Monday, June 30, 2014

Trying to Understand Tea Party Thinking

U.S. Senator Thad Cochran’s win in last week’s Republican runoff election against Tea Party favorite Chris McDaniel in Mississippi was anything but expected, and was credited in large part to the grudging support of African-American voters--voters who seem to have won no favors through their actions. In the wake of that balloting, Salon’s Elias Isquith called University of Washington associate professor Christopher Parker, the author of Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America (Princeton University Press), “to discuss his research, his recent Brookings Institution paper on the Tea Party, and why he doesn’t think the kind of bickering and dysfunction we saw in Mississippi as of late is likely to go away any time soon.”

You can read their full exchange here.

I was particularly interested, though, in the section where Isquith and Parker talked about divergences between what the American public thinks about the right-wing Tea Party faction--a short-sighted bloc that’s already undermining the Republican brand--and how the movement’s members look at themselves. We begin here with an Isquith question:
What are some other popular conceptions about the Tea Party that you think are mistaken?

The bottom line is that a lot of people assume that the Tea Party people are just crazy … but that’s not the case. I mean, that’s really not the case, and I want to dismiss that misconception as soon as I can … Another misconception [is] that the Tea Party is really just a bunch of racist people and that their movement is about racism--and it’s really not … It’s bigger than racism. People who tend to support the Tea Party, they tend to be sexist, they tend to be homophobic, they tend to be xenophobic; so it’s not just about race. It’s about difference. It’s about anything that violates their phenotypical norm of what it’s supposed to mean to be an American: white, mainly male, middle-class, middle-aged or older, heterosexual, and native born. Anything that falls beyond that description is considered not to be a true American and therefore … these groups are encroaching on what they see as the “real” America, the America that they’ve come to know and love through their lifetime.

Would you include Christian among those things a Tea Partyer is likely to think an American is supposed to be?

Christian, writ large, yeah. I would definitely say that.

To that point, though, what would you say to Tea Party folks who would point to the popularity of women like Sarah Palin--or people of color like Ben Carson--as proof that charges of bigotry are unfounded?

They would say people like Ben Carson and Herman Cain [are] these sort of “silver-minded Negroes.” They’re the exceptions. Now if we want to talk about looking at black folks as a whole, no--they’re racist. There are some exceptional people that agree with their views whom they like and whom they want to hold out there to blunt any claims that they’re racist; they’re going to pick a couple token people. But that doesn’t absolve them of racism.

OK. So what was your other point about Tea Party misconceptions?

My other point was that [Tea Partyers are] not crazy. People want to say that they’re crazy, and they’re really not. They want to maintain their social position, their social prestige; and as Frederick Douglass once said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” So it’s rational to want to hold onto your position; it’s completely rational. It’s about the means through which [Tea Partyers] do that--that’s what the problem is.

One could say, “Maybe they need to be more educated!” But that’s another fallacy as it pertains to the Tea Party: People think they’re dumb. They’re not dumb. Twenty-six percent of all strong Tea Party identifiers have at least a bachelor’s degree. People think they’re poor, or that they’re working-class. No, they’re not. Twenty percent of all Tea Party households have at least a $100,000 of income. So they’re not dumb, and they’re not working-class or poor--and this has been the case with Birchers, this was the case with the 1920s Ku Klux Klan, this was the case with the Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s. Same demographic group, every time.

Another problem is just the double-talk that they use. They claim they’re about small government; they’re really not. They claim that they don’t like Barack Obama cause he’s a progressive; have they really looked at his legislative record? He governs as a centrist, regardless of what they believe his beliefs to be. On that, if you look at what happened on George Bush’s watch--I mean, let’s be for real: the deficit on George Bush’s … expanded 104 percent … If you look at [Bill] Clinton’s tenure, it only expanded about 14 percent. If you look at the national debt, how much that expanded on George Bush’s watch; if you look at the extent to which discretionary spending in George Bush’s first term expanded--I think it expanded by like 48-49 percent. I mean, come on! We didn’t see any Tea Partyers out there at the time. We saw nothing when George Bush was doing all this stuff. George W. Bush got TARP passed. We saw nothing. Now we get Obama in, and now the world is going to shit …
READ MORE:The Right’s Absurd World Culp Paranoia Explained,” by Andrew Leonard (Salon).

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