“Energy. Budget Tax cuts. Lift American spirits.” This was the infamous list of talking points scrawled on Sarah Palin’s palm when she stood to address the first-ever Tea Party Convention in Nashville. It’s fitting, given that the agenda of Palin and the movement for which she has become a tribune is short on details about how to govern the country. “Lift American spirits” is about as substantive a description of their agenda as you’re likely to hear.
Such vagueness has served the movement well, allowing it to claim to be many things it is not. There has arisen in some quarters a quaint and dangerous notion that the tea party movement is an entirely new phenomenon–a bipartisan, organic channeling of broad (and rational) distrust of and disgust with America’s main institutions, particularly Wall Street and Washington, which seem to have formed a perfectly closed loop of rent-seeking and self-dealing. According to Tea Party Patriots national board member Mark Meckler, “Although we are conservative in political philosophy, we are nonpartisan in approach. Both parties need to re-dedicate themselves to the principles of our founding fathers and remember that this should be the government of ‘We the People’ and not of special interest groups or pork-laden politics.”
While the energy and outrage may be genuine and organic, we should not fool ourselves into seeing this as anything but a right-wing reactionary movement, one whose themes (jingoism, militarism and a cult of victimhood at the hands of sundry nefarious betrayers) are as old as the John Birch Society. And yet, because the details of the tea party’s worldview remain obscure, it’s startlingly popular with the broader public. Forty-one percent of respondents in a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll have a positive opinion of the tea party movement. According to the same poll, the Democratic Party was viewed favorably by only 35 percent. The Republican Party fared even worse with 28 percent.
It is useful for branding purposes that the right-wing organizers and activists draping themselves in nostalgia for the founding fathers not find themselves tied in the public mind to the Republican Party, loathed by a significant minority of the electorate and distrusted by an overwhelming majority. The reason is not hard to divine: over the last decade, the GOP ran the country into the ground. While the party’s rhetorical fidelity is to small government and a big military, it has for decades been operationally committed to no philosophy other than perpetual war, upward redistribution of wealth, the defense of corporate power and white Christian identity politics. But despite the tea party’s arm’s-length stance toward the GOP, these are precisely the values for which it stands.
What’s genius about the tea party branding is that it can shift the focus from the governing record of the right wing to a fantasy vision of a Ron Paul- meets-Ayn Rand twenty-first-century insurrection based on principles fuzzy enough to resonate with much of the populace. After all, who doesn’t hate the bailouts?
While that’s the grassroots message the GOP is stoking and associating itself with, its poobahs are busy laying the groundwork for a restoration of what James Galbraith aptly calls the Predator State. According to a recent New York Times article, the Wall Street titans of finance, who gave unprecedented monetary support to Barack Obama (and have invested heavily in the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party), have had their feelings hurt by the occasional and exceedingly gentle remonstrations from the Obama administration and are funneling more cash to the GOP. Seeing as how not a single Republican voted for the mild financial reform bill in the House, this seems like a marriage with promising prospects.
While the tea partyers bash the bailouts, conservative politicians like John Cornyn skulk around New York hustling to get their hands on some of that bailout-facilitated campaign cash. It’s a fresh version of the tried-and-true GOP approach described by Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, though this one is more audacious: rather than using social issues to distract from an economic agenda favoring the plutocracy, rage over bank bailouts provides cover for efforts to raise money from banks and stymie bank regulation.
Rank hypocrisy has never spelled doom for a political party in America, and it won’t hurt the tea party so long as its views remain opaque. The easiest way to highlight the contradictions between the vaguely attractive populism of the tea partyers and the decidedly unpopulist governing vision of the party they serve is to attack the banks with a tea party-like zeal and force the GOP to close ranks around its new financial benefactors.