When tea party organizers chose the Washington Ellipse as the setting for their Tax Day protest, they were undoubtedly thinking of its theatrical potential. Behind looms the Washington Monument, an obelisk to the hero of American Revolution and Constitution and a fitting symbol of the tea party’s esprit de corps. In front stands the White House, whose occupant, according to protesters’ signs, is busy plotting more taxes, more communism and the end of America. Those who took the podium borrowed from the surrounding majesty to endow their struggle with an epic righteousness: "We are going to keep faith with every generation since 1776 that has successfully passed the baton of freedom to the next generation. We will not allow that…chain of freedom to be broken on our watch," declared Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. But beyond the rhetoric and amid the crowd of a few thousand, the concerns were on a smaller scale–like about incandescent light bulbs.
That’s what inspired one woman, Dot, to drive down from Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Dot is concerned about the deficit and the healthcare bill that "nobody read," but most of all she is panicked about light bulbs. "The government is already starting to fine people if you have the incandescent kind," she said, "but if cap and trade passes, then you’re going to have each home audited, and that information is going to be listed to real estate agents, and you won’t be able to sell your house."
Dozens of tea partyers I spoke with repeated some version of Dot’s tale of government intrusion, little lies laced with tiny truths. "With this consumer protection agency," one man told me, "the government is going to make it illegal for you to have more than two credit cards." A woman in a red-white-and-blue pantsuit said, "There’s a charter school in New York City teaching children how to be political activists–Muslim activists." Each of these stories lurks in the substrata of tea party blogs, and many are simply warmed-over right-wing myths that predate the tea party itself. What impresses is the fine-grained obsessiveness with which these ideas are pursued; I came to Washington looking for Ahabs, but the tea partyers I met are preoccupied with chasing minnows of their own imagining, not hunting the great white whale of government.
What does this kaleidoscope of kookiness add up to? According to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, tea partyers are richer, whiter, better educated, older, more male and more likely to be employed than the rest of America. In other words, they largely come from society’s "haves," who now worry, as Thomas Edsall argues in The Atlantic Monthly, that "the competition for resources cannot be resolved by…economic growth," and so are rallying to hold on to their wealth, status, authority and autonomy. Or as one tea party sign put it, Your Fair Share Is Not in My Pocket. For those on the left who believe that government should act as an agent of redistribution, this evidence should put to rest the idea that the tea party is a constituency we can work with. The question is, How useful are they to the GOP?
Earlier in the day, a coalition of groups, including FreedomWorks and the Tea Party Patriots, unveiled the Contract From America, a ten-plank agenda determined in part by an online poll of tea party activists. Comprising slogans like "Protect the Constitution" and "Stop the Pork," mixed with reversals of Democratic proposals like "Reject Cap & Trade" and "Defund, Repeal, & Replace Government-Run Health Care," the Contract is almost entirely bereft of policy ideas. In that vein, it is a rebuke of Republicans like Congressman Paul Ryan, who released the detailed "Roadmap for America’s Future" earlier this year, and House minority whip Eric Cantor, who has urged the GOP to put forth a specific legislative agenda for 2010 and beyond. Although the Contract and Ryan’s Roadmap share the presumption that government is too big and too intrusive, the similarities end there. The Contract is just 613 words long; the Roadmap goes on for forty-three pages, and while not as comprehensive as Ryan claims, it covers issues like tax codes, Social Security, job training and universal healthcare. Most important, Ryan frames his program in the language of shared growth and opportunity. Copping a page from Reagan’s "trickle-down theory," he holds that "each American’s pursuit of personal destiny" makes a "net contribution to the Nation’s common good as well."
All of this, I suspect, fails to capture the heads and hearts of tea party patriots. Fed a steady diet of paranoia and emotional appeals to vague concepts like freedom and liberty, they appear uninterested in the details of governing, to which even the Republican Party’s elite pay lip service, and unable to espouse a vision, however cramped, of collective interest. Their logo and logic is simply Don’t Tread on Me. That might work, for now, in securing enough "haves" to muck up GOP primaries. But it is hard to see how, in a nation still tilting toward the "have-not" column, the tea party approaches anything close to an enduring national political force. Heaven help us if I’m wrong.