentalist religious person knows that reason cannot penetrate such belief. Facts are generally irrelevant.  Any evidence that counters the exact specifications of the faith is treated as spurious.  The Tea Party adherents that I’ve met seem very similar.  It appears to be much more convenient for Tea Party adherents to close their minds to evidence than to question their ideologies or even to allow any adjustment to their “values” based on historical developments.

So the only defense appears to be making sure that this minority group never becomes a majority political group.  The filibuster in the Senate, in the context of Tea Party extremists, is a worrisome procedural tool that favors just such intransigent minorities.  We should get rid of it.  As for the House, perhaps the only answer is  engaged and energetic contesting of any election in which a Tea Party extremist has a chance.

cross posted with ataxingmatter

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August 11, 2013 in American History and tax,