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The Budget Showdown in a Teapot: Short Executive Summary

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Co-authored by Abby Scher

The budget showdown illustrates the perfect storm brewed by the Tea Party movement which brings together five major political and economic trends of the last 20 years.

First, rising economic inequality produces social and political isolation with some of the rich separating themselves from the rest of America (Massey 2007). They no longer see themselves as part of a civic community and have been powering a (legal) tax strike for the last 30 years or more. They have been funding efforts to promote their anti-tax ideology in both secular realms -- seen in Jane Mayer's widely cited New Yorker article about David Koch (Mayer 2010) -- but also in religious arenas. It is bearing fruit as regional elites and small business people are having their grievances shaped by this ideology.

Second, the right-wing insurgency is a sign of a legitimation crisis. This is when the public loses faith in the government's ability to accomplish anything, including fixing the economy. The government may be unable to deal with contemporary economic problems for any number of reasons: partisan gridlock, counterproductive ruling class control, or the overwhelming nature of the economic problems (Habermas 1975).

Third, the Christian Right increasingly embraces a free market ideology. Free market Christianity preexists the Tea Party of course, and is well studied (Kintz 1997, Moreton 2009). Postwar anticommunism was one crucible forging the link. Today, you see Christian free market ideas promoted by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. The Heritage Foundation and today's Christian Right have been building ideology together since the 1990s (Meagher 2006) and it is bearing fruit, particularly since Glenn Beck used his Fox platform to popularize free market Christianity.

Fourth, some classes think they respond better to a "flexible" economy than others. They feel they don't need or benefit from the larger infrastructure of government that regulates the economy and creates a social safety net for retirees and those the economy leaves behind.

Fifth, party institutions are becoming less important, as big money backs individuals rather than a party, but also because fewer and fewer Americans identify with political parties. The powerful elements of political parties are no longer the party regulars or central committees but campaigns.

A thorough analysis of the Tea Party as a movement needs to use several analytical lenses

  • Time frame of movement development and the shifting leadership matrix
  • Primary ideology (conservative or libertarian or evangelical or mixed?)
  • Methodology (reformist or insurrectionist?)
  • Role of conspiracism in frames and narratives (strong or weak?)
  • Geographic location and socio-economic status of members of a chapter
(Bauer 2012, Frick 2012, Iturriaga 2012, Westermeyer 2012)

Right-Wing Populism

The backlash against an administered society gives a libertarian edge to the movement. Bureaucratic efforts to rationalize an out of control economy and government bargaining with economic sectors can lead to complex and confusing reforms like the health care overhaul. We stress, however, the value of using the term "right-wing populism" as a way to describe the Tea Parties.

Other scholars use different terms such as White Citizenship Movement, Precariat, Middle American Radicals, Anti-Statist Populism, or White Nationalism. The exact terminology is still debated by scholars, and discussed in an edited collection on the Tea Parties (Rosenthal and Trost 2012; see especially chapters by Berlet, Disch, Lowndes, and Postel).

While not all Tea Partiers are rightwing populists, we identify the Tea Party movement as a form of "right-wing populism" because we believe this terminology illuminates one of its most vital aspects. The right-wing populists' historic scapegoating of minorities and "welfare cheats" is only one response to diverse trends, but it is clearly central to the Tea Party movement.

The Tea Party illuminates and reflects the old cleavages of the 1950s -- when some of the GOP accepted Roosevelt's New Deal, and those who didn't saw McCarthyism as an opportunity to roll it back. These clashes are being reinvigorated. This is promoted once again in part by a mass media phenomenon, and during the election race of 2012, a national Republican Party willing to ride the wave as long as it lasted.

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Adapted from:

Abby Scher and Chip Berlet, Forthcoming, "The Tea Party Moment,"
in Nella Van Dyke and David S. Meyer, eds.
Understanding the Tea Party Movement
Forthcoming: Ashgate, March 2014

See also:
Obama, Tea Parties, and Apocalyptic Aggression
Conservatives, the Tea Party and the Shutdown: How We Got Here