Blogger Hillbilly Progressive has hit it on the head about the Tea Party Movement. The energy of this movement springs from the deep sense of powerlessness felt by so many people in this country. Their anger and rage, their often delirious, racist and excessive attacks on Obama, as well as their conflicted and contradictory opposition to government and policies like health care reform speaks to the profound impotence felt by these people. Just take a look at these examples of the racist attacks and posturing that accompanies most Tea Party events.
The recent polls of the Tea Party Movement lend further support to the idea that these people feel impotent. Those polls suggest that Tea Partiers are generally white males, better educated and of higher income than the population at large. The last time I looked these were exactly the people who have historically enjoyed more privilege and power in this country than other groups. So why are they so angry now? One, it is because they are losing some of that privilege and power – like everyone else. The U.S. remains for now the only economic and military superpower in this world. It is only a matter of time, perhaps ten years, however, before China and possibly Russia rises to superpower status. The anger about Obama’s diplomatic and courteous approach to other powers speaks to this looming sense of U.S. international decline. They look back fondly on the Bush administration’s cowboy, bullying, go it alone approach to international affairs even though it largely backfired. Bush at least showed anger and resistance to our decline, they must think.
Globalization has also transformed how our economy functions. Corporations have vastly expanding options for profit by employing skilled labor in other countries as well as by selling them consumer goods. Some U.S. newspapers have even begun to outsource news writing to professionals in India! Good jobs and incomes are, thus, no longer as secure as they once were nor likely to expand. This changes everything for older, white males and certainly changes the future for their offspring.
Second, the economic recession dumped whatever remaining hope these people may have had that they could continue to enjoy privilege and prosperity. Many Tea Party members are apparently unemployed as a result of the recession.
Third, Obama becomes an easy target for all of these disappointments since he is black, educated, highly talented, and trying to steer our economy and country onto a new economic development path. He is not only determined to launch us into the future, he is a representative of that future society. Where those efforts will leave us is not yet clear, except that we know that the past cannot and will not be the model for the future. Tea Party members may not be able to articulate this realization. But they can sense it. Hence, their resentment and anger. It is this concern about an, as yet, undefined future that explains their deep confusion and contradictory political positions. While they oppose the health care reform law, they want the individual features of federal and other government programs like Medicare.
Thus, we find that many Tea Party members defend some government programs because they see them as being “ingrained.” They opposed government because it is becoming socialist and yet want the government to create jobs. One study found that though while Tea Party members vehemently opposed the health care reform bill as socialist,
Fewer than 10 percent say the Veterans Administration is definitely socialist, 12 percent identify management of national parks and museums, and 36 percent say expanding Medicare for the elderly, Medicaid for the poor and Social Security amount to socialism.
Many more, 65 percent, say Social Security is either definitely or sort of socialism. Even so, almost half, 47 percent, want to keep it under government control or aren’t sure about privatization, with 53 percent in favor of privatizing Social Security and Medicare.
Fourth, a lot of this misplaced anger and resentment is being fanned into a roaring fire by opportunistic politicians and by distorted media, like “faux” News. Just take a look at this exchange between Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and Senator Coburn. This writer once called the John Gambling Show on WOR Radio in New York one day in late 2009 because Gambling kept saying that Obama was refusing to present a copy of his birth certificate. When I informed the screener that this was in fact false and that a copy could be viewed on an easily found web site, the screener refused to put me on, hung up on me, and refused to take my calls after that. Those lies and distortions make for good television and ratings. But they certainly also contribute to the fear and hate.
The contradictions in Tea Party opposition to the federal government is not only a reflection of their confusion or essential ambivalence. It is a reflection of their powerlessness. The resentment, fear, and opposition to government springs from a deeply felt recognition that they are very dependent on government to live and for their survival. They know now that they can no longer live in the personal delusion that they are not dependent. It is like waking up and finding that you cannot work, provide for your own shelter, pay for your food, or provide for your own health expenses without someone else’s assistance. The reality is that this has always been true, at least since the New Deal. But most of this dependence was hidden from view.
Home ownership has been subsidized by the tax code since the early part of the 20th Century. The Federal Housing Administration began insuring 30 year mortgages during the 1930s and that spurred home ownership. The growth and expansion of suburban living was made possible by the 1956 bill that built the interstate highway system. Food has been long subsidized by government tax credits to farmers. Higher education was made possible for so many now middle class people (most of them white) by the GI Bill and the creation and expansion of the state college and university systems. The list can go on and on. One study estimates that over $100 Billion was transfered by the federal government to whites and almost none to blacks in the 1930s and the 1940s alone. The point is that most white males enjoyed all of these government-provided benefits even as they carried the grand illusion that they lifted themselves from poverty by their own little bootstraps. That grand illusion is a lot harder to sustain today, especially for those accustomed to getting their government benefits through the tax code and by local governments.
White males are losing income, jobs, and homes. They are not becoming more dependent on government. The truth is that they always were. They are, however, becoming more and more aware that without government they don’t stand a chance of standing upright or staying in place. They are scared of this awareness, scared of how much this reality will undermine the psychic myth they carry of self-made success, scared of a future that will be unlike the past, scared of a future in which white males will no longer automatically rule, scared of a future in which the U.S. will no longer be unchallenged at the top, and scared of the power they have and will lose. No wonder they are so anger, bitter, and racist.