Birenbaum on The Tea Party
The Certainty of Belief
Columnists, such as John Cassidy of The New Yorker, poke around looking for precedents for the Tea Party Movement and its capture of the Republican Party. I looked, instead, to theories about the rise of political movements. Past believers in the coming of the Millennium claimed that a golden age was coming for those of us right here on Earth. Contemporary Millenarians envision the same outcome so long as they stick to their plan. The Weathermen, the radical wing of Students for a Democratic Society, of the 1960s, chanted “stay and struggle, stay and win,” Radicals on the Right today are confident about the fact that they can bring government, that Whore of Babylon, to bay. But what happens then? What does the future hold and how do we get there?
A conservative Congressman from Indiana exclaimed that the Republicans were disrespected by the Democrats and that is why he is digging his heels in and refusing to stop pressing forward until the Democrats throw him a bone. After all, to his way of thinking he was in a negotiation over the terms and conditions of surrender. Even the defeated Confederates were allowed to keep their uniforms and the officers their horses. When asked what his caucus was going to do next, now that their plans were rejected by the Senate and the President, he said that there was no plan. I cannot resist the humor in all of this posturing. But as Chuck Dressen, the old Dodger manager, used to say, “Don’t worry, I’ll think of something.” Maybe I can try to sue members of the House of Representatives for malpractice-in-office, and so create a new way of collecting for pain and suffering. All some Congresspeople could think to do was to play dress-up. Some real doctors who are also real Congress people put on long white coats and had a big dude out front with not only a white coat but a stethoscope so that they could all shed crocodile tears over the fact that pediatric cancer patients were not going to be able to participate in trial tests of drugs during the course of the shutdown because NIH is closed. Is this not opera buffa?
Nobody watching can regard this as anything but an act right out of House of Cards. Perhaps, as in all negotiations that really are surrenders, the winners have to let the losers take something away. Yes, it’s in Negotiation for Dummies. Attention must be paid! Give them a Congressional task force to investigate the way the ACA is being played out. Allocate money for hearings on television. Give the Tea Party some respect so they can be saved from themselves! Let’s reinvent them before they become even more delusional and take their followers on a long trek down the trail of tears.
John Cassidy consulted political sociologists such as Todd Gitlin to look for early models of the movement. He came up empty because the messianic element was missing from political movements. If the history of the Catholic Church was reviewed, he would find out that most of the uprisings (and energy) in the western realms of this institution were channeled into monastic orders. Where no offers of clemency were accepted because the Pope was perceived as the devil, the heretics were burned at the stake. The heretics wanted to become martyrs. They were in this world but not of it. This makes for great contemporary television, as the series on the Borgias gave us recently, as long as it also had incest and other bad deeds among that lively crew of dirtbags.
The monastic way, which means withdrawal from contemporary life, was never an option for the Tea Party; its adherents see themselves as a special breed of people who are building a “Heavenly City” here on earth. While well off compared to the rest of Americans, their perception is that America cannot change in the direction of extending the social contract because they are certain of the wrongness of the law, brought to us by an alien president, who also happens to be the wrong color, lived outside the United States as a child, and is the son of an African.
Cassidy and Gitlin left out, however, an important reference. Students of social history will see the similarities of Tea Party sentiments to the sentiments of the revolutionary messianic cults in Medieval and Reformation Europe. These are discussed in great detail in Norman Cohen’s 1961 book, The Pursuit of the Millennium. Tea Party people also see themselves as involved in a great struggle with boundless goals. The struggles are with those within their own order, the Republican Party, as well as with the demonized liberal establishment represented by a President without a right to hold the office since he was born outside of the United States. While Cohen was linking these early movements to Fascism and Communism, Cohen could have been talking about today’s radical conservatives when he said “. . . the eruption of apocalyptic fanaticism into present-day politics must necessarily appear a strange and perplexing calamity.”
In the present case, well-off white Americans are primed to create a volatile social movement because they are unable to adapt to even the hint of downward mobility. During the Great Depression, FDR was characterized as a traitor to his class by a handful of plutocrats. The economic downturn of 2007 and beyond reached into more homes, jobs and portfolios because there has been a greater spread of affluence. The fear of falling is still in the air. It takes the form of irrational fear of inflation. Still, this is somewhat of an abstraction compared to more concrete looming social and economic changes.
What got this movement going was a strong reaction to the Affordable Care Act, a rational solution to the high cost of care and the fact that millions could not afford to buy health insurance. It also came on the heels of the Great Recession, where many perceived government spending on the medically needy as the equivalent of an increase in taxes on themselves through income transfers to the lazy (we know what that code means). The Great Recession was also a threat to their accumulated assets since the stock market collapsed while banks were being bailed out. Tea Party supporters saw themselves as marginalized since, while not poor, they could not find, to use Cohen’s language, “an . . . assured and recognized place in society.” Is this not an evocation of Richard Nixon’s “forgotten man?” Who among this messianic bunch could not resist being led by a guy named Cruz?
Note well that Medieval Millenarians perceived that “. . . there existed no regular, institutionalized methods for voicing their grievances or pressing their claims.” The same is true of their contemporary ilk who view so much of what people in the mainstream think as just wrong, though it is not clear whether their anger came before or after their rejection of accepted opinion. They reject Climate Change, Immigration reform, and the science of evolution. How are these grievances to be heard? The Tea Party adherents of Millenarian thinking who are in Congress voice those same opinions even if they are a bit sheepish about announcing they are Birthers on television.
The Senate and the President have been more pragmatic than Millenarian. They say that Obamacare was the product of the normal legislative process, and upheld by both the Supreme Court and, more important, the 2012 election which was in part a referendum on Obamacare. If you want to change the law, get with the process. Tea Party activists did show up at the town meetings called by elected Democratic members of Congress so that they could explain how the ACA would work. But they do so only in order to disrupt those proceedings. While the legislation was almost scuttled in 2010 as a result of those intimidating efforts, the actual benefits of the ACA are now on newscasts as the stories get told of people who are relieved that they are no longer kept from buying insurance because of pre-existing conditions or low income.
The Tea Party channeled into what is the otherwise dying national Republican Party because of gerrymandered districts, and now the Tea Party stalwarts cannot find a direction home because the party leadership surrendered early and didn’t help them to understand the difference between building a heaven on earth, however lacking in definition that is, and governance, which is passing legislation that makes provisional and specific readjustments to the way people deal with one another. Max Weber identified this difference as the one between the ethic of absolute ends, where you know what is right and you will stick to that story, and the ethic of responsibility, which means you make deals because it suits one or another interest of your constituency and also because that is the right way to do the business of government. What the Tea Party will do next? They don’t even know! May we live in less interesting times.