Why does the Tea Party exist?

From where I sit – in Sydney, Australia – the rise and political power of the Tea Party appears to be bewildering.  Especially in the light of the Republican quixotic and failed attempts to stop “Obamacare”, the national health insurance scheme that actually originated with Republicans (how times have changed).

Richard Longworth – a Chicago-based former journalist who is fast becoming one of my favourite American political/social commentators – has posted a recent blog that goes a long way to explain this success to those of us who are not “up close” with the phenomenon of current American right-wing politics.  Longworth quotes Francis Wilkinson, from the Bloomberg website, in an article entitled “Why Republicans shut down the government”, who writes:

A lot of Americans were not ready for a mixed-race president. They weren’t ready for gay marriage. They weren’t ready for the wave of legal and illegal immigration that redefined American demographics over the past two or three decades, bringing in lots of nonwhites. They weren’t ready — who was? — for the brutal effects of globalization on working- and middle-class Americans or the devastating fallout from the financial crisis.

Their representatives didn’t stop Obamacare. And their side didn’t ‘take back America’ in 2012 as Fox News and conservative radio personalities led them to believe they would. They feel the culture is running away from them (and they’re mostly right). They lack the power to control their own government. But they still have just enough to shut it down.

The last sentence is the key – they do not have enough power to control America (they are in a distinct, and shrinking) minority, but they have enough power to bring the workings of government to a halt.

Both Longworth and Wilkinson quote a fascinating report by Democratic poll expert Stan Greenberg, who conducted a series of focus groups with Republican, Tea Party and other voters.  Greenberg concludes that Republicans:

think they face a victorious Democratic Party that is intent on expanding government to increase dependency and therefore electoral support. It starts with food stamps and unemployment benefits; expands further if you legalize the illegals; but insuring the uninsured dramatically grows those de-pendent on government. They believe this is an electoral strategy—not just a political ideology or economic philosophy. If Obamacare happens, the Republican Party may be lost, in their view.

And while few explicitly talk about Obama in racial terms, the base supporters are very conscious of being white in a country with growing minorities. Their party is losing to a Democratic Party of big government whose goal is to expand programs that mainly benefit minorities. Race remains very much alive in the politics of the Republican Party.

The last sentence, again, is a key.  Race remains an important factor.  But of course, it’s not that simple.  The Republican Party is not monolithic, with substantial differences between Republican “moderates”, Evangelical Protestants (who feel a “deep sense of cultural and political loss”) and libertarians, who prefer little or no government interference in personal or economic lives.  As Greenberg also writes:

Moderates are a quarter of those who identify Republican, and they are very conscious of their discomfort with other parts of the party base. Their distance begins with social issues, like gay marriage and homosexuality, but it is also evident on immigration and climate change. Fiscal conservatives feel isolated in the party.

Evangelicals who feel most threatened by trends embrace the Tea Party because they are the ones who are fighting back. They are very in tune politically, but the Tea Party base is very libertarian and not very interested in fighting gay marriage.

So there you have it.  There is a certain “tide of history”, and it’s pretty clear that social liberalisation (i.e., gay marriage = marriage equality) is part of that current tide.  This is so not only in the USA, but increasingly here in Australia where it continues to creep into the national consciousness and debate, with the ACT Government recently passing legislation to legalise gay marriage.  But those religious conservative Americans who oppose marriage equality (and its bedmates, gender and racial equality) clearly feel threatened in social, political and spiritual ways.  This leads to their increasing sense of alienation from modern life.

These patterns have been around for a long time, and my own PhD research into the box office support for the Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ identified some of them, especially with relation to the Evangelicals.  Knowing where the issues come from is one thing, but breaking what appears to be a political impasse is another.

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