Two of the tea party’s most recognizable leaders, former congressman Dick Armey and CNBC anchor Rick Santelli, huddled on Saturday morning to assess the progress of their nascent movement in Manhattan. They spoke on a lively and sometimes prickly panel at the New Yorker Festival, moderated by editor-in-chief David Remnick. I attended and took some notes.
Armey, who noted that he rejected a $750,000 job offer to serve as conservatives’ unofficial insider-outsider, was proud, brash and at times indignant, defending his organizers against charges of political hypocrisy and racial resentment. Santelli stressed his split personality as a reporter who happened to be in the wrong place at the right time. He disavowed any “proactive” role in the rallies and campaigns that were sparked, at least in part, by his famous televised rant on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
In a sense, the two men personify the tectonic plates beneath today’s tea party populism. Connected, establishment conservatives with the reflexes of activists -- rather than incumbents -- are backed by opinionated media figures who combine the reach of national television with reruns syndicated on a hit channel called YouTube. Santelli was already influential on TV, but he only became powerful when he went viral. (Also see Beck, Glenn. His huge audience and income largely resides on the web and radio, not on his Fox show.)
Indeed, historians may stress how the tea party rose at exactly the same time that traditional print journalism crashed into the earth like an asteroid, instantly sinking underground and far from political relevance. Some already are.
At the panel, Harvard historian Jill Lepore, who just published a book on the role of contested historical narratives in tea party organizing, said the “disequilibrium” created by newspapers’ demise is fueling a new type of politics.
“Our political and newspaper culture were born at the same time,” Lepore noted, pointing to the partisan papers founded to oppose John Adams. With the decline of print, she proposed, comes a decline in local news coverage, a demise of the local “form of community,” and ultimately a distortion of “proportion” -- where people have less sense of which developments are actually significant. We may even look back on this period, Lepore suggested, and realize that we spent far too much time on the tea party. Coming from someone who just wrote a book on the subject, that’s saying something.
Beyond experts and participants, the panel also included one member of the loyal opposition to the loyal opposition: Anthony Weiner. The New York congressman has staked out a role several steps to the left -- and decibels above -- President Obama. True to form, Weiner dispatched tea party tenets with substance and relish. Since the vast majority of the federal budget goes to defense and permanent entitlement programs, he argued, the tea party simply cannot legislate its anti-spending rage unless it slashes the Pentagon or guts Social Security. (Weiner, in full wonk mode, made this point by saying that 91 percent of the federal budget is comprised of defense and non-discretionary spending. You get the idea.) Of course, Social Security reform couldn’t even get a scheduled vote from congressional Republicans in 2005, when (then-popular) President Bush spearheaded the effort. And electing Republicans to cut defense spending? You’d have better luck buying tempeh from a butcher in Weiner’s Brooklyn district.
And yet. What’s unrealistic to one voter is inspiring to another. Tea Party leaders, just like purist libertarians or radical progressives, like to begin with first principles and aim for fundamental reform. It is curious, really, how progressive critiques of the tea party so often sound like laundered attacks on progressives -- you’re not being realistic, that’s not how government really works, the numbers won’t add up, and, of course, your entire movement should be dismissed based on your most fringe members.
At the New Yorker panel, even a routine piece of political cant, “We want our country back,” was criticized as a secretly coded response to the election of the first black president. Yet the same phrase was, as politicos may recall, a popular slogan among liberals after Bush’s election. It was ultimately embraced by Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. In 2004, the top Google results for that line were all about Dean (and one hit for a Tibetan independence site). Today, all the Dean results, along with the Tibetans, have been dislodged by tea party references. Rhetoric is flexible, and identity powers plenty of political activism, but we must be more careful in treating one side’s freedom rally as another’s race war.
Leave race alone, of course, and economic anxiety still usually stirs political activity. Tea party groups say the major motivators were the bailouts, beginning with TARP under a Republican president, which Santelli stressed, and the financial collapse. Lepore rolled the history back further, pointing to the hardening of political and cultural divisions in the Nixon era, and a conservative conversation that increasingly turned on the axis of religion, rather than public policy.
"This looks more like a religious than political revival," she argued, (a point that Glenn Beck frequently makes on his radio and television show). Just as preachers traveled up new routes on the Erie Canal in the 19th Century, seeding revivalist movements in each town, Lepore said, today's tea party spreads through charismatic figures who idealize the Founding Fathers as "divinely inspired." Thus the founding documents carry the weight of scripture, and modern political debates turn on a sometimes bizarre competition over whose position would be endorsed by the Founders. Lepore added, in closing, that the Federalist Papers suggest the Founders would have recoiled at the notion of political debates bound so tightly by their ancient writings. After listening with a look of deep cogitation, Anthony Weiner spoke up, assuring the crowd that Thomas Jefferson "definitely supported the public option."
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