Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Who Is the Tea Party?

Listening to MSNBC's Morning Joe this morning I heard Harvard professor Louis Gates make the claim that the tea party has a lot of racial bigots among their number. As others on the show nodded knowingly I waited for the professor to offer some bit of evidence in support of his very serious allegation but none was forthcoming.

Later in the day a friend told me about the comments of Democratic congressman Alan Grayson who claimed that the tea party was filled with racists and who made a number of claims about various incidents, some of which might be construed as racist if they were true, but none of which he felt constrained to substantiate. In other words, they were all based on hearsay and we were just supposed to take Grayson's word for their veracity.

Apparently Gates and Grayson assume two premises from which they draw a rather strange conclusion. They assume that 1) All racists would oppose President Obama and that 2) All tea partiers oppose President Obama. Both of these premises are doubtless true, but the conclusion they apparently draw from them is that 3) Therefore, tea partiers are racists. This is called by logicians the fallacy of undistributed middle. It's like arguing that because collies are dogs and poodles are dogs that therefore collies are poodles. Such is the violence perpetrated against reason by those desperate to discredit their political opponents but who lack the arguments necessary to do it rationally.

To learn who the tea partiers are one might spend less time listening to people like Louis Gates and Alan Grayson and more time reading former Clinton advisor William Galston. In a very helpful column at the Wall Street Journal Galston compares the modern tea party to the Jacksonian Democrats of the early 19th century and finds them remarkably similar. Citing an essay by Russell Walter Mead, Galston explains that:
Jacksonians ... embrace a distinctive code, whose key tenets include self-reliance, individualism, loyalty and courage.

Jacksonians care as passionately about the Second Amendment as Jeffersonians do about the First. They are suspicious of federal power, skeptical about do-gooding at home and abroad; they oppose federal taxes but favor benefits such as Social Security and Medicare that they regard as earned. Jacksonians are anti-elitist; they believe that the political and moral instincts of ordinary people are usually wiser than those of the experts and that, as Mr. Mead wrote, "while problems are complicated, solutions are simple."

That is why the Jacksonian hero defies the experts and entrenched elites and "dares to say what the people feel" without caring in the least what the liberal media will say about him. (Think Ted Cruz.)

The tea party is Jacksonian America, aroused, angry and above all fearful, in full revolt against a new elite—backed by the new American demography—that threatens its interests and scorns its values.
This sounds to me just about right. The folks who gravitate toward tea party rallies are people who value their constitutional freedoms and see those freedoms under assault by an entrenched leftist elite determined to override the will of the people and impose a European style cradle to the grave socialism which will essentially reduce citizens to little more than servants of the government.

Galston continues:
According to two benchmark surveys by the New York Times tea-party supporters espouse an ensemble of conservative beliefs with special intensity. Fifty-eight percent think that minorities get too much attention from government, and 65% view immigrants as a burden on the country. Most of the respondents see President Obama as someone who doesn't understand them and doesn't share their values. In their eyes, he's an extreme liberal whose policies consistently favor the poor. In fact, 92% believe that he is moving the country toward socialism.
But are the people who hold these beliefs less educated and "lower class" than the rest of America as many liberals portray them?
Many frustrated liberals, and not a few pundits, think that people who share these beliefs must be downscale and poorly educated. The New York Times survey found the opposite. Only 26% of tea-party supporters regard themselves as working class, versus 34% of the general population; 50% identify as middle class (versus 40% nationally); and 15% consider themselves upper-middle class (versus 10% nationally). Twenty-three percent are college graduates, and an additional 14% have postgraduate training, versus 15% and 10%, respectively, for the overall population. Conversely, only 29% of tea-party supporters have just a high-school education or less, versus 47% for all adults.
The tea party is not an independent political party but is largely "a dissident reform movement within the party, determined to move it back toward true conservatism after what they see as the apostasies of the Bush years and the outrages of the Obama administration."
Many tea-party supporters are small businessmen who see taxes and regulations as direct threats to their livelihood. Unlike establishment Republicans who see potential gains from government programs such as infrastructure funding, these tea partiers regard most government spending as a deadweight loss. Because many of them run low-wage businesses on narrow margins, they believe that they have no choice but to fight measures, such as ObamaCare, that reduce their flexibility and raise their costs—measures to which large corporations with deeper pockets can adjust.

It's no coincidence that the strengthening influence of the tea party is driving a wedge between corporate America and the Republican Party. It's hard to see how the U.S. can govern itself unless corporate America pushes the Republican establishment to fight back against the tea party—or switches sides.
Galston has more on who tea partiers are at the link. It's worth reading. My friend Jason, who is himself a historian and to whom I'm indebted for the Galston link, points out the irony that his fellow historians tend to associate the Jacksonian Era with "more" democracy (i.e. a proportional increase in white male suffrage, for example) which seems to suggest that the opposition to tea partiers by "corporate America" and the "Republican establishment" is actually anti-democratic. Quite so.

It's also ironic that 19th century Jacksonians are generally esteemed as heroes in the Democrat pantheon and yet it's Democrats who are most hostile to what the modern Jacksonians in the tea party stand for. I guess it shows how far the Democrat Party has wandered from its historical roots.