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Jeremi Suri, Host:
I remember receiving a phone call from a prominent newspaper reporter in Fall 2009 about the emergence of the Tea Party, largely in opposition to President Barack Obama’s health care legislation. “Is the Tea Party going to become a major force in American politics,” the reporter asked. “No,” I responded confidently. “Like other fringe protest parties in the past, it will fizzle quickly. Their message is too negative.”
I have never been so wrong in my life! My confident prediction gave way to a true nightmare in my home state of Wisconsin. In November 2010 the citizens of what is often labeled America’s progressive state elected Tea Party followers to virtually all government offices. Scott Walker became governor, the Fitzgerald brothers (Scott and Jeff) became the leaders of the two houses of the state legislature, and unknown businessman Ron Johnson unseated the long-serving progressive stalwart, Russ Feingold, from the U.S. Senate. Similar things happened in other states (New Jersey, Indiana, Ohio), but the reversal of Democratic leadership in Wisconsin was especially dramatic.
As everyone reading the newspapers knows, the drama of the election was only the beginning. Walker, the Fitzgeralds, and their many Tea Partiers in the Wisconsin legislature have proceeded to attack every hinge of progressive government head-on. They have been bold, categorical, and uncompromising. They have been vicious. They have been offensive to every notion of decency. In less than six months, the Wisconsin Tea Party Republicans have attempted to dismantle union collective bargaining, public funding for education, support to uninsured citizens, voting rights for the young and old, and the rudiments of progressive taxation. Repeating their mantra that “the state is broke,” Walker, the Fitzgeralds, and their supporters have dished out tax breaks and other goodies to business groups, as they have scaled back funding for basic public goods. They have pledged to make government serve business as they have rescinded the promise of opportunity for all citizens, especially those from poor backgrounds. I have found the force of this movement so frustrating that it contributed – among other factors – to my decision to leave Wisconsin this coming fall. I can only see more dark months and years for the state before things improve.
Paul Street and Anthony DiMaggio put all of this into perspective in their powerful and opinionated book, Crashing the Tea Party. The authors have a number of key arguments. First, they contend that the Tea Party is not a grass-roots movement, but instead a creature of powerful business interests and the Republican Party. The mainstream media, they argue, has been too willing to accept the “false populism” of groups that are small, unrepresentative, and well connected to elites.
Second, Street and DiMaggio document the narrowness, selfishness, and stunning elitism of Tea Party supporters. The public opinion tables on pages 49-55 of their book are particularly revealing. The authors show that 36% of Tea Party supporters have an annual income above $75,000. Only 25% of the general public earns as much. 35% of Tea Party supporters are college graduates, compared to 28% in the public at large. On these and other measures, the Tea Party is a party of protest for those who have the least reason to protest. Street and DiMaggio conclude that this is a sham designed to hide the long-established Republican business interests behind the Walkers, the Fitzgeralds, and their counterparts in other states.
Third, and perhaps most surprising to many readers, the authors deny that the Democratic Party offers a viable alternative to the Republican Tea Party. Street and DiMaggio are scornful of mainstream Democrats, especially President Barack Obama, who have abandoned what they see as the progressive soul of the party. Instead of standing strong for workers’ rights, for economic redistribution, and for basic public services, Street and DiMaggio argue that the Democratic party has capitulated to business interests and other wealthy groups. Progressive change, they predict, will come from a true “Progressive Tea Party,” inspired by groups like the protestors at the Wisconsin state capitol who mobilized to save unions and fair treatment of citizens, not a particular party.
Street and DiMaggio have spent a lot of time studying the Tea Party. They have thought deeply about its relationship to the political times we live in, and the recent past. Their book is passionate and provocative, argumentative and argument-worthy.
The problem, as I see it, is that they re-create the very one-sidedness and insensitivity they condemn in the Tea Party. They are probably correct that the popular appeal of the Tea Party is sometimes exaggerated, but they also dismiss its “false populism” too quickly. Hundreds of thousands of “ordinary” working citizens in Wisconsin and other states are fed up with what they see as government over-spending and misguided policies. They are drawn to the Tea Party’s call to scale things back. They are motivated to keep their taxes down. In a time of economic turmoil, these sentiments are not unprecedented. They are not just a creature of media manipulation. They are, I fear, quite sincere and widely held among reasonable people. Street and DiMaggio do not give Tea Party populism enough credit, and they therefore under-estimate the true challenge to progressive politics.
In addition, there is the problem of over-generalization. Tea Partiers do not move in lock-step with each other. They do not share a coherent ideology or a common program for change. They are a mix of various angry and anti-governmental opinions. This mix of viewpoints contributes to inconsistencies and contradictions, as Street and DiMaggio explain. It should, however, warn the authors against bald statements like: “Most Tea Partiers do harbor racist opinions” (page 77.) Really? Where is the evidence?
This kind of statement undermines any respect for the opinions of good citizens who are not racist but see some appeal in the Tea Party’s general message. Why should we pass summary judgment on these citizens? Just because the movement is often reprehensible does not mean that its followers are reprehensible too. Many Wisconsin residents of integrity voted for Governor Walker and his counterparts. Progressive politicians must find a way to attract the support of these citizens again, not condemn them for voting their minds. Progressive politicians must find a way to reach out more effectively, replacing partisan polarization with creative bridge-building. Maybe that will be the subject for Street and DiMaggio’s next book.