08-17-2011 by Linda S. Carbonell
A New York Times op-ed is getting a lot of replay in the media today. It was written by David E. Campbell, Associate Professor of Political Science at Notre Dame, and Robert D. Putnam, Professor of Public Policy at Harvard, the co-authors of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. As Ezra Klein, Washington Post editor and MSNBC contributor, noted, the op-ed exposes the lie of the origins of the Tea Party movement.
The “official” story of the Tea Party is a completely grass roots movement, inspired and named after the Boston Tea Party of Revolutionary War fame, which blossomed unbidden out of the frustrations and fears over the recession. Campbell and Putnam say, that version is bunk. They know how the Tea Party got started because they have the survey results that predicted Tea Party involvement before there was a Tea Party.
The first study was conducted in 2006 as part of the research for their book on religion in America and the impact of religion on politics. They talked to 3,000 people on a variety of specific issues that all relate in major or minor ways to the relationship between religion and politics. This year, following the explosion of the Tea Party movement, they re-interviewed many of the same people.
The first Tea Party myth they expose is the idea that the driving forces behind the Tea Party are economic and outside the mainstream parties. The “origin myth” says that Tea Partiers were political babes-in-the-woods who were never involved in the scuzzy world of politics before. What they found was that the people in their original study who were hardcore conservative Republicans are the hardcore of the Tea Party, who were more likely to have engaged personally with some government official at some point. That ties remarkably with Ohio Governor John Kasich’s admission that he went after the public sector unions because of a bad encounter with a police officer.
The second unifying attribute was a desire to see more God in our government. This goes beyond the anti-abortion, anti-gay rights crowd. These are people who will insist that our nation was founded as a Christian state, no matter what Jefferson, Adams, Washington or any other founding father may have said on the subject. And that ties in to another definer of Tea Partiers. They really are bigots. They have a much higher rate of being anti-immigrant and anti-minority than even mainstream Republicans. (For those not old enough, the “Moral Majority” and the “Religious Right” were 1970′s and 1980/90′s movements for the creation of a theocracy in America.)
In a backhanded way, this goes back at least to 9-11 and its aftermath, and possibly to the millennium hysteria. No matter how hard the Bush administration tried, and they did try, to distance the war on terror from ordinary Muslims, there were plenty of voices out there insisting that Islam is a violent religion with a Qur’anic edict to eradicate Christians and Jews. There were plenty of preachers and speakers in churches calling the Prophet Mohammed a child molester and calling Allah a “monkey God.” (Wrong religion, the Monkey God is Chinese and he was only a demigod.) 9-11 gave these people a legitimate reason to scream for ending immigration and shutting the borders, reinforcing their anti-minority views. And, though I hate to sound like a regionalist, the Tea Party gained its greatest following in the areas of the country with the least diversified history of immigration – the South which was almost exclusively settled by people from the British Isles and the importation of slaves, and the Midwest with an overwhelming preponderance of Northern Europeans. Without a history of diversified immigration and a history of the cycle of anti-immigrant violence and laws, these people did not understand the true immigrant experience or the reality of bigotry in America.
So, what did Campbell and Putnam find were the characteristics of the people who evolved into Tea Partiers over the past five years? Highly partisan Republican, social conservative, deeply religious, white, solidly upper middle class, anti-immigrant, and anti-minority (pretty much anti-anyone-not-us).
It has been easy for the people who tapped this group to direct their anger. Being anti-Muslim is patriotic because of 9-11. If one tries to defend the rights of Muslims, one hears the “how can you forget 9-11?” accusation. Being anti-minority morphs into being opposed to those people most likely to be receiving some form of social safety net in their view. Though there are far more whites than any other group receiving welfare, they will tell you that whites are not on welfare. The portrayal of recipients of welfare and unemployment and Social Security disability as “lazy” actually weaves well with the belief that minorities are more prone to use those programs and the stereotype of the lazy black and lazy Mexican.
They also, being hardcore partisan Republicans, tend toward the whole imperial vision of America, the vision that took us into Iraq and Afghanistan, the vision that says it is not enough to be “first among equals” as President Clinton, but America must be first, period. So, it becomes very easy to twist that imperial view into a pretzel with lingering anti-communism. The way the Tea Partiers talk, one would think Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush had not overseen the death of global communism. In the right hands, Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, the lines between “socialist,” “communist,” and “fascist” were blurred. The Tea Party is a natural evolution out of the Bush era – the hyper patriotism, the “God and Country” mentality – that typifies fascism. Just don’t call the Bush government fascist or point out the parallels to Peron and Franco, or even insist on a correct definition of fascism.
What Campbell and Putnam do not explore is the way the Tea Party types were infiltrated and taken over by the money people who wanted to increase mainstream Republican power and increase the support of deregulation of business and elimination of taxes on the rich. The Koch brothers funded the Tea Party Express. That’s a proven fact. Old-time Republican operatives were recruited by Dick Armey to direct the Tea Party. When the money was brought into play, the public face of the Tea Party as a small government, anti-deficit, anti-regulation movement began.
Where did it all coalesce? In the person of Barack Obama. One could almost believe that Barack Obama was chosen by the Tea Party types to become president so as to energize the Tea Party types and grow the power of the Republican Party. Not only is our President half-African American, he chose an unacceptable number of Jews and minorities for his administration. His personal history, a Muslim African father, a childhood in a country most people can’t find on a map, these were gifts to the Tea Party, they made it easy to create the whole birther-secret Muslim nonsense.
But the more power the Tea Party has asserted, in states like Florida and Wisconsin and in Congress, the fewer people approve of their ideology. This is turning into a case of winning for losing – they gained national prominence, gained blackmail power in Congress, gained control of several states and so over-reached themselves that they exposed the worst of what they are to the majority of Americans who don’t believe in their far right ideology.
Campbell’s and Putnam’s conclusion is simple….the Tea Party has been so extreme that they have destroyed themselves, just as the extremists of the anti-Vietnam War era created the presidency of Ronald Reagan. A very basic, deeply ingrained belief in the true values of America and the moderate path is being brought out in the majority of Americans. And, as Martha Stewart would say, that’s a good thing.