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
The American Legacy PAC robocalls using Newt Gingrich’s “outrage” to sell the “Audit the IRS” campaign
The Tea Party’s paranoid aesthetic
GOP Rep. Outrages Tea Party By Saying No
August 11, 2013 in American History and tax,
What I find amusing about this article is that is shows not the slightest awareness that a person of, say, tea party persuasion could write an article in almost exactly the same terms about persons of, say, progressive persuasion.
(I suppose I need to say, though it will do me no good, that my economics and politics are more like “progressive” than like (what i imagine) the tea party is. But as for self-righteous intolerance and resistance to “facts” that don’t fit one’s ideology… well, people are pretty much the same wherever you are.
Coberly’s comment is a typical rhetorical device of this group which is reminiscent of old style Communist rhetoric: ad hominem attacks, false equivalency, intolerance to criticism, deflecting and changing the subject. It is a well funded corporatist movement of fanatics. “He is a fanatic, so we can stop him, because a fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt.”–the character George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. You cannot reason with an unreasonable person because all facts must have an ideological perspective and are therefore subjective in that worldview. You fight unreason with solidarity for other proponents of reason and committed counter effort.
Coberly, I agree with your assessment that there is a decided lack of introspection on the left and an unfortunate tendency to fit facts to ideology. I will even go you one better and suggest that the same narcissism which afflicts the teabaggers afflicts the left and maybe more so. It is always someone else’s fault. For the left it is corporations, rich people, Republicans etc. For the teabaggers it is libtards, people of color, gubmint etc. That being said, I am struck by the irony that the teabaggers are in fact involved in a massive conspiracy. The conspiracy of the elite to get all the country’s wealth. I am also struck, based on personal experience that the teabaggers display a level of racism and xenophobia which is not duplicated on the left
Sorry but the Tea Party’s “paranoia” is a scam. They are a globalist and anti-nation state “movement” lead by a host of cabalists who are seeking the destuction of all countries and selling of property to global capital owners.
Typical “right-hegelian” nonsense. I don’t buy their line for a moment and their various groups(Knights of Malta being a big one) are the true terror.
“left-hegelianism” is dead because the capitalists can’t find much use of it to make money anymore outside maybe “climate change”, but those businesses aren’t as profitable as the current fossil fuel infrastructure and the “push” is very very light.
All of that is a bit too pretentious as an assessment of what it is that drives the hard right as they head for the cliff of their own destruction. Paranoia?? Not at all. Try a process more along the lines of the proletariat being led along a garden path to the benefit of their ring masters. There are the extreme capitalists as represented by such as the Koch Bros and Peter Peterson. And there are many others like them who take a less confrontational position on socio-economic issues, but still provide funding for the efforts. There are the political hucksters who drive the frenzy of the conservative working class. They lie with impunity. They take harsh political positions. They arouse in their minions a sense of superiority that stems from their bigotry and ignorance. Then there are those who are the masses of people with nothing to show for their lives, but their hatred of something other than what they know. They are the mass of the unintelligent that let their fears and hatreds blind them to their own economic best interests.
The masses on the other side of the ideological spectrum and their political drivers are different in that they are not driven by ignorance and hatred though they may fear the eventual results of the machinations of our political and economic system as it has come to be. To say that this group is similar to the Tea Party phenomenon is to assume that there is no right way to conduct social and economic process. That simply isn’t true and to think that the right and the left are simply two sides of a balanced spectrum is to be fooled by the distortion of a false equivalence.
of course the funny thing is that i agree with jack about every substantive issue but the one at hand. i never said that the right and left are two sides of a balanced spectrum. i just said that linda’s unbalanced assessment of the tea partiers would be just about the way they would describe her and her friends… or it would look that way to a visitor from mars.
similarly with terry…except maybe moreso, but then he agreed with me at least partially. i think i agree with him entirely. but as for the left’s lack of racism… some leftists very proud of their lack of racism treat people they don’t like like dirt. they have this in common with he very rich who exploit racism so they can treat white and black alike…
cummings is too educated for me. i wouldn’t know left hegelianism from right field. i wouldn’t mind being educated myself, but i went to college and even graduate school and it didn’t take. i would advise those who did learn something that it is much harder for them to set aside all the formulas they learned and try to see the facts “plain,” but much better for them if they want to be understood.
and old navy guy must be joking. he gives a classic example of someone throwing every bad word he ever heard at someone he thinks he doesn’t like because he can’t understand what he said. so, yep, old navy guy, you can’t reason with an unreasonable person. if i say so myself.
“….i just said that linda’s unbalanced assessment of the tea partiers would be just about the way they would describe her and her friends… or it would look that way to a visitor from mars.”
Yes, as I tried to make clear I don’t agree with any assessment of our Tea Party Mad Hatters that labels them as paranoid. They do see the world through distortion glasses and they do value their own concepts through rose colored lenses. Worst of all they are easily led to their own economic descruction because they put their social values up front and ahead of the values of all others.
Those who see things in such a distorted manner would also evaluate the opinions of others in the same distorted manner. So the second part of Coberly’s comment is correct, but that doesn’t make their view of others any more accurate than their view of anything else in their distorted world. And no, a visitor from another dimension would not be likely to see both groups in the same way after viewing the world as it is.
Actually, for once, Linda Beale accurately frames the argument. Only she takes the wrong side of it.
The United States were founded on Judeo Christian principles and individual freedom. There is no other way to read the founding documents. This is the basis of the Tea Party.
Now Linda Beale obviously disagrees with this. But she is the one that needs to justify changing to a collectivist/socialist agenda.
thinks for making my point, i guess. i won’t argue about what the tea party believes, or whether it is workable in a modern empire-state, but i do think the concerns of the tea partiers need to be addressed without dismissing them as paranoid, racist, superstitious, ignorant…
I would argue with you about the collectivist socialist agenda. I don’t believe we are anywhere near such a thing… more likely near some …. sorry for the words, i am tired… corporate fascism… rule by the very rich for the purpose of making them richer and consolidating their power… a country in which people count for nothing and individual freedom only means the freedom of the rich to do whatever they damn please. I don ‘t know about the Judeo, but I think Christ would not have been glad to see what we… the people you think are on your side…are making.
On the other hand, I have seen what I consider evidence that some “progressives” at least do have a “collectivist/socialist agenda,” though i doubt they even realize it themselves. I don’t think that works politically in the short run, and I don’t think even they would like what it would turn into in the long run.
The fact is we cannot avoid some kind of “collective” mutual responsibility. We have a choice about how ugly we make it.
That said, I should try to make clear I am talking about the “tea party” rank and file who are no more and no less deluded than most of the rest of us. Their leaders are indeed insane or evil. But look at the thread above about the privatization of Chicago’s schools. Those people are at least evil, if not insane… and they are Democrats with very close association to Obama. We are seeing the selling of the commons to the very rich.. by both parties.
Fighting with each other… with the common people (us. me.)… has been the way the rich have ruled the poor since anyone started counting. I am not sure we are smart enough to stop them.
“The fact is we cannot avoid some kind of “collective” mutual responsibility. We have a choice about how ugly we make it.”
Well put. The Tea Party, and much of the current R team coalition, start from the phony premise that we can choose not to have any government. The reality is that there is always a “public sector” — the infrastructure we use to get around, communicate, decide who the ‘deciders’ will be — so the real choice is how much those things will be controlled by a self-selecting elite based on wealth.
Anti-government rhetoric misdirects attention away from the private power that is constantly trying to take public decisions into elite private hands. We may hate paying taxes, but ‘tax cuts’ often translate into tax increases: pay less to government, pay more to some private corporations. Reducing the power of people who at least have to tell some kind of story to the voters just increases the power of other people who can safely ignore public opinion.
I think I agree with you but i don’t understand your last sentence.
saying that the right and the left both are intolerant of each other and think they (each) have the one and only true answer and the other guy is a complete ignoramus… is not the same as saying there is no difference between them.
read it again after coffee. understand it fine now. i agree.
Sammy: This are the stated purposes of our Constitution, our fundamental law:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
I see nothing in here about Judeo-Christian principles or individual freedom. But there sure do seem to be a lot of collective goals there….