Robert B. Horwitz analyzes the Tea Party as the latest expression of anti-establishment conservatism, a political force that has been around for a long time but has gained support since the decline of the postwar liberal consensus in recent decades. Two particular movements discussed in the previous post–the new religious right and neoconservatism–had largely taken control of the Republican Party by 2000, and their ideas were especially influential in the George W. Bush administration. However, “the Bush presidency…left the country with two long-running, unfinished wars on its hands, a colossal rise in the federal debt, and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.” In 2008, the election of Barack Obama gave control of the White House and both houses of Congress (briefly) to the Democrats. The Tea Party emerged in 2009 as an outraged response on the part of extreme conservatives to this sudden change of fortune.
The Tea Party reacted especially strongly to several of the new administration’s policies that they saw as “socialist”: the Troubled Asset Relief Program that lent money to shaky financial institutions (actually initiated under the previous administration), the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that spent $787 billion to create jobs and stimulate the economy, and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to subsidize health insurance for uninsured Americans. The Tea Party was successful in electing more Republicans in the 2010 midterm election, many of whom openly identified with Tea Party positions.
Demographically, Tea Party supporters are more likely than most voters to be white, male, over 45, evangelical Protestant, Southern or Western, and either Republican or independent. Many have been small business owners. Ideologically, they seem to draw primarily on the libertarian strain in conservative thinking, strongly critical of taxation and business regulation. Tea Party candidates “advocated the continuation of the Bush tax cuts, the repeal of the estate tax, and the replacement of the progressive income tax with a flat tax or national sales tax.” (The “Tea” in Tea Party is also an acronym for “Taxed Enough Already.”) Sometimes they question the very legitimacy of taxation, suggesting that taxing personal income for anything but the most basic government functions amounts to criminal theft. Sometimes they reject modern government agencies–such as the Federal Reserve Board and the Environmental Protection Agency–as unconstitutional, since the Constitution doesn’t specifically authorize them.
Horwitz warns against focusing on Tea Party libertarianism to the point of missing the religious element in the movement. “Accompanying the Tea Party plea to restore genuine capitalism is also a call to restore genuine Christianity.” Tea Partyers are attracted to the writings of W. Cleon Skousen, popularized by Fox News host Glenn Beck. Skousen claims that the inspiration for American principles of limited government came primarily from the Bible, not from the European Enlightenment, with the implication that the modern expansion of government is a deviation from the divinely ordained social order. Senate candidate Sharron Angle said, “Entitlement programs…make government our God.” (She lost, suggesting that associating Social Security with sin is a little much for most voters.) A more popular moral argument against Big Government is that dependency on government undermines personal responsibility.
Although the Tea Party does fuse libertarianism and moral traditionalism to a degree, the movement has not shown much support for the neoconservative moral crusade to bring democracy to other countries. “Neoconservatives are largely in eclipse in the current Tea Party movement,” which is mainly focused on domestic issues.
Horwitz’s analysis and critique of the Tea Party draws on the earlier work of Richard Hofstadter, who described a “paranoid style in American politics” in his effort to understand the popularity of Joe McCarthy and Barry Goldwater. Hofstadter suggested that their supporters were suffering not from real economic deprivation but from “status anxiety,” described in Horwitz’s words as “the psychological sense of loss of rank and place, of an intense feeling of victimhood, and the need to find and punish those responsible for this.” Hofstadter saw the roots of that status anxiety in a transformation of the American liberal tradition:
The New Deal…marked a striking departure from the Populist-Progressive heritage, in Hofstadter’s view. If the old liberalism had been Protestant and ideological, rooted in a backward agrarian ideal, the new liberalism was urban, ethnic, hospitable to non-Protestants, forward-looking, and results-oriented.
The status anxiety experienced by many rural Protestants was often accompanied by anti-intellectualism. Modernization meant new ideas, and new ideas called into question the authority of rural tradition, especially religious tradition. This current of anti-intellectualism surfaces today in the rejection of scientific views on evolution and climate change, and in the moralistic rejection of healthcare reform without regard to its actual consequences. Any number of recent social movements and trends could generate status anxiety in a typical Tea Partyer, such as an older, white, Southern, male, evangelical Protestant small business owner. How about the election of a younger, half-black, northern, liberal Protestant lawyer and community organizer?
Horwitz accepts much of Hofstadter’s analysis, but finds it incomplete. Anti-establishment conservatives may indeed suffer from status anxiety, but that doesn’t entirely explain their success in creating a movement that impacts political culture and decision-making. As a sociologist, Horwitz wants to focus on social institutions, not just psychological dispositions.
A starting point for this analysis is “the structural nature of political power within a mixed capitalist economy.” American society has a real power structure that arouses legitimate populist concerns about individual liberty. Yet participants in populist movements often misunderstand that structure, for example underestimating how much business and government cooperate to maintain a particular kind of capitalism. The Tea Party blamed “socialist” government for the bailout of the banks, but were remarkably forgiving of the financial institutions for the risky policies that brought them to the brink of bankruptcy in the first place. Tea Partyers largely overlook the possibility that modern government has to be big enough to regulate capitalism and protect citizens from the misadventures of the wealthy and powerful.
The bias of the state toward capitalist institutions is both structural and a mainstay of political culture….In times of grave economic crisis, during which the state acts to protect the socio-economic order through an unusual degree of intervention on behalf of capitalist institutions, some significant portion of the American citizenry becomes unnerved about individual autonomy–even when that intervention guards against further economic instability and even depression.
Horwitz’s institutional analysis also focuses on the institutions that anti-establishment conservatives built in order to spread and implement their ideas. These include fundraising networks, conservative media such as Fox News (encouraged by the Reagan administration’s abandonment of the Fairness Doctrine), and many political organizations. Here too, the neoconservatives and religious right prepared the way, especially by recruiting corporate contributors to the cause. Horwitz regards the Tea Party as a legitimate grassroots movement–not just “astroturf”–but it is heavily bankrolled by wealthy businessmen with their own pro-business/anti-government agenda, people who stand to gain from reductions in taxes and regulation. As a result, Tea Party policies “primarily serve the interests of corporate capitalism and the very wealthy,” although they are framed as supporting traditional American individualism.
Finally, Horwitz describes the dogmatism and utopianism of anti-establishment conservatism, which he regards as troublesome for a democratic society. In their zeal to defend their religion from evil government, some religious conservatives would erase the boundary between church and state and try to establish an overtly Christian state. For Horwitz, democracy requires striking a delicate balance between the sacred and the secular:
Democracy insures that people can practice religion freely; democracy must require the separation between church and state to be a democracy. That is the balance that must be struck in a democratic system: individuals can articulate religious arguments in the informal political public sphere, but as those arguments move into the formal institutional political realm they must be translated into secular, reasoned terms, in language and epistemic structure that are in principle accessible to all citizens.
Neoconservatism has also displayed dogmatism and utopianism, especially in its advocacy of global democracy established through American militarism. “The Iraq War was nothing if not a utopian project.”
The particular political phenomenon known as the Tea Party may be a temporary burst of outrage. The greater concern is the larger anti-establishment movement from which it came, and the dogmatic style that it brings to our politics. That style is more suited to opposing government than actually governing. And that, I might add, may explain a lot about today’s Republican Party.