In the two dozen months that the Tea Party has received national attention, deeply disturbing aspects of its appeal have emerged that so far are not being discussed.
Contrary to its treatment afforded by politicians and the news media, the Tea Party is not a political movement. It has no coherent political philosophy. Its leaders’ rhetoric—espousing deficit reduction, smaller government, populism, constitutionalism, and super-patriotism while pushing policies that would explode the deficit, eviscerate rights, defy polls and popular will, promote state defiance of constitutional law, and even float gunplay and secession—embody comically impossible contradictions.
Exposing hypocrisy and magical thinking in Tea Party and rightist rhetoric is “too easy,” Jon Stewart complains. Stewart, Rachel Maddow, and a host of liberal/left commentators feature a standard one-two punch: airing the right-wing paranoia du jour (typically dispensed through Fox News) that Democrats and liberals perpetrate treason and outrage, quickly followed by video showing Republicans like Ronald Reagan, the Bushes, and Fox pundits have said identical things in identical contexts.
Tea Party notions such as, “keep your government hands off my Medicare,” cut taxes for the rich to “save our children” from “debt enslavement,” and touting freedom while attacking fundamental rights to vote, associate, and migrate border on transparent jokes… if treated as political planks. But they make perfect sense if the Tea Party is not really about politics, but raw, tribal “culture” war.
By “tribal,” I mean that the Tea Party’s sole purpose is to win power and resources for its constituency: overwhelmingly, aging white nativists who feel their survival is menaced by the forces of change, diversity, global communication and information, and the evolution of a shared, multicultural America. The Tea Party is not interested in contributing to reasoned national discourse and negotiated policy. Tea Partiers repeatedly demonstrate they’re not amenable to compromise for larger good. They refuse to work with others, issue ever-more radical demands, and vote as a single-celled reactionary bloc even when the survival of the economy and the nation itself are at stake. Just as Team A fans who cheer when Team A scores a touchdown but boo when the Team B does likewise are not advancing the betterment of football as an institution, they’re supporting their team.
A New York Times/CBS News poll found three-fourths of Tea Party adherents are 45 and older and nine in 10 are white; just 7% are under age 30. Surveys assemble a picture of tens of millions of mostly-older, better-off Americans angry that their birthright-awarded dominance of the past has been rendered obsolete by scientific inquiry, civil rights successes, and a diversifying America epitomized by multiracial, multilingual, and global interconnections.
Never before has a dominant demographic been asked to voluntarily accept the loss not just of power, but the presumption of serving as the face of “their” national culture, all within a couple of generations. As scientific findings demolished the “specialness” the devout internalized, they rejected reasoned inquiry into environmental, medical, and social issues and substituted pseudo-religious reaffirmations of their superiority.
For decades, liberals and moderates had assumed aging generations were grudgingly adapting to modern change. Some were, but most were not. The election of Barack Obama—a biracial “liberal” with global origins, symbolizing everything reactionaries fear and despise about modern change—organized a previously suppressed backlash founded in pre-1960 bigotries and anti-scientific resentments.
Tea Partiers seek restoration of the segregated, openly hierarchical “America I grew up in” (as many put it), where “real Americans” were respectable and white and of uniform religious tradition and public media presented only their “values” to which minorities and dissenters were obliged to conform. Elders today harbor deep anxieties about interracial marriage, all immigration, and religious tolerance and vote for even the craziest far-right candidates.
Boiled down, the visceral tribalisms endorsed by roughly six in 10 older Americans (and by many middle-aged and even some younger ones) are: We merit public welfare and wealth, future generations don’t. Our own and our ancestors’ immigration to the United States was nobly ambitious; today’s immigrants are lowlife invaders. We oldsters deserved massive government subsidies for income, housing, and business through the GI Bill and generous pre-1980 welfare programs while modern young people should be cut off. We deserved tax-supported, low-tuition, loan-free higher education while today’s undeserving students rightly suffer massive debt for attending crowded, defunded universities. We deserve full Social Security and Medicare funding while those under age 55 don’t. We have a right to low taxes underwritten by government borrowing and default coming due after we’re gone.
Why? Because the monocultural past and generations that inhabited it represented the real America, superior in every respect to polyglot modernity. The very concept of a shared society, of community inclusive of diversity, are what most infuriate tribalists.
Obama and liberal/left commentators must certainly suspect, but have not publicly acknowledged, that the Tea Party—dominated by the short, me-first time horizons of the alienated old disconnected from their culture—is ready to force the unraveling of the United States as a society rather than share “their” resources with the darker and younger groups they see not just as un-Americans, but inimical. To the alienated old, America is already gone, a message the news media across the political spectrum reinforce with incessant fear-mongering against the young and how distressingly “the world has changed.”
The Tea Party’s narcissism—expressed in surveys such as those showing seniors voted Republican in 2010 out of anger that Obama’s health care improvements for younger generations might somehow jeopardize their own Medicare—reflects the gut-level self-interest underlying its astonishing cohesion. Tribal Republicans care far less about defying polls or losing elections than ego-driven Democrats do; in a tribe, individuals don’t count for much.
Inevitable rifts (most recently over raising the debt ceiling) are arising between the Tea Party’s corporate funders, heavily invested in modes of profiting from the changing present and future, and its aging tribe’s regressive crusade to “take America back” (that is, to pre-Sixties halcyonity). The harsh reality is that a majority of older Americans’ tenuous connection to modern society renders them willing to inflict harm on younger and future generations they seem to think their own grandkids would be spared. Understanding the difference between conservative politicking and anti-evolutionary tribalism is crucial to progressives’ realization that the Tea Party is what it daily shows it is: uncompromising, no-sharing, winner take all, and anti-communitarian, emanating from an older white generation that owes its successes to exactly the government largesse it now would deny future Americans.