An insightful look at the Tea Party Movement, and how it’s a mirror to America

Excerpt from The Tea Party’s Guide to American Exceptionalism, Greg Grandin, TomDispatch, 13 May 2010:

Lock-And-Load Populism

When Tea Partiers say “Obama is trying to turn us into something we are not,” as one did recently on cable TV, they are not wrong.  It’s an honest statement, acknowledging that attempts to implement any government policies to help the poor would signal an assault on American exceptionalism, defined by Beck and likeminded others as extreme individualism.

The issue is not really the specific content of any particular policy.  As any number of frustrated observers can testify, it is no use pointing out that, say, the healthcare legislation that passed is fundamentally conservative and similar to past Republican healthcare plans, or that Obama has actually lowered taxes for most Americans, or that he gets an F rating from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.  The issue is the idea of public policy itself, which, for many on the right, violates an ideal of absolute individual rights.

… The deepest contradiction may, however, lie in this: the teabaggers who reject any move by Big Government when it comes to social policy at home remain devoted, as Andrew Sullivan recently wrote, to the Biggest Budget-Busting Government of All, the “military-industrial-ideological complex” and its all-powerful commander-in-chief executive (and surprising numbers of them are also dependent on that complex’s give-away welfare state when it comes to their livelihoods).

As James Bovard, a consistent libertarian, has observed, “many ‘tea party’ activists staunchly oppose big government, except when it is warring, wiretapping, or waterboarding.”  For all the signs asking “Who is John Galt?,” the movement has openly embraced Arizona’s new “show-me-your-papers” immigration law and mutters not one complaint over the fact that America is “the most incarcerated society on earth,” something Robert Perkinson detailed in Texas Tough, his book on the Lone Star roots of the U.S. penitentiary system.  The skin color of those being tortured, rounded up, and jailed obviously has something to do with the selective libertarianism of much of the conservative movement. But this passion for pain and punishment is also an admission that the crisis-prone ideal of absolute individualism, forged in racial violence, would be unsustainable without further state violence.

Behind the lock-and-load populism and the kitsch calls to “rearm for revolution” is a recognition that the right’s agenda of corporate deregulation — the effects of which are evident in exploding coal mines in West Virginia and apocalyptic oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico — can only be achieved through ceaseless mobilization against enemies domestic and foreign.

Here’s an example: “I know that the safety and health of coal miners is my most important job,” said Don Blankenship at a corporate-funded Friends of America rally held in West Virginia last Labor Day, where speakers such as Ted Nugent and Sean Hannity spoke out against tyrants, regulation, “Obama and his cronies,” taxes, cap-and-trade legislation, unnamed “cockroaches,” China, green technology, and, naturally, gun control.  Blankenship just happens to be the CEO of Massey Energy, owner of the Upper Big Branch mine where 29 workers recently lost their lives.

He is also famous for waving the banner of individual rights even as he presides over a company that any totalitarian state worth its salt would envy, one that intimidates “its workers into a type of lock-step compliance that most often takes the form of silence,” including threats to fire workers who take time off to attend the funerals of the dead miners.  Wrapping himself in the American flag — literally, wearing a stars-and-strips shirt and baseball cap — Blankenship told that Labor Day crowd that he didn’t “need Washington politicians to tell” him about mine safety.  Seven months later, 29 miners are dead.

The End of American Exceptionalism

And here’s the irony, or one of them anyway: in the process of defining American exceptionalism as little more than a pitchfork loyalty to individual rights, Beck and other right-wingers are themselves becoming the destroyers of what was exceptional, governmentally speaking, about the United States.  Like John Locke’s celebration of inalienable rights, Founding Father James Madison’s distrust of the masses became a distinctive feature of American political culture.  Madison valued individual rights, but in the tripartite American system of government he worked hard to help fashion, a bulwark meant to contain the passions he knew they generated.  “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire,” he wrote in 1787, and in the centuries that followed, American politicians would consistently define their unique democracy against the populist and revolutionary excesses of other countries.

Today, though, not just Fox News Jacobins like Beck and Hannity but nearly the entire leadership of the Republican Party are fanning those flames.  Newt Gingrich hopes the Tea Party will become the “militant wing of the Republican Party,” looking to hitch his political fortunes to a movement now regularly calling for a “second bloody revolution.”  It is hard to think of another time in American history when one half of the political establishment has so wholly embraced insurrectionary populism as an electoral strategy.

Considering the right’s success at mimicking the organizing tactics of the left, it would be tempting to see recent calls for rebellion and violence as signs that the conservative movement is entering its Weathermen phase — the moment in the 1960s and 1970s when some left-wing activists succumbed to revolutionary fantasies, contributing to the New Left’s crackup.   Except that violence did not really come all that easy to the American leftists of that moment.  There was endless theorizing and agonizing, Leninist justifying and Dostoevskian moralizing, from which the left, considering the ongoing finger-pointing and mea culpas, still hasn’t recovered.

In contrast, conservative entitlement to the threat of violence is so baked into American history that, in moments like this, it seems to be taken for granted.  The Tea Party crowd, along with its militia, NRA, and Oath Keeper friends, would just as easily threaten to overthrow the federal government — or waterboard Nancy Pelosi — as go golfing.

On the 15th anniversary of the bombing of the Oklahoma Federal Building, which left 168 people dead and 600 wounded, gun-rights militants held a rally at the capital mall in Washington, along with a smaller, heavily armed one across the Potomac, where speaker after speaker threatened revolution and invoked the federal siege of Waco to justify the Oklahoma bombing.  This is the kind of militancy Gingrich believes the Republicans can harness and which he tenderly calls a “natural expression” of frustration.

Where all this will lead, who knows?   But you still “don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

Copyright 2010 Greg Grandin

About the author

Greg Grandin is a professor of history at New York University.  His most recent book, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City, just published in paperback, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was picked by the New York Times, the New Yorker, and NPR for their “best of” lists.   A new edition of his previous book, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States and the Rise of the New Imperialism, will be published later this year.

Posts on the FM website about the Tea Party Movement

  1. Are the new “tea party” protests a grass roots rebellion or agitprop?, 1 March 2009
  2. Our ruling elites scamper and play while our world burns, 11 March 2009
  3. The weak link in America’s political regime, 16 September 2009
  4. More examples of Americans waking up – should we rejoice?, 10 October 2009
  5. Does the Tea Party movement remind you of the movie “Meet John Doe”?, 27 January 2010
  6. Listen to the crowds cheering Sarah Palin, hear the hammerblows of another nail in the Constitution’s coffin, 8 February 2010
  7. The Tea Party movement develops a platform. It’s the Underpants Gnomes Business Plan!, 8 March 2010
  8. About the Tea Party Movement: who they are and what they believe, 19 March 2010
  9. The Tea Party Movement disproves my recommendation for the path to reforming America, 20 April 2010
  10. At last we see a Tea Party political platform, 13 May 2010

Afterword

  • For more about this topic see America – how can we reform it?
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