Economic crisis and the Tea Party
by Arun Gupta,
speech delivered at the Red Emma’s Bookstore,
15 April 2011
available from Alternative Radio
Arun Gupta, journalist and activist, was founding editor of The Indypendent newspaper in New York. He’s a regular contributor to Alternet and Z. He also appears on Democracy Now, GRIT TV, and Al Jazeera.
What I want to do is to kind of historicize the Tea Party. They cannot just be understood as a recent phenomenon. One of the things that I’ve learned, both in terms of studying the right and interacting with people who consider themselves Tea Party activists, is the right generally hates history. They hate facts, they hate any sort of historical or social context. That’s why they constantly refer to the Constitution and the Bible as all sources of legitimacy. And, of course, for much of the right the Constitution is seen almost as a biblical or actually as a biblical document. There’s an extreme disdain often for history, and there is a tremendous amount of fabrication that exists on the right.
So even the process of trying to historicize the Tea Party is important for us to understand. And it’s important to understand that this is something that the right is not really interested in and it’s something that we need to figure out how to address. How do you deal with a force that fundamentally denies reality?
Any starting point is, of course, ultimately arbitrary. I choose a starting point of the economic and political crisis of the 1970s. That’s what gave birth to the doctrine known as neoliberalism that came to fruition by the end of the decade with Margaret Thatcher in England and Ronald Reagan in the U.S. Neoliberalism is, of course, a doctrine of privatization, privatizing government services; trade and capital liberalization, that we should liberalize capital’s ability to move about; deregulation, the doctrine of personal responsibility; and flexibility, especially in regard to labor.
So what happened in the 1970s? Just very quickly. Capital fled to low-wage regions around the world. The U.S. manufacturing work force peaked at around 39 million in 1979, just to put that in perspective. Today it’s maybe around 12 million, and, of course, the population is significantly larger. So this is a drop of somewhere around 70% to 75% in the manufacturing work force. It fled to low-wage regions that also had few regulations on labor, environment, and movement of profits. Domestically, private-sector unionism found itself under fierce assault so capital could increase the use of part-time, temporary, and free-lance workers. Union and environmental and safety regulations were also seen as limits on production, so those were smashed so labor flexibility could be increased. A lot of us, I imagine almost everyone in this room, has dealt with it at one point or another, where you find yourself in temporary work, part-time work, contract work. The idea is that you can be added or shed very quickly by capital.
One of the things that was remarkable about the depression —I don’t call it a recession— that began in 2008 was the massive rate at which capital just shed jobs. It was shedding jobs at over a half a million a month. And that doesn’t include all the people who were involuntarily unemployed. At this point, even though we hear the talk in the corporate media that we’re in recovery, the real unemployment rate, what’s known as the U6 rate—the Labor Department tracks this; you can find it on their Web site—it includes unemployed, those who have stopped looking for jobs but want to be employed, the underemployed—is about 16%. Except what the Labor Department doesn’t track, it doesn’t track people who have involuntarily taken retirements. In other words, people might have a small pension they could live on, some savings, who are hoping to bridge it to Social Security. And they don’t include in this rate youth, who have been unable to enter the work force. There is also a shadow economy. So we’re probably dealing with a real unemployment rate approaching 20%. If we go back to the Great Depression, it was 25% to 30%. This is persistent; this is called the new reality. So I think it’s fair to say this is not a recession or the term that The New York Times has popularized, “the Great Recession.” It really is a depression, especially on the order of the 19th century depressions.
Neoliberalism, of course, means new liberalism in terms of reference to the 19th century laissez-faire- capitalist doctrine. The reason we moved away from laissez-faire capitalism was you would have these devastating boom-and-bust cycles, where you would have the economy expand, overproduction, and then depression after depression after depression. There were these panics and huge depressions in the latter half of the 19th century. Capitalism actually wanted regulation, it wanted central banking, it wanted the government to intervene, because it was in its economic interest to stabilize the economy. Yet we are kind of moving back to this era. And the Tea Party does play a particularly critical role in terms of pushing a revival of 19th century laissez-faire economics.
Capital now has this ability to literally move around the world at the speed of light. Capital in a lot of ways has become decentered. You can’t even talk about a New York Stock Exchange anymore, for instance. It takes investigative reporters to find out where the New York Stock Exchange is located, because it’s now in computer- server farms that might be in Illinois, they might be in Virginia, they might be in Iowa. It’s even hard to find out where the trading is actually going on. There have also been all these shadow markets that have grown up over the last 20 years. So capitalism just kind of endlessly, ceaselessly circles the globe looking for profit.
There are three basic forms of capitalism: financial capitalism, industrial capitalism, and merchant capitalism. Even industrial capitalism has an ability to move from one region to another. Of course, it needs things like ports, roads, electricity, infrastructure. But given how capital has leveled much of the world in terms of wages, in terms of regulation, it can now move from region to region to region. For instance, NAFTA was sold to Mexico as this is going to bring employment. Yes, there was a certain amount of employment that was brought to the low-wage, unregulated maquiladoras in northern Mexico. But at the same time, Mexico has been consistently losing employment in the maquiladoras over the last few years because capital can go to Central America, it can go to the Caribbean, it can go to Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, China. It can just keep going around and around and around, because governments keep building these wage zones where they try to compete for various types of industrial capital and manufacturing capital to come in. So there is this process of where it can just keep moving around.
What this does, of course, is it pushes down wages and benefits, because it seeks comparative advantage wherever it can get it. It goes to one region, and then another government might try to entice it. We have even lower wages, we have even fewer benefits, we have less regulation on the environment, we’ll give you more tax breaks, we have a more modern infrastructure, and on and on and on. This creates what’s commonly called the race to the bottom. I think certainly in this country we’re especially seeing that. There has been a big debate over whether we are really in a race to the bottom, because wages have sustained themselves somewhat. But I think really in the last couple years we are seeing another step in terms of that race to the bottom, with lower wages, fewer benefits. The average household income is declining, average wages are declining, benefits are under severe attack.
One of the results of the financialization is a series of asset bubbles, one right after the other. The savings and loan crisis, the Internet bubble in the 1990s. What happened after the Internet bubble was the Federal Reserve cut interest rates to historic lows. And this fed the next bubble, which was the mortgage bubble. By cutting interest rates to historic lows, it encouraged a lot of refinancing, a lot of home building, and some home ownership. But especially, what it really encouraged, when interest rates were around 1%—they are even lower today—was it encouraged a lot of profiteering in debt-related securitization. So this is where you have the wizards of Wall Street starting to bundle credit-card debt, car-loan debt, student-loan debt, and most of all, mortgage debt, particularly commercial mortgages and residential mortgages. They take thousands of loans, they bundle them, and then they sell off parts of this to investors.
What this did is it created this enormous appetite for more and more and more debt. So we had the debt-driven economy. You also had the huge growth in derivatives during this era. This is stuff like swaps, where you’re taking a bet on whether a bond is going to fail or not. You have all sorts of derivatives: futures, options, a huge explosion in currency trading and commodity trading. But it’s really the mortgage-driven speculation that starts to drive the economy. By the height of the bubble, in 2005 and 2006, we’re hearing, “Oh, the economy is expanding, it’s growing. There is this huge wealth being made.” Almost 50% of new jobs were coming from the home- building industry and from mortgage securitization. So you had huge growth in terms of realtors, in terms of people who work these boiler-room operations and are calling you 20 times a week trying to get you to refinance your mortgage, the construction industry, of course, the appliances, places like Home Depot, etc. This is really where the growth is coming from.
One of the important aspects to remember about this is a lot of what Wall Street is doing is what’s called fictitious capital. In other words, they’re creating this capital that isn’t based on any actual production. But the thing is, though, when you look at it, it actually does have an effect on the productive sphere. And I’ll talk about this a little more later.
We’re now in two different bubbles right now. We’re well into a bubble in terms of commodities and precious metals. Over the last decade, gold has gone from about $250 an ounce to nearly $1500 an ounce. Gold is a meaningless asset in a lot of ways; there is no reason why it should be $1500 an ounce. But it could easily go to $5,000 an ounce, is what some people are speculating. The other bubble we’re in is a commodities bubble, especially agricultural commodities, oil, land, industrial metals. But this can’t absorb a lot of capital.
In terms of the crisis that we had in 2008-2009, what happens during a crisis, you wind up with surplus labor and surplus capital. And, of course, we see the surplus labor in this country in the 25 to 30 million unemployed and underemployed. But you also have a surplus capital problem, because the wealthy sit on an enormous amount of wealth. They usually have it in pretty safe assets. So right now what’s known as ultra-high-net-worth Americans, or high-net-worth Americans, these are Americans who have $1 million in investable assets. This is completely exclusive of their homes. These are people who have a huge amount of liquid assets. They’re sitting on $12 trillion of wealth. Whereas corporations are running record profits. The last quarter they were running an annual rate of corporate profits of $1.66 trillion a year. They’re sitting on enormous cash reserves.
So there is a problem. What do you do with all this money? You can’t just let it sit around or it will be destroyed. It will be destroyed by inflation or it will be devalued over time. You always have to look for some sort of place to be able to invest it. The commodities bubble is one. There is an absolutely enormous amount of money going into the emerging markets because there’s no place else to put it. So there are huge flows of capital going into China, into India, Brazil, Russia, various African nations. We can see how it’s reshaping the world. Even though you have a lot of fictitious wealth being created, it then has an effect on the real world in terms of actually shaping it. What’s going on in China is phenomenal in terms of human history—the urbanization, the fact that it’s literally been able to put up cities of 10 million, 20 million people in just a decade or two. At one point something like half the construction cranes in the world were in Shanghai. It’s really unprecedented in human history what is going on in China.
The problem is, though, with each asset bubble, you get a greater and greater crash. So the amount of wealth that was wiped out during the Internet bubble that popped in 2000 was about $10 trillion. The amount of wealth that was wiped out in the financial assets bubble, the mortgage bubble in 2008 was about $50 trillion. To put that in perspective, that’s the annual output of the entire global economy. So the thing is, if an emerging-market bubble eventually inflates and then is destroyed, there is absolutely no mechanism to deal with it on a global scale. So we are really setting ourselves up for the mother of all economic crises, whether that’s 5, 10, or 20 years down the road.
I was talking a little bit about surplus labor, the amount of unemployment. One thing to note is what’s known as the capacity utilization rate. That’s basically how much of factories and the manufacturing sphere is being used. Nearly three years after the crisis hit the bottom in late 2008, we are still below the capacity utilization rate of the 1990-to-1991 recession. What this means effectively is there is a large surplus capacity. This is a real problem for capitalism. If you already have a large surplus capacity, if you can already create all sorts of cars, all sorts of steel, all sorts of semiconductors, consumer electronic goods and nobody is buying them, then who wants to invest in new factories? Even though there’s all this talk from the right, Obama, the Democrats, we need new tax investments, we need new investment in business, when you already have this huge overcapacity, what’s the point? Businesses aren’t going to invest. They have no need to invest. A lot of this overcapacity has to be destroyed.
Historically, a lot of the way it gets destroyed is through warfare. That plays a critical role, of course, in the cycles of capitalism, the way the warfare state and actual large-scale military conflicts help to renew the capitalist system. We in this country keep relying on that. I think it would be interesting to actually do an investigation into how much of the manufacturing work force is directly employed in military industries. Or take the Bush wars. During the era of the Bush wars, there was often this slogan on the left, “We’re losing all this blood and treasure.” After a while I started to become really uncomfortable with that notion of losing treasure, because when you start to look at the supplemental appropriations, where the U.S. government was spending an extra $100 billion, $200 billion a year or more, if you were looking where it was actually going, it was actually going into all this production. It was going into factories in Ohio to make new Humvees, it was going to factories in Texas to make new Black Hawk helicopters, it was going to the huge defense industry in southern California to make missiles, to repair fighter planes. So in many ways this was an actual jobs program that was going on during the Bush administration. Of course, it’s the most destructive and inefficient jobs program imaginable. But the notion that these wars are just an entire waste, we shouldn’t view that as entirely true. They actually serve a productive role. They also, of course, serve a great ideological role because of the number of people who are employed either as soldiers or as mercenaries or as private contractors. You create this huge base of support across the country for continuing these wars because people’s livelihoods are directly related to it.
The whole point of the economic crisis in terms of how it was dealt with has been an attack on the public sector, on unions, on social welfare. When the bubble started to burst in 2008, the stance of the Federal Reserve, the government, the economic elite was, We just need to solve the problem. We need to keep the banking and commercial system whole. And, sure, there is a certain truth to that. If you see that the banking system is kind of the heart for capitalism, you have to keep it going. But, of course, when it came time to figure out who’s going to pay, again, we know how that story went.
But it’s, first of all, important to think about what just went on in the last decade. First the banks and the wealthy make these huge profits off basically an economy that’s a giant pyramid scheme. You constantly have more money coming in, and the profits keep flowing up. But eventually you run out of suckers. What happened was, by 2006- 2007 you ran out of people who were going to take mortgages because basically everyone who could take a mortgage had taken a mortgage. So it starts to collapse. The people on the bottom are left holding the bag. Over the last five or six years, we’ve actually seen the greatest destruction of African American wealth in American history. It’s been absolutely devastating what’s happened to the African American community. And it’s gotten very little attention. Huge parts of urban, middle-class neighborhoods across the country, especially on the East Coast and in the Midwest, have just been utterly clear-cut of African Americans because many were pressured, tricked, or enticed into taking these risky ARMs, the adjustable-rate mortgages, where you get this teaser rate and then it explodes after a year or two. And, of course, in the way that Wall Street works, this money flows upward.
The bubble burst. We, of course, first had to pay with the huge bailouts, of which TARP, Troubled Asset Relief Program, was just the smallest. It depends on how you count it. TARP, was passed by the Bush administration. And here’s a good example. Something like 35% or 40% of Republicans think that TARP was opposed by the Republican Party. There was a segment of the Republican Party that did oppose it, but this was the Bush administration that passed it. Of course, Obama was 100% behind it while McCain waffled. Nonetheless, it was the Republicans who passed it initially.
There are all sorts of various accounts of how much the government has directly and indirectly subsidized the financial sector. The person who has done the best work on this is a financial analyst named Nomi Prins. She used to be a managing director at Goldman Sachs. You can find her work in Mother Jones, where she details something like over 70 different programs put in place by the Federal Reserve, the FDIC, and the Treasury Department. I think, according to the last time I looked, it’s something like $23 trillion. A lot of that is just loan guarantees, it’s back- stopping credit. So direct subsidies, it’s a little harder to say, but it is in the trillions of dollars that directly went into Wall Street.
I don’t know if anybody saw the rather ridiculous—the story itself wasn’t ridiculous in The New York Times; it was a pretty good report—about how there have been zero cases brought against any of this financial fraud. Of course, this all depended on massive financial fraud. What Lehman Brothers did, what Bear Stearns did, what all these banks did, what was happening in the mortgage industry, huge financial fraud. And not one person has been brought to account yet. There were regulators apparently telling prosecutors, “Well, don’t go after them,” because they didn’t want to have the sight of banks paying fines with government money, is one reason that prosecutors were told not to go after the banking industry. But overall the whole approach of the government has been to let them go scot-free in terms of what happened.
The first thing was to make the public directly pay, which was to pay back shareholders and bondholders to make them whole. In one case, when AIG collapsed, they’re the ones who had backed a huge amount of swaps.
I’ll explain swaps real quickly, because it’s a good thing to understand. Say you’re General Motors and you’re floating corporate bonds all the time to back payroll, to back manufacturing, to build new factories. Say you issue a $10 million bond. GM decides, Well, we want to take insurance on this in case we end up defaulting on it. So they go to a company like AIG, they take insurance. Maybe they have to pay 1% or 2%, so they have to pay $100,000 or $200,000. And if they default, then AIG makes the bondholders whole. That’s the role it plays.
What started to happen during this just tremendous speculative boom that went on in the last decade, when people were taking swaps that the companies didn’t even know about, there started to be a huge market trading in the swaps, such that no one knew who held the insurance on these bonds until you started to actually start to have bets on the swaps: you started to have a derivative of a derivative. A derivative just means you’re deriving something from an underlying asset. Where you’re saying you’re betting on the future price of corn, that’s a derivative. The swaps are also derivatives. You’re making a bet on the underlying asset, the bond. But then you started to have second- and third-order derivatives, and you started to have these secretive and shadow markets.
So when AIG started to collapse, the Treasury Department came in. Normally what you would do in this case is you would have the companies “take a haircut.” That’s the jargon of the industry. In other words, that they should only get paid a dime on the dollar, 20 cents on the dollar, 30 cents on the dollar. Even in the markets that were pricing these swaps, though they varied, they were only something like 20 to 50 cents on the dollar, even sometimes less, depending on what the swap was. The Treasury Department decides to make them entirely whole; in other words, they pay back 100 cents on the dollar, even though the markets were valuing them at far less. And, of course, this is kind of the role of government, is to transfer wealth upwards, or at least what the role of government has become. So that’s the first way: Make the public pay.
The second way is through the debt. So you transferred all this money to the wealthy. The government needs to pay for it somehow, so it floats bonds. But who is going to buy bonds? The rich buy the bonds. So now you’ve given them money a second way, because you pay an interest rate on the bonds, so the rich and corporations and large institutions are profiting a second way.
The third thing that happens is we’re told, oh, now we all have to share in the pain. Of course, we’re all sharing the pain of the super-rich while they’re making record profits, they’re enjoying record wealth. So social services start to be decimated. This process, of course, goes back, again, to the Reagan-Thatcher era, but now we’re seeing a new round. And the Republicans have come out with another new attack, that they completely want to destroy Medicare and Medicaid.
But the way we should understand the attack on social services, one, it’s to discipline labor. Two, it’s to put the costs of social reproduction back on the work force. In other words, you get a wage. You are entirely responsible for your housing, for your food, for your education, for your health care, for your retirement, for your transportation, and on and on and on. If you don’t get enough, well, that’s your problem, because you’re too lazy, you didn’t work hard enough, you didn’t take advantage of the opportunities given to you. So this becomes a method to discipline labor.
What also happens is because of this, because the costs of social reproduction start to come down, not for the workers but for the government, and because capital is able to make people more desperate, more contingent, it leads to a cut in wages and benefits. When you have such high unemployment and underemployment, you can cut wages and benefits further, which results in greater corporate profits. So the rich benefit a third way.
And, of course, they benefit a fourth way through the lowering of corporate taxes. Obama ran on basically one pledge. His signature pledge was he was going to repeal the Bush-era tax cuts. And yet he renewed them. And we’re seeing the same thing where I live in New York State, where Andrew Cuomo backed a repeal of a millionaires’ tax. Even though something like $1.5 billion is being cut from education and health care, they’re still repealing the millionaires’ tax so millionaires can get more money. Of course, they don’t even really use the justification, Oh, it creates jobs anymore, because how can you say that when you have 25 to 30 million unemployed and underemployed?
So in all these different ways the rich benefit. But there are still other reasons why there is this attack on social services and the public sector. And this is where we start to really get into an understanding of the Tea Party. The role the public sector plays, of course, is they are the ones who are carrying out these public services. It’s the teachers who are carrying out the public education. It’s the social workers, the doctors, nurses, medical personnel who work in the public hospital, all the various administrators and personnel who work in the public services. So it’s kind of this two-part effort: you want to cut the social services as much as possible, and you want to cut the work force as much as possible, a two-prong attack.
But there is also a very important role, again, that we need to be aware of. It’s to destroy what we can call the infrastructure of dissent—to basically deny people the capacity to have mass resources to oppose what’s going on. And unions. Unions are, I think, in how they operate are highly problematic. The American labor movement basically serves its role as a junior partner to capital and keeps begging capital, Please, can’t we work with you, even as capital keeps trying to destroy it. But nonetheless it has a potential to organize a lot of people in terms of massive dissent.
For instance, during the last two election cycles, nobody knows the exact number but it’s estimated that the labor movement—and this is the big unions, like the AFL- CIO or SEIU or AFSCME, which is the public-sector unions—poured over half a billion dollars into the Democratic Party. There is just simply no force on the left that has that amount of money. The amount of money available to unions is huge, because even though the percentage of the work force that’s unionized is something like 8%, that still means over 10 million workers are paying dues to unions. The amount of assets that they theoretically have at their disposal is something in the range of $10 billion. Though to put that in perspective, you could take any two banks on Wall Street and they paid more in bonuses in 2008—just in bonuses—than all union assets combined. So in one way it’s a huge amount of money, but in another way it’s not a huge amount of money.
Let me quickly run through these other points, which I think are important. I think one of the most overlooked aspects of what’s going on in terms of the economic crisis—and, again, this relates directly to the Tea Party movement—is gender relations. At least in the initial phases of this economic crisis, 80% of the job losses were accounted for by men. Men were losing the jobs, women were losing wages and benefits. Because women were generally often concentrated in the contingent work force already, they were already temporary, they were already part-time, they weren’t seeing greater job losses so much as they were seeing their wages cut or their benefits cut further.
This has had a significant effect. For example, for the first time in U.S. history, or at least modern U.S. history, there are now more unmarried Americans from age 18 to 34 than there are married Americans. These are the prime child-bearing years. There is a simple reason for a lot of this. Women are an increasing percentage, a majority of the college-age population, and they’re growing. They’re also growing rapidly in all sorts of professional fields. In terms of gender relations I’ve found one thing curious. You find this absolutely vicious attack by the right on reproductive rights that’s going on, but it’s seen as somehow separate from the economic crisis. And I actually think that they’re intimately intertwined, because essentially men’s identity is seen as under attack. They’re no longer the breadwinners. The minority in this country is becoming a majority at a rapid pace. So these vicious attacks on reproductive rights, even trying to redefine rape, which Republicans have been doing at the state level, is a way to reconstruct male identity and male power. We have to be aware of how these different influences play out.
Similarly, we see the reconstruction of the national identity in terms of the anti-immigration movement, the Islamophobia movements. It’s a way to give people a sense of social power. The Tea Party is an extremely white movement. By various counts it’s 94% to 98% white. And in my anecdotal experience, it is extremely white. So by having these vicious anti-immigration movements, you give people a sense that they have an identity, they have some sort of social power. Maybe their job prospects are declining or ending, maybe they’re not wanted as a mate by someone, they’re lonely, but being able to act out their aggression against someone else gives them a sense of belonging in the public sphere.
I think we have to understand how these things are intimately linked, because this gets to the heart of what the Tea Party movement is about and how we need to learn why they have had so much success. I’m going to talk about the Tea Party in five interlocking frames: historical, social, political, ideological, and psychological.
First historical. The Tea Party is a classic reactionary movement. That goes back to the French Revolution. I recently read Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution, a terrific book. I was struck by how in a lot of ways we’re still fighting the French Revolution, except the right is winning and the left has disappeared or surrendered. Because what the right, especially the reactionary right, is still about is it opposes progress and it idealizes a society based on tradition and hierarchy. So the early reactionaries in the 19th century defended the church, the king, the aristocracy, and property. Reactionaries today defend property, the market, Christianity, whiteness, American exceptionalism, and privileges based on race, gender, nationality, and often heterosexuality.
We can also historicize the Tea Party movement in terms of the modern American right. We have to understand that there are these upsurges again and again and again. There was the right around the Goldwater campaign in 1964. Then, of course, with George Wallace, this very racist, white-supremacist right in the mid-1960s that Nixon was able to peel off a lot of into his Silent Majority. His was kind of a kinder, gentler racist right, where they used the term “benign neglect,” that they weren’t going to be overtly racist, but they would just kind of neglect the minority communities that were repressed. Of course, we had the Reagan revolution and the Christian right, which was very much about enforcing these traditional normative and largely imagined ideas of how family and the society should operate. There was a 1990s Republican revolution led by Newt Gingrich. And, of course, the growth of the militia movements. And now we’ve had the Tea Party movement.
We need to understand that in each of these phases often the Democrats are enabling and creating the political space for the next phase of the right. Clinton did that with the Republican revolution in 1994. Carter certainly played that role in terms of creating the ground that Reaganism was able to successfully occupy. And Obama certainly did that. He made the Tea Party real through the bailouts, while they were bailing out the wealthy and abandoning the rest of the society and not offering an alternative vision. But, of course, we need to recognize that labor and the liberals also abandoned all opposition to the class- warfare agenda of Democrats and Obama, while the left is virtually nonexistent, at least as a national force. So the right had a huge opening to take advantage. I think a lot of times when people hear “class warfare,” they’re, like, “That’s just rhetoric.” But I would remind them that just a few years ago Warren Buffet said, “There’s class warfare going on in this country. It’s my class that’s fighting it, and it’s my class that’s winning it.” So when you have the richest man in America saying that his class is engaging and winning class warfare, I think we can all agree that that’s part of the fundamental reality.
The social aspects of the Tea Party. If you look at the polling data—and this is what I found confirmed through my anecdotal evidence in terms of going to Tea Party meetings—it is overwhelming white, as I said, up to 98% white, if not more. It trends male. It’s slightly above average income, mostly Republican, 60-70% or more. Much older, many retirees. And they tend to be, but are not always, entrepreneurial and Christian. The Tea Party, though, is, at least in terms of the right, a very diverse movement. So in some areas you might find the Christian right predominates, in some areas you might find the libertarian right predominates, in some areas, especially, say, out in the West, it’s more kind of this rugged individualism ethos. So you have to look at particular regions in terms of who identifies as the Tea Party. These are people who are doing pretty decently, they’re often entrepreneurial, but they see themselves as under attack both socially and economically. This has a couple of important aspects I’ll talk about in terms of how they view economic relations.
But ultimately what it is also, it’s a very dangerous cry of an older white America that’s fading away as the country does become truly multi-ethnic, particularly Latino. It’s very exclusionist, nativist, racist, often violently so. The Tea Party movement has huge overlaps with the anti-immigrant movement, with the Islamophobia movements. So it is very much a reactionary movement in its defense of this ideal of a white middle class nuclear family where children obeyed authority, blacks were submissive, women were limited to strict gender and social roles, immigrants assimilated or unknown, and the white, wage-earning, patriarchal male was the ruler of the home and the middle-class neighborhood.
The political aspect. Another way to understand the modern right, the reactionary right, and the Tea Party is, simply put, that it’s against the downward redistribution of wealth and power and for enforcing order and discipline in the social sphere of politics and the economy. It’s really remarkable when you look at all the groups that the right attacks. It’s unions, it’s women, it’s lesbians and gays, it’s immigrants, Latinos, blacks, Muslims. It just goes on and on and on, all the different groups they attack. One, there is a commonality in terms of they oppose any sort of redistribution of power and wealth. But, two, they have this amazing ability to just keep constantly circulating who the particular scapegoat of the moment is. The left and liberals are always trying to play catch-up. One day it’s welfare mothers, the next day it’s feminists, another day it’s bureaucrats, then it’s the unions. We have to understand how they have such adaptability. Of course, I’m not talking about the large natural advantages the Tea Party has in having huge resources behind it, in having an enormous national platform through Fox News and the huge right-wing echo chamber. Nonetheless, there is kind of a coherent ideology there. It’s a scary ideology, but there is a coherent one we need to be aware of.
Another way to understand the political ideology of the Tea Party—and this is very important—they are very racist, they are very reactionary, but they have what can be called a chauvinistic universalism. It’s wrapped up in a single saying that they love to use again and again, which is, “Equality of opportunity does not guarantee equality of outcome.” It’s this belief in the meritocracy, that everybody has an equal opportunity. Of course, this doesn’t account for historical oppressions, this doesn’t account for slavery and the American apartheid that existed well into the 1960s, it doesn’t account for the social, economic, political repression of women, etc. So that’s the chauvinistic aspect. But they are trying to frame something as universal, and a lot of people do find it appealing. And I have seen some people of color within the Tea Party movement who are fully behind this. Yes, everyone has equality of opportunity; that doesn’t mean that equal outcomes are guaranteed.
The fourth aspect, ideological. These can just be summed up in simple concepts. Libertarianism. As I mentioned early, the Tea Party is very much about a libertarian ideology. In other words, completely get the government out of the way, let the free market rule absolutely—no regulation, no limits. That’s because they see the market as the guarantor of freedom and liberty. And, of course, hey, we can try that, but we’ve been there and done that. That’s what led to the robber baron era, that’s what Dickensian England was like. Just huge disparities between wealth and poverty, which we’re seeing again.
Another way to encapsulate their ideology is social Darwinism, in other words, that somehow the market society naturally selects. If you’re poor, then you are not as evolved: you’ve lost the natural selection of the market. They also have what could be called a neo-Malthusian ideology. Everyone is kind of familiar with Malthus, and they think it has to do with natural limits, in other words, that population growth outstrips food supply. That wasn’t what Malthus’s essays on population were actually about. He was arguing against aid to the poor. And that’s very much what the Tea Party is about, that there should be no more aid to the poor because you encourage indolence, you encourage sloth. So Malthus was saying we need to stop giving aid to the poor because we just encourage them to procreate and create ever more poor, so you’re going to have more poor you need to support. You see kind of that neo-Malthusian ideology present within the Tea Party.
One of the most important aspects is the psychological aspect. I think this is particularly where we need to pay attention, because the left does a very poor job of dealing with psychology. Generally, the left is very economistic: it wants to reduce everything to economic relations—it’s accrued materialism, nondialectical. In other words, we don’t see the dialectic between material relations, which, of course, are fundamentally important, and ideas. One of the things we need to pay attention to is, of course, what’s going on in the Arab spring. This shows the power of ideas, the way it’s just spread from one country to the next. People, I would argue, are fundamentally motivated by ideas. It’s ideas, it’s hope that give them the ability to change the world, to imagine new forms of social relations. We saw that briefly in Wisconsin. So we have to understand the dialectical relationship.
The left also tends to focus on what can be called biological reductionism, that the type of issues we fight for have to do with our social reproduction. So we fight for better housing, for access to food, for health care, for education, for clean water. All very important, but that’s not the sum of it. What is the good life? We don’t even ask ourselves that anymore on the left, What is the good life? What type of lives? Why do we want everyone to be able to have a minimum standard, a decent life, to be able to have housing, to be able to have proper health care? There still has to be a greater good beyond that. And we need to talk about that.
In terms of the Tea Party, the psychology of it, just look at the name, the Tea Party. It’s, of course, referencing the Boston Tea Party. It’s for a national refounding. This is, as I said, the funny thing. They absolutely venerate the Constitution. They think the Constitution is some sort of holy document. In that kind of famous video that Sarah Palin did after Gabrielle Giffords was shot, the one she released from her cave in Alaska, she referred to the Constitution as “a sacred document.” So they really see the Constitution as kind of the complete foundation of our society. And what they’re trying to do by this refounding is they want to address personal and national impotence through a return to traditional values and hence a return to power.
There is a desire on their part to restore order across the various spheres of society. They want people to be disciplined, that we should value sacrifice. This is why we need to cut services: we have to live within our means. That there is a virtue to being able to live within your means, that you pay your bill on time, that you are able to pay your mortgage, that, if necessary, you all kind of join together and share. It’s this very idealized notion. To the last generation, the next generation is always lazy. Kids are always lazy. They don’t know the value of hard work.
You see this a lot in the anti-immigration debate. Immigrants are fundamentally woven throughout our society, and a lot of it is because they will do the jobs that other Americans don’t want to do. Who is going to work in the fast-food restaurants? Who is going to harvest the fields, pick the fruits from the orchard, do domestic labor, do a lot of the very hard menial labor in industries, etc.? Well, the anti-immigrant right is, like, Americans will do it, even though, if we were somehow able to magically get rid of all undocumented immigrants, our economy would probably be on the brink of collapse within a week. But their attitude is, Kids today need to learn the value of hard work. They need to do this. I did this when I was young. These ideas have great appeal.
We have to understand that the Tea Party isn’t just a fabrication. There is often this notion that the Tea Party—because they have so much wealth behind them, because the Koch brothers, who are worth nearly $100 billion, are pouring so much in the Tea Party groups, because of Fox News, because of the Republican Party—is just an astroturf group, in other words, completely fake. That’s not entirely true. There are astroturf elements, but they have a perspective that speaks to tens of millions of Americans. As I said, it’s scary, its repressive, it’s a fantasy, and it’s based on a fundamental rejection of reality. For instance, most Republicans don’t even think global warming is real, which, of course, is absolutely absurd, when every single bit of data shows more and more and more that we are destabilizing the entire biosphere and the climate. Yet they don’t think it’s real. There is this fundamental rejection of reality. But still, they have a clear ideology and they explain social relations in a way that appeals to tens of millions of Americans.
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