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Is Future Shock And Grief At The Heart Of The Tea Party?

The rise of the Tea Party movement has been quite fast. In less than a year they have (with the help of Fox News and Freedom Works) become a force that many Republicans feel they need to court in order to win in November of the this year. But even with the organization and promotion help they received, there had to be a group that could be molded and promoted in the first place.

There is a lot of talk about the apparent racist aspect of the Tea Party participants. However if there was that big and cohesive a racist feeling in the nation, then various white power groups would have been a major force long before this. Instead of being a motivating factor I think that racism is a side symptom which Progressives are so tuned in to seeing that it obscures what might be the more functional roots of this movement.

Let’s take a look at who the Tea Party members are. It is true they are overwhelmingly white, but they are also overwhelmingly male, and have attended college. They also tend to be from more rural parts of the nation and skew older. Basically, you can describe them as the conservative wing of the Baby Boomers.

All this leads me to wonder, is the Tea Party Movement a Future Shock reaction? For those who don’t know, Future Shock is the idea of Alvin Toffler. He came up with this idea in 1970, and it states that as the pace of change accelerates folks become unable to absorb more change and become “future shocked”. Toffler predicts that people who become future shocked will act out in bizarre ways; they will be unable to assimilate new information and will, in general, try to retreat from the massive pace of change.

This sounds surprisingly like the actions of the Tea Party members, doesn’t it? For the conservative Baby Boomers this pace of change, a black president, a seeming repudiation of the Republican Party’s war and economic policies, coupled with the economic melt-down and the continuing deterioration of the assumption that white men will run this nation is too much for folks who grew up in a time when change ran slower.

This is where the idea that “their” nation has been taken away from them originates. Because of the nearly all white nature of their movement it is easy to interpret this as a racist overtone (and there is some of that) but seems more likely the root cause is some reaction to change.

One of the things that are taught in change management courses is that people will grieve over change. Someone who has done a process for as little as three years will actually go through the stages of grief (to some extent or another) when that process is changed.

The stages of grief are Anger, Denial, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. They don’t always express themselves linearly in that order and they can cycle back and forth between the stages depending on the outside inputs to the grieving process.

There can be no doubt that the election of President Obama signaled a change that many did not believe would or could come in their lifetimes. For those of a progressive point of view it was a great moment, when we redeemed the idea of equality of opportunity and the start of a new era in our nation (things did not change as much as progressives would like, it is true, but a African American president is a huge change in and of itself). For those of a more conservative view this was an even bigger change, what they thought they knew about their nation was shown to be flawed and flawed in a fundamental way.

This surely put them into a grieving process. We see the anger and the denial in the actions and signs of the Tea Party members. They talk as though their view is the real one (denial), they claim that they have been disenfranchised (anger) and they want to take their nation back. This is the flip side of the future shock, the realization that change has happened and they do not like it since they did not prepare themselves for it.

Looking at the Tea Party from this point of view it all seems to fall together. Future shocked Baby Boomers find themselves in the midst of the grieving process on change they do not like and Freedom Works and Fox News keep them locked in a loop of anger and denial, never letting them move to bargaining, depression and acceptance. The need to react to the pace of change fueled by the short circuited grieving process gets them into action, but it is not effective action, it is unfocused and ultimately self-defeating.

This is why we see the weird dichotomy of wanting to preserve Medicare, but insistence on no government run health plans. This socialism meme is a clear retreat to their childhoods where Communism and Socialism were the boogey men. They know they are unhappy and they don’t understand, so it must be something from the past!

Long term it will be interesting to see if they move into the rest of the grieving process. It is hard to stay angry and in denial all the time. It takes a lot of effort, which is part of the reason that people do progress through the rest of grieving. If the Democratic Party is not decimated this cycle (and it does not seem like they will be, sure there will be losses, but they are not going to lose the Senate and probably won’t lose the House) what will that do to their future shock? Will they start to bargain with themselves, find a way to accept, even if it is depressing for a while?

Or will the media forces that want to keep them in a perpetual state of fear and anger be able to stoke the fires for another two years in the hopes of electoral success in 2012? To me it could go either way. Anger can be addictive; the hot rush of disdain and even hate for your opponents is, for some, as good as any narcotic. If this is the path the Tea Party takes then expect the level of outright racist rhetoric to grow. Hate feeds on hate and while many of the Tea Party are not likely to be active racists today, the longer they are exposed to that meme and the more their anger grows the more likely they are to embrace its false tenets.

If we look at the Tea Party as a group of future shocked aging Baby Boomers it might allow us to see past the insane rhetoric and see the frightened and angry fellow citizens inside. It can only help us to reach them if we don’t make them into villains, but see them as they are. This is not to say that we should be accepting of the acting out they are doing, but that we should not give up on the concept that they might change over time. If we merely write them off as unreachable we abandon them to the forces that would use their anger for monetary gain.

The floor is yours.

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Bill Egnor

Bill Egnor

I am a life long Democrat from a political family. Work wise I am a Six Sigma Black Belt (process improvement project manager) and Freelance reporter for