Wayne O’Leary

Tea Without Sympathy

Alice probably said it best on her travels through Wonderland: “It’s the stupidest tea-party I was ever at in my life!” That seems to be characteristic of tea parties. The one Alice attended with the Mad Hatter, replete with crackpot guests, inane discourse and bad manners, differed only in degree, not in kind, from those held around the US over the last several months.

As the Hatter advised, “It’s always tea time,” and if you want to attend a tea-party rally, you can find one almost everywhere in the country that will fit your schedule. Sarah Palin will be at most of them, dispensing her uniquely charming blend of ignorance and insanity — for a price. The occasional governor from Alaska is actually crazy like a fox; she’s reportedly parlayed these tea-sipping/book-selling appearances into $12 million, the better to refurbish the old homestead in Wasilla or run for president in 2012.

The bulk of the electronic and print media are taking all this very seriously. In their eyes, the tea partiers represent grassroots America — plain, average, middle-class folks of independent mind never before active in politics, a cross section of the heartland mad as hell that their legitimate concerns are not being addressed by the out-of-touch Washington elites. And what are those concerns? An in-depth April poll by the New York Times spells that out, as well as establishing a social profile of the tea-party membership based on hard facts, not scatter-shot impressions and anecdotal speculation.

What most animates the tea partiers, it seems, is their fear and loathing of the federal government, a government they believe taxes and spends too much, and is trending under President Obama toward “socialism.” No surprise there, given the rhetoric emanating from their rallies. More particularly, the tea-party faithful are angry about Democratic Washington’s supposed excessive concern with helping racial minorities (especially blacks) and the poor, who neither need nor deserve help, and with its wasteful and unnecessary efforts to create jobs and expand health care. The tea types self-righteously view such actions as running counter to their own moral imperative: cutting the budget and reducing the size of government.

One inconvenient truth revealed by the Times survey is that the broad groundswell of national indignation the doting mass media see in the tea-party uprising just doesn’t exist. Americans who identify as tea-party supporters make up, according to the polling data, only 18% of the population (barely one person in five), and only 4% of our fellow citizens have either contributed to the cause or attended its rallies. Moreover, those who have imbibed the Kool- Aid, so to speak, are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Republican party. Interviews reveal three-quarters of the tea partiers to be self-described conservatives who regularly vote for the GOP; contrary to the media-generated image, only a minority are independents, and only a tiny minority are Democrats. Most telling, fully 57% hold a favorable view of George W. Bush, nearly the exact percentage of the general public holding an unfavorable view of the former president. Based on their political views, tea partiers are essentially the far-right fringe of the Republican base.

Other poll findings reinforce this conclusion. Tea partiers as a group are white (89%), male (59%), and 45 year of age or older (75%) — all distinguishing Republican characteristics. Over half (a considerably higher proportion than the population at large) have annual incomes in excess of $50,000, and a fifth take in more than $100,000 a year. This places the majority of tea partiers firmly in the ranks of the comfortable upper-middle class and, again, fits the typical Republican mold. These are not poor folks; they have more money than most and, the survey shows, are much more obsessed with the tax rates than other Americans. They’ve got it, and they want to keep it.

Most striking perhaps, given the assorted nonsense and irrationality surrounding the movement — its sheer craziness — is that an above-average proportion of the tea partiers have attended college. Over a third (37%) hold degrees, compared to a quarter of the general populace. In one sense, this is unsurprising; we’re living through a period when rising tuition rates, declining scholarship aid, and privatized, high-interest student loans have priced the sons and daughters of the Democratic-leaning working class out of higher education for almost a generation.

Increasingly, in a reversion to the pre-World War II years, a college degree has meant the graduate’s family had economic means and, more than likely, was Republican.

The higher-than-average incomes of tea partiers (one reason 20% of those polled have the leisure and wherewithal to travel to conventions and rallies) suggests their ranks are disproportionately composed of two classic conservative demographics, small-business owners and upper-income seniors. Tax-phobic entrepreneurs, the petit bourgeoisie of Marxist theory, are often viscerally hostile to wage earners (especially government workers), whom they disparage as inferiors who have “never met a payroll.” Privileged seniors, those populating upscale retirement communities, are paranoid about perceived cuts to Medicare, by which they mean reduced subsidies to providers of their elaborate Medicare Advantage plans. Both groups, consumed by feelings of entitlement, obviously resent their reduced status in the current political environment.

Still, this doesn’t entirely explain the exaggerated, violence-laden rhetoric and lunatic quality of the tea-party movement — the bizarre assertions, for instance, that Obama is a foreign-born Muslim who loves terrorists and hates America. (For comparable political overstatement, you need to reference the Middle East: “Death to America,” etc.) Clearly, tea-party members are frightened people who, though comparatively well off, are fearful of a future in which faith in “free enterprise,” the source of their affluence, is being undercut by the unrestrained forces of corporate America.

Since the genuine cause of economic turmoil and anxiety in their lives is only dimly understood by the tea partiers, they focus their fear and anger elsewhere — on familiar scapegoats and bogeymen (the Government, the immigrants, the liberals). And so Republican Arizona goes down the rabbit hole, pushed and prodded by its tea-party base, and flailing madly in all directions. Alice eventually awoke from her outlandish dream, but there’s no sign yet of the GOP coming around. Get the smelling salts.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2010


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