Boiling Mad

By Kate Zernike

The Tea Party has for over five years now been a label in search of a definition, a search made more difficult by the multiple and contradictory nature of the movement.

The best place to begin is with demographics. Tea Party members tend to be white people (men and women), of middle age or older, and of above average wealth and education. Though strictly independent of any party, they are a Republican sect, and one that has probably caused more electoral damage to the GOP than to the Democrats. Economic rather than cultural conservatives, their main issues are taxes and fiscal policy.

In brief, they are yesterday’s winners: in an enviable position, but not comfortable. They are anxious people. Anxious because, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, when you’ve got something, you’ve got something to lose.

And so, above all, they are afraid of “change.” The government is the enemy, always threatening to take things away from those that have: either their money, in the form of taxes, or cuts to the programs they enjoy (which are paid for by their taxes). “KEEP THE CHANGE,” their rally signs say, in response to President Obama’s campaign slogan. “Obama had been elected on a promise of change, and change can be scary.” Especially to older members of what has been dubbed “the precariat.” “We’re tired of hearing them talk about change,” one Partier quoted here exclaims. “We don’t need change. We need to keep what’s working in America and keep it working.” Which, in his particular instance, meant more coal mining. Climate change is considered a shibboleth, a change not to be believed in.

If there is any change the Tea Party does like, it’s one that will return them to the past, which is a known quantity. The Tea Party is a reactionary movement, looking to set the clock back to an earlier and (this part is key) imaginary time. Hence the fetish for the founding fathers, most of whom were in fact not at all opposed to taxes (fairly administered) or big government. Or to a time when global warming, or globalization, had yet to be heard of.

This explains some of the contradictions or cognitive dissonance of the Tea Party faithful. Though they may seem at times to be pursuing ends not in their own interests (a libertarian government would be a cruel master), they are not cutting off their nose to spite their face but choosing the devil they know to the devil they don’t. Change is scary, and so they are willing to give up a bit of something in order to avoid losing it all. They want security, not freedom. “Government was put here for certain reasons,” one elderly Tea Party organizer opines, “they were not put here to run banks, insurance companies, and health care, and automobile companies. They were put here to keep us safe.” Safe in our persons and in our property.

And so we have the schizophrenic attitude toward the federal government. It is an object of hatred mainly because Tea Partiers see the Feds as stealing their money and giving it to others less worthy by way of various socialistic programs. Again the emphasis is on holding on to what you’ve got. In addition, at a time of lowering expectations, when the only employment security appears to be that held by government workers (the last bastion of unionism), it’s only natural to find in that a source of resentment. A cry goes out to make them feel the pinch. But at the same time, government continues to grow, in large part in order to keep people and their property “safe.”

You can break the movement down in this fashion and see how it makes at least some sense. But it is still fueled by an irrational base. It’s a point Thomas Frank struggled with at some length in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, trying to describe a populist movement fighting against its own interests. But we should not be surprised by this. One of the most enduring of all political and economic myths is that people are rational creatures. This is nonsense, and the Tea Party is just one more example of a movement “driven more by outrage than ideology, more by pique than policy.” Passions drive polls, and the free-floating anger in America has reached a certain critical mass. At least one Tea Partier quoted in Zernike’s book is aware of this and tries to explain the break with reason by responding thusly to an Obama letter headed “Five Things That the Other Side Is Saying That Are Totally Untrue”:

“I said, ‘I don’t care if they’re untrue. It doesn’t make any difference. The problem is, you guys are trying to sell this on the facts, but if you don’t trust the mind-set or the value system of the people involved, you can’t even look at the facts any more.’”

It’s a difficult quote to parse but seems to recall the now famous (or is that viral?) broadside made by a member of the George W. Bush administration against the “reality-based community.” The Tea Party is a faith-based community, devoted to the self-evident truths pronounced by the founders and Ayn Rand. They operate, quite consciously, in a mental space free of reality, facts, and rationalism. But there is nothing odd or perverse in this. What people care the most about are less tangible, more emotional needs: comfort, and freedom from anxiety about the future.

Review first published online September 15, 2014.