Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Tea Party: Puppet or Windup Toy?


Glenn Reynolds informs us that he told us so: the Tea Party is the result of an Army of Davids self-organizing, routing around traditional power centers,"tak[ing] on big institutions who would rather not listen to them, and win[ning]". Jonathan Rauch at the National Journal marvels at the Tea Party's ability to organize without central leadership.

Meanwhile, in her New Yorker piece "Covert Operations," Jane Mayer points out that various Tea Party organizations are well funded by anonymous contributions from wealthy and powerful industrialists, while Frank Rich of the New York Times, in his "Billionaires Bankrolling the Tea Party," points out the role of Freedom Works, and the many rich and powerful interests that are using the different strands of the Tea Party for their own ends, while Paul Krugman chimes in with a similar assessment.

It's important to note that both of these stories could be true. The Tea Party could be a genuine populist movement with many different leaders and multiple opportunities for grass roots participation, and it could also be heavily funded by corporate sponsors and wealthy individuals who hope to channel popular anger in difficult economic times and mistrust of Barack Obama into electoral successes for conservative politicians and policies that benefit corporations and the rich.

What is truly unique about the Tea Party is neither its 21st century populism nor its wealthy benefactors but the relationship of its grass roots resentment to (hidden) corporate support. Throughout most of American history, populist movements, especially in difficult economic times, have directed their anger against the rich, the privileged, and corporations. This is certainly true of the Jacksonian Democrats who swept Old Hickory into office and of the Populist Party of the 1890s.

That populist anger at privilege and powerful institutions by itself does not prevent corporations and wealthy individuals from bankrolling populist outbreaks and stoking populist resentment. The latter shouldn't really care whether people mistrust them as long as the same people end up voting their way. But until the middle of the 20th century, populist movements were generally unlikely to vote or seek reforms that would benefit corporations and powerful business interests. (They might vote to benefit the interests of rich landowners in the South, however)

What changed during the 1960s and afterwards was the creation of a New Right, and the joinder of social conservatives, business conservatives, anti-welfare state conservatives, anti-regulatory conservatives, anti-tax conservatives and foreign policy conservatives. That alliance made it possible for the rich and for corporations to bankroll a wide range of conservative causes, in the belief that a rising tide (of anger) would lift all conservative boats. Corporate interests could ally themselves with the Republicans' form of populism as long as social conservatives would keep voting for candidates who would favor business interests and seek to lower taxes on the wealthy and corporations.

This basic feature of modern American conservatism has not really changed with the emergence of the Tea Party, even though the Tea Party presents itself as a new form of political organization, alienated in part from the mainstream of the Republican Party. The Tea Party, however differently it may be organized, is just the latest incarnation of the most conservative elements of the late 20th century conservative coalition, this time featuring a special emphasis on opposition to the size of government and government taxation. That emphasis makes the Tea Party a natural object of corporate support, albeit mostly hidden corporate support, because many in the Tea Party also are not that fond of the Wall Street bailout either.

Sandy Levinson has noted a distinction attributed to Barney Frank: the difference between a puppet and a windup toy. A puppet is someone you control behind the scenes because you move it by pulling its strings (or in the case of a sock puppet, you move your fingers). A windup toy is something you wind up so it is full of energy, and then let loose. It runs around the floor and you have no idea where it will go. It may crash into the wall or fall off the table.

It remains to be seen whether the Tea Party is merely a puppet of wealth and corporate privilege or actually a windup toy.

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