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The Tea Party Movement's Populism

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Prompted in part by this excellent series in Salon on Glenn Beck, there has been some discussion in recent days of the disposition of the tea party protesters (beyond deeming them all "crazy.") Glenn Greenwald, for example, lays out the myriad strains of motivation and political outlook that comprises the movement and argues that the categories of left and right do little to illuminate where much of this is coming from. After laying out the generally incoherent views of Beck himself, Greenwald observes:

Far more interesting than Beck himself is the increasingly futile effort to classify the protest movement to which he has connected himself. Here, too, confusion reigns. In part, this is due to the fact that these "tea party" and "9/12" protests are composed of factions with wildly divergent views about most everything. From paleoconservatives to Ron-Paul-libertarians to LaRouchians to Confederacy-loving, race-driven Southerners to Christianist social conservatives to single-issue fanatics (abortion, guns, gays) to standard Limbaugh-following, Bush-loving Republicans, these protests are an incoherent mishmash without any cohesive view other than: "Barack Obama is bad." There are unquestionably some highly noxious elements in these groups, but they are far from homogeneous. Many of these people despised the Bush-led GOP and many of them loved it.

But for my money, there is something (I hesitate to use the word) of a coherent outlook in the tea party movement as a whole. With all the necessary caveats about how not everyone who shows up to a 912 rally has exactly the same worldview, there are certain threads that do make it possible to place the movement in an ideological and political context - namely right-wing populism.

Consider this preview of the Congressional testimony of Neil Barofsky, the special investigator for TARP. In addition to noting that the government is unlikely to recoup nearly all of the money its transferred to the banks a year ago, Barofsky cites a fundamental lack of transparency in the TARP program:

"While Treasury has taken some steps in the right direction on this front, its continued refusal to accept SIGTARP's basic transparency recommendations on such issues as how TARP recipients are using TARP funds and the disclosure of trading of toxic assets of banks in the PPIP means that TARP largely remains a program in which taxpayers are not being told what most of the TARP recipients are doing with their money and will not be told the full details of how their money is being invested"...

With virtually no public discussion last Fall, the government gave hundreds of billions of dollars to the banking industry without so much as a stipulation that the beneficiaries of this largesse be compelled to account for how they spend this money (and there's long been evidence that they have not been using the money for its intended purpose). That's about as clear an example of an actual government-big business conspiracy and abuse of prerogative and privilege, in short of elitism, that one could find.

And yet, the tea party protests, which began as frothing anger at a program a fraction the size of TARP intended to help distressed homeowners, appear to have uttered nary a peep about TARP. Instead, the movement and its rabble-rouser in chief Beck have moved from one frivolous outrage to another - whether ACORN, or Van Jones, or the claim that the now months-long process of debate about health care reform is going "too fast" while tens of millions of Americans continue to languish without insurance, to inane assertions about socialism, communism and so on. Yes, Beck occasionally scribbles feverishly on a white board about Goldman Sachs and corporations and, as Greenwald and others rightly note, it's impossible to know what he'll rant about from one day to the next. (though even his current hand-wringing about bank bailouts is dubious - he strongly supported TARP last Fall).

But whatever one wants to label it, the pattern remains straight out of the playbook of modern conservatism - massive government efforts to help the powerful and connected fly mainly below the radar screen in right-wing circles. By contrast, government policies deployed to help those toward the bottom of society are met with scorn, vituperation and an insistence that our country is in irreversible decline, necessitating a grass-roots movement to try to stop it. There are those associated with the tea party movement who talk about a "fusion" of government and corporate interests, but there is no serious effort to analyze how it is that such fusion itself represents a failure of government regulation, oversight and meaningful democratic accountability. It's not concrete economic interests, successfully manipulating the political process for their own ends. It's much darker than that - a bizarre, crypto-communist or socialist conspiracy to despoil and de-flower our virgin land.

And it's almost invariably the case that such an outlook feeds off and, indeed, often becomes inextricably bound up with antipathy toward the preferred outgroup du jour - whether illegal immigrants, Blacks or (less so these days) Jews, etc (as Alexander Zaitchik notes in one of his profile pieces of Beck, Beck's key inspiration married precisely these strands of thinking - racism, xenophobia, conspiratorial anti-communism and, later on, an overlay of anti-corporate sentiment).

There has certainly been partisan-inspired astro-turfing going on from the likes of Freedom Works in coordinating some of these protests. And FOX news, better known as GOP state television, has expressly fomented much of this outrage, through Beck and others. But that fact is only one reason why such public expressions of anger are only possible under a Democratic presidency. It's not merely the undeniably partisan nature of these events (yes, some are angry at the GOP, but that's largely because the GOP is not aggressive enough in fighting back against the liberal-imposed denigration of our world). It's also that much of this animus does spring from a conspiratorial antipathy toward outgroups. Oh, they're fine if they know their place and don't ask for any handouts. This is why skin color, especially these days, is too simplistic a criterion even for understanding the significance of 'race' in our politics.

But a key premise of such an outlook is that any appeal to social solidarity not rooted in more atavistic identifications sounds suspiciously like socialism. And it's why so many tea party types spit contempt at health care reform. Anti-reform demonstrators demanding that government keep its hands off their Medicare express a clear underlying sentiment - What I have, I've earned. What the government proposes to give to the undeserving other is socialism. And for many, socialism means the worst kind of injustice - reverse discrimination. This is what underlies Limbaugh's repeated warnings about the specter of reparations.

So, no, the two-party system cannot express the full range of ideological dispositions on display at tea party protests or anywhere else in America.

But lurking on the edges of the two-party system (and increasingly finding expression within that system itself), are two types of populism, left-wing and right-wing, the latter of which has emerged in the tea party movement.

At the Iowa caucuses in January, 2008, I profiled the variants of populism on display in the surprising successes there of Mike Huckabee and John Edwards (remember him?)

At the time, I noted that populism was, in some ways, the purist form of us vs. them politics and wrote:

And, those politics--to which I confess considerable sympathy (the Edwards variant, at least)--carry with them a danger. There is a fine line between evoking faraway institutions responsible for people's increasingly desperate plight and conjuring images that engage the darker reaches of our imaginations. This populist moment is likely confined to rhetoric and will ultimately be politically inert--even an Edwards presidency would, I have no doubt, be bounded by institutions and interests that would thwart most of his more ambitious plans, and any Republican nominee, including Huckabee, will be a wholly owned subsidiary of major corporate interests. But the rhetorical appeal, in different forms but on both sides of the aisle, is perhaps the most interesting story at the start of this unusually wide-open political season, seemingly reflecting the growing sense among a significant group of Americans that the final American frontier--the American dream itself--seems to be closing, and there ought to be hell to pay for it.

I was wrong about these appeals being politically inert, at least the variant articulated by Huckabee. The left-wing strand, proffered by Edwards, has been muted for a variety of reasons. That variant is rooted in the belief that powerful material interests fight, at all costs, to protect their prerogatives against the little guy, with the little guy understood as anyone who is victimized by a particular set of economic and political arrangements tilted toward the wealthy.

But the other type, right-wing populism, has been unleashed in 2009. It's also predicated on defense of the little guy, but with the important caveat that the category of "little guy" is not universal. The category, in this version of populism, only properly applies to those who are not implicated in a larger conspiracy both to perpetuate the prerogatives of elites and to let in on the party the undeserving who, in the topsy-turvy world right-wing populists decry, have actually been afforded more consideration than the righteous themselves.

So make no mistake - replace Obama with McCain and there is no tea party movement. (As an aside, the same forces, more or less, would have emerged had Hillary been President. This is not a repudiation of the importance of race or difference in understanding the current climate. It's a recognition that race and, more broadly, difference are more than skin deep. And, yes, I know what Beck said about Obama being preferable to McCain. I don't take that seriously at all. It's an easy way for him to cover his ass against certain more incendiary charges. And there is no chance he would have been fomenting an uprising were McCain President - certainly not one directed at McCain). But the predicate importance of a Democratic presidency for the advent of the tea party movement is not only for the strictly partisan reasons noted above. It's also because, as Limbaugh complains, Obamaism represents reparations. And the protesters firmly believe that only one kind of victimhood - theirs - merits legitimate redress.

What lurks in the collective imagination of the tea party protests is a nostalgic version of the American dream. And for many in the movement, that dream is protected by a highly restrictive covenant. A government that insists on breaking down and over-riding such a covenant is the enemy of what is good and decent. That would be, more or less, any Democratic administration in contemporary America. A government that, by contrast, engages in "benign neglect" is at least tolerable.

If the slogan of left-wing populism might be "what about us?" the slogan of right-wing populism is "what about me and my kind?" The latter type - that currently on display - can only find popular and institutional expression in one party in our current system. And because that party has an increasingly authoritarian base that is highly sensitive to "difference" in the sense I mean here, and a leadership increasingly attentive to that base, the tea party movement is an ally, however uneasy, even if there is antipathy toward the GOP in certain corners of the movement (though mainly for the reasons I noted above, that the GOP is not determined enough in enforcing the restrictive covenant).

Only under a Democratic president (that he is inter-racial surely adds fuel to the fire, though again, it's far from the whole story) does the prospect exist for the final breaching of the walls of that edenic community for which the protesters yearn and which their guns help protect. That world has been under attack for along time, in any event. But a re-distribution-minded Black President, insisting on helping those at the bottom, only means one thing - to the barricades.

This is why, however much a mash-up of ideas and perspectives the movement comprises, it expresses well (though not exclusively) one of the key dynamics of our current political divide - the growing authoritarianism of the Republican Party and its base and that this is an important ingredient of right-wing populism. I should note that none of this precludes legitimate and profound criticism of the current President and his party on populist grounds. Obama and the Democrats certainly can be said to be guilty of making intolerable concessions to wealthy interests in all sorts of ways - whether it's their deal with Big Pharma, the likely insurer-friendly nature of the final health reform bill, or their lackluster (at best) approach to meaningful financial reform and banking oversight, not to mention their acceptance of many of the most disturbing aspects of the Bush/Cheney-inspired surveillance state. But none of those concrete, demonstrable concessions to the fusion of government and corporate power that reflect some of the continuities between Bush and Obama are at the heart of the deeply felt, truly angry remonstrations that we've seen.

And the reason for that is that the movement's anti-government (and anti-corporate) rhetoric is mainly just a weigh-station to a more deep-seated set of antipathies.

Jonathan Weiler's second book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in Contemporary American Politics, co-authored with Marc Hetherington, is just out from Cambridge University Press. He blogs daily about politics and sports at www.jonathanweiler.com