THE BLOG

Tea Party America

09/14/2011 02:21 pm ET | Updated Nov 14, 2011
  • Paul Stoller Professor of Anthropology, West Chester University; Author, Yaya's Story: The Quest for Well-Being in the World

By now there has been much discussion about the crowd reaction at the two most recent Republican presidential candidate debates. In the GOP debate at the Reagan Presidential Library, the crowd enthusiastically applauded the fact that Rick Perry has overseen 234 executions during his tenure as governor of Texas. To the crowd's delight, Governor Perry proudly defended his record of capital punishment. At the Tea Party sponsored debate held last Monday in Tampa, Florida, the crowd cheered at the prospect of letting an uninsured man die rather than having the "government" pay for his palliative care.

This insensitive display of sadistic anger at an important GOP political forum is deeply disturbing. Have these folks lost their sense of compassion? What drives such anger? How have such radically disruptive views found their way into the mainstream of the political party of Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan? Many contemporary Tea Party Republicans would scorn their dangerous liberal policies.

The Tea Party-Republican line is against big government. They say that government, which for them means the federal government, has never created jobs. They say that government can never do anything well. They want to undercut the services the government provides. And yet, even as they deride the federal government and its programs, many Tea Party supporters are happy to receive monthly stipends from the Social Security Administration, a very successful and well-funded federal government program. Even as they castigate President Obama's Affordable Care Act, many of them like the coverage they get through Medicare, the kind of single-payer federal government health care program that many Tea Party supporters duplicitously call "socialized medicine."

Are the sadistic reactions and the muddled thinking examples of collective lunacy? What is going on under the GOP Tea Party revivalist tent?

Here's my anthropological take.

In Tea Party America, you are on your own. In Tea Party America, you have to take personal responsibility, which means you pay most of your increasingly expensive medical costs, you put out your own fires, you inspect your own meat and you rebuild your own house after a natural disaster. If for some reason you have lost your job and medical insurance, like 49.9 million of our fellow citizens, that's too bad. You'll just have to forgo going to the doctor or put off essential medical screenings. If for some reason, a fire engulfs your house, don't expect firemen to come to save your home. In Tea Party America, their funds have been cut and their equipment is not in good working order. If you get sick from eating spoiled food, that's too bad. In Tea Party America, you should shop at a store that has the funds to hire someone to inspect the food it sells. If a flood, tornado or hurricane destroys your house, don't expect a government bailout because the funds for disaster relief have disappeared in Tea Party America.

In Tea Party America the rich are strong. They work hard, earn good salaries and live relatively healthy lives. In Tea Party America the poor are weak. They are lazy, unemployed and uninsured. In Tea Party America, the poor can no longer expect government "handouts" -- unemployment insurance, Medicaid, food stamps and welfare. These are denied. In Tea Party America, the poor get what they deserve: to live hungry in squalid conditions and die a premature death.

These kinds of beliefs, which underscore much of the Tea Party worldview, come straight out of 19th century Social Darwinism, in which the strong -- or the fit, to use terminology of Social Darwinism -- adapt successfully to adverse conditions. Following this logic, the weak don't have the wherewithal to adapt. In time their weakness makes them more and more socially marginal. As conditions change and people are increasingly left to their own devices, the weak become invisibly inconsequential. They fade away or die prematurely. They are no longer a drag on society. Let that terminally ill uninsured man die. Why should I pay for his care?

The explanatory rationale for 19th century Social Darwinism, of course, was so-called "scientific" racism -- the belief that whites were genetically superior to browns, yellows and blacks. Scholars of that era used this unsubstantiated idea to explain the technological and social superiority of 19th and early 20th century Europe. At the turn of the 20th century, scientific racism resonated strongly and clearly in a racially segregated America that was confronting unparalleled immigration from Asia and Southern and Eastern Europe. The prevailing theory of the time was that the mix of immigrants into American society would threaten the genetic purity of nation.

In Tea Party America, the racist and anti-science ideological principles of Social Darwinism are being reaffirmed. Consider the widespread and disdainful display of Tea Party-Republican disrespect for President Obama. In Tea Party America, a black man as president is intolerably "unfit." Consider Rick Perry's derisive dismissal of science and scientists. In Tea Party America, fundamentalism eclipses science, ignorance subverts knowledge, and intolerance replaces open-mindedness as we revert back to a cruel and unforgiving time in our history. In Tea Party America, the poor, the sick, and the disabled are all unfit.

Considering the disturbing crowd reaction during the latest GOP presidential candidate debates, Tea Party America is a scary scenario -- almost as scary as the prospect of a President Rick Perry.