Analyzing the Tea Party

A new study by professors David Campbell and Robert Putnam tracking the origins of the so-called Tea Party movement in America made a bit of a splash recently, after highlights of their findings were published in the New York Times.  Yes, imagine our complete and utter shock to discover that, contrary to their disingenuous mythology of being a spontaneous grassroots uprising, it was discovered that most Teabaggers were (and are) in fact predominantly long-time Republican activists and extreme right-wing social conservatives; or, as Jon Stewart neatly put it: “The moral majority in a tri-cornered hat.”

That characterization is perhaps a vast oversimplification of the movement, but one that may not be entirely unjustified according to the research looking into the subject. To more fully understand the dynamic involved, the following panel discussions from UC Berkeley conducted just prior to the 2010 elections cast a more in-depth range of insight concerning the origins and motivations of the Tea Party movement.

Obviously, the Tea Party movement cannot be labelled in a wholly straightforward manner owing to its disparate organizational structure (i.e., many different factions driven by various motivations) and the inchoate nature of its grievances, but what seems clear from these discussions is the recurring notion that whatever vaguely libertarian and fiscally conservative elements (e.g., people legitimately outraged at the bank bailouts and corrupt Wall Street shenanigans) that existed within the movement at its inception and powered much of its furious populist outrage at the outset, have since been overwhelmed by forces of the religious right to the point where the Tea Party has now been transformed into another vehicle for the advancement of a fundamentalist Christian cultural agenda.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Analyzing the Tea Party

  1. Thomas Jefferson

    Welcome back Asshole!

  2. Disgracing the good name of Thomas Jefferson… That’s rather low.

  3. Peter

    I didn’t have time to watch the whole thing, but I watched parts. It was sort of quaint in a way to see all these erudite progressive intellectuals calmly doing an academic deconstruct (at Berkeley of all places) of the Tea Party, complete with charts, PowerPoint, etc. It felt a bit like watching a group of anthropologists discuss the socio-cultural foundations of a cannibal tribe just before they are all boiled for dinner.

    There is going to be no shortage of nutty things said by nutty people over the next year, but, Red, I do hope we can get past endless posts on how stupid or racist or scary they are. After all, we’re being treated to a once-in-a-lifetime front row seat to an explosion of American populism. It’s happened before quite a few times leaving legacies now seen as spanning the spectrum from heroic to tragic. The rhetoric is usually jarring and intimidating to Canadian ears, but is it possible we overestimate the seriousness with which it is heard by American ones?

    At this point, I’m not sure about this theory that it is being taken over ny religious fundamentalism. That strikes me more as something Democratic intellectuals want everyone to believe, rather than something that is really happening. There is ceratinly lots of sympathy and support for Tea Party candiates in the conservative media and in the blogosphere from people who have little time for religion or social conservatism. No American can be elected President without some God-bothering rhetoric, but it doesn’t mean he/she takes it seriously. Just recently, Perry boasted about how in Texas they teach both evolution and creationism in the schools. He was cheered, but it turns out they don’t. Texas apparently has a very standard science curriculum
    .
    Anyway, good to see you back, and I hope you will continue to try and unveil the true nature of Yankee radicalism to worried and perplexed Canadians.

  4. Peter: Thanks. Actually, I was trying with this post to get past the knee-jerk reaction of simply denouncing the Tea Partiers as nothing but ignorant rubes, etc.

    Yeah, this discussion was, as you suggested, more than a little reminiscent of some anthropological seminar. And at UC Berkley, no less! I knew someone would take a jab based on that alone.

    I would like to think that the Tea Party hasn’t been completely co-opted by the religious right, but looking at the agenda advanced by these folks in Congress where their immediate priority was attacking Planned Parenthood, passing a number of bills concerning abortion, or getting exercised about pulling the plug on NPR, etc. one has to wonder…

    Personally, I wish they would turn their attention to addressing the malfeasance on Wall Street and examining the numerous ways in which corporate America essentially gets a “free lunch” at the expense of taxpayers or how the military industrial complex and healthcare industry are voraciously feasting at the government trough, rather than — as they seem more inclined to do — defunding regulatory agencies and plotting ways to eviscerate the social safety net.

  5. Peter

    Well, we’ll have to see how much of the religious rhetoric is for real and how much just offends progressive sensibilities. I still predict it will be more of the latter, but I’m not betting real money.

    Two points: I agree the question of Wall Street and financial malfeasance is the hot button issue, but both sides are being very simplistic. To a leftist, the huge breaches of trust and financial madness are a reason for more government regulation, but to the libertarian/Tea Party folks, they were caused by it. To most Canadians with our stodgy regulated banks and Calvinist bank managers, the idea of letting the free market rip in the banking industry is reckless and frightening, but the Tea Party types aren’t crazy. The collapse of the subprime mortgage market was driven largely by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, who together had about half the national portfolio. Warren Buffett wrote a piece I can’t find anymore showing that these two were the most heavily regulated financial institutions in America–there was a bureaucracy of hundreds specifically mandated to watch over them, and it completely missed their demise. Despite all the regulation, Dem politicians like Frank fought successfully to compel them to make huge unsustainable loans in the name of providing housing to the poor (and who could be opposed to that?). It reminds be a bit of our own National Energy Programme that is still remembered fondly on the left as an exercise in national pride and oil self-sufficiency (and who could be opposed to that?), when in fact it was built on economic incoherence and a know-nothingism about how the oil industry and oil market work that ultimately brought us into IMF territory. Regulation can be a comforting salve when we’re faced with cowboy capitalism, but too often it’s a euphemism for government management and direction that is driven by politics, not economic sanity.

    The second issue is race. We’re going to hear an awful lot about Tea Party racism in the coming year. In your first video, that black prof from Washington seemed (I didn’t watch the whole thing) to be making the argument that the Tea Party had a higher incidence of racism, and he was using charts and polls to prove it, this being a Berkeley seminar. One of the questions was something along the lines of “Do you believe blacks could achieve the same success as whites if they just applied themselves?”, and Tea Partiers scored very high, thus proving his thesis. It struck me that, as recently as the civil rights era, that was a liberal and progressive view–old style racists thought blacks were intellectually or cognitively inferior. Yet today, that perspective is seen by the left as having a racist animus–to them, the need for government intervention to level the playing field is obvious. I’d be the last person to think there is a magic easy solution to that perennial stain on the Republic, but I was wondering who exactly the folks who answered that question had in mind. Was it the black population writ large (including a quite large and successful middle class) or were they thinking of the crime, corruption and welfare cesspools of dysfunctional inner cities? At least some of the Tea party rage and intransigence stems from the complete refusal of progressives and the Dems to admit any failures in social policy (other than underfunding), and also the iron grip urban ward politics now has on all the government bounty. The Tea Partiers may not have any particularly coherent, practical solutions beyond “cut goverment”, but to simply dismiss their impulses as racist is a good reason why liberal elies are now fighting defensive actions and telling themselves repeatedly at Berkeley seminars how wise and enlightened they all are and how stupid and racist the GOP is.

    Anyway, it’s going to be quite a year. I confess that, despite my respect for Tea Party dissension and resolve, those GOP candidates can sure scare a poor little Canadian country boy.

  6. The collapse of the subprime mortgage market was driven largely by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, who together had about half the national portfolio

    Peter this simply isn’t true. You suggest that nobody is willing to have a serious discussion about the 2008 crash and then offer a point that is profoundly unserious.
    http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2011/07/why-wallison-is-wrong-about-the-genesis-of-the-u-s-housing-crisis/
    Even if you could lay the blame for the housing bubble at the feet of US affordable housing policy, which can’t be done, you’re only addressing the housing bubble. That bubble is not what got us here. Bubbles have burst before, they generally don’t shake the entire global financial system. That bubble is not why Icelandic, Irish, English, and German banks got pulverised. I don’t know whether Tea Partiers are crazy, but they are ignorant about what caused the financial crisis if Fannie/Freddie/government regulation is the focus of their anger.

    We really need to stop treating 2008 like some great mystery. The facts have been laid bare. We know the crisis was caused by a mix of ignorance and greed on Wall Street yet people keep on trying to take another whack at the Fannie and Freddie pinata.

  7. Peter

    Shiner, I’m neither an economist nor a financial analyst, but it seems to me very unhelpful to say it was caused by Wall St. greed. What would you say to someone who suggested a boom was because of Wall St. generosity? When has Wall St. ever not been greedy? Here’s Buffet on Freddie Mac. Doesn’t sound to me like a minor player to me. But there is no doubt there were a lot of causes and i’m just saying govenment encouragement of the gravy train was one. I certainly never claimed the Tea Party was nuanced, but then, it appears neither are you.

  8. I’m pretty sure you know that by “greed” I wasn’t talking about above-board profit seeking behaviour Peter. We’re looking at buck-passing, unethical (and illegal) sales, and a faith in new-fangled risk rating math that drove it all. That link doesn’t say anything about the subprime mortgages that I can see. You seem to have taken “half of the US mortgage market” and transformed it into “half the national [subprime] portfolio” in an effort to make Tea Partiers seem more reasonable. That’s not a difference of definitions that you can just shrug off. You may not be an economist or financial analyst, neither am I, but that’s not an excuse for getting basic facts wrong if you’re going to talk about it.

  9. Peter

    Actually, Shiner, it wasn’t an effort to make Tea Partiers seem more reasonable. It was a good old-fashioned mistake. OK, let’s go with banks holding half the mortgage market going belly up because government guarantees eventually led them to lose all sanity and caution and to behave wildly. Are you suggesting that was insignifcant?

    (Red, after a few lines, the comment box goes all wonky and I can’t continue. Is someone trying to enfore Twitter restrictions on me? 🙂 )

  10. Are you suggesting that was insignifcant?

    Sorry to let you down, but yes, I am. Mortgage backed securities were created with the assumption that they were almost entirely risk-free. The bankers never planned on losing money, every on-the-ground account makes that pretty clear. Through it all, that thought they’d found the magic beans and they were backed up by mathematical geniuses. Again, like with the whole Freddie and Fannie business, I don’t understand how the morale hazzard tale holds up. This is a good read:
    http://www.wired.com/print/techbiz/it/magazine/17-03/wp_quant

  11. Peter

    That was a good article, but doesn’t it point more to ignorance being the driving factor than perfidy? Anyway, as a layman, I find my problem understanding this mess is too many persuasive analyses saying different things.

    I’m not a libertarian and I don’t believe I’m either naive or forgiving about the malfeasance. But the U.S. already has a huge legal and administrative regulatory framework for the banking, securities and accounting professions that was built in response to previous market crises. Where were they and what role did they play? How did they miss all that greedy, fraudulent behaviour we now look back and say was obviously dangerous and crazy, if not criminal? Were they negligent to a man and woman or did their political masters cover their ears to keep the party going? That was Buffet’s point about Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. I’m not able to go much further on this, but I’m sceptical about how the progressive/left side just routinely and rotely throws up the spectre of dishonest, greedy bankers requiring more oversight from disinterested, benign public officials.

  12. Well, it’s partly cultural. Germany, for instance, doesn’t have a hard time attracting top-notch public servants in finance. You could say the same about the Canada to a certain degree. In the US the regulators get the dregs and they’re overcome by the best and brightest from MIT and Chicago. It’s obviously money too, if you’re any good you’ll opt for the private route, nobody is going to pay a civil servant >$200,000.

    Then again, there’s more than enough evidence to suggest that regulators were stopped in their tracks by the American government, something which doesn’t do much for any democrat’s case, but certainly can’t be laid at the feet of public servants. As for Freddie and Fannie, I’d even argue that the degree to which they were privatised was ultimately the reason they went for riskier mortgages.

    You’re right in saying its complex, but we can go too far down that road to the point that we just throw up our arms and go “everybody was at fault!” That’s not true. Lots of people did lots of stupid things, but there were very specific actions taken by very specific people to bring the global economy to its knees.

  13. Peter

    In which case, I’d be inclined more to go for widespread criminal prosecutions than further layers of regulation enforced by second rate dregs whose political bosses don’t pay any attention to them.

    I don’t disagree that it is partly cultural, but then, that just begs the question of what they should do.

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