The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Establishing the Tea Party's Anger

The Old Guard Is Frustrated by the Growing Reality That They Are No Longer the Ones in Charge

Critics of President Obama – not limited to but most certainly exemplified by Tea Partiers – insist they represent a genuine grassroots movement among the American mainstream fed up with what they describe as “socialist big government.” Some liberals question the movement’s wholesomeness in rejoinder. They point to different incidents at conservative gatherings or remarks by conservative orators which they feel smack of racism. Conservatives respond that liberals are playing the race card in desperation from the unpopularity of their policies.

I do not believe Obama’s critics are racist, certainly not in the sense of the vicious and sadistic congenital racism of the segregated Old South. At the same time, I am equally skeptical that the very real anger driving some conservatives is limited to disagreement with Democratic economic and social polices or even apprehension over record deficits. Something else is at play.

Two surveys conducted in April by POLITICO/TargetPoint and the Pew Research Group attempted to define demographics for the discontented. Both found that those who considered themselves Tea Party members or sympathizers were more likely to be older, white, college educated, affluent, male, married, and (disaffected) Republican than Americans in general. These factors do not say “racist” to me. Instead, they depict the individuals who once ran this country with unquestioned authority – what youthful protestors sometimes called “the Establishment” in the rebellious 1960s.

In his seminal work The Protestant Establishment, academic E. Digby Baltzell, coiner of the acronym “WASP,” warned as early as 1964, “A crisis has developed in modern America largely because of the . . . Establishment's unwillingness or inability to share and improve its upper-class traditions by continuously absorbing talented and distinguished members of minority groups into its privileged ranks.”

This flaw appears to have returned to haunt them in Obama’s America. It is not simply that the United States has become more populous and diverse; those most enjoying the new wealth generated in the 1980s and 1990s – and the power, prestige, and influence associated with it – are more diverse as well.

Eighty-three percent of our nation’s population growth last decade came from non-whites. Nearly one out of four Americans under age eighteen have at least one immigrant parent. A survey by Pew Research found only twenty-one percent of Protestant Establishment families have incomes over $100,000, compared with forty-six percent for Jewish families and forty-two percent for Hindus.

Pew also documents the percentage of Protestants in Congress has dropped to fifty-five percent from seventy-four percent in 1961. And, of course, Protestant representation is about to drop to zero percent on the U.S. Supreme Court if Elena Kagan is confirmed.

“The fact that we're going to zero Protestants in the Court may not be as significant as the fact that her appointment perfectly reflects the decline of the Establishment,” remarks David Campbell, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame.

In light of this, it is hardly surprising to see growing distrust in government and other powerful institutions from a constituency wider than just the Tea Party. Likewise, it is unsurprising that a faction from within all conservatives would target that distrust with particular vehemence against Obama.

The POLITICO survey found the common thread tying all discontents together is anger over what they see as excessive government intrusion into personal lives. “I’ve never liked having to ask permission to do anything,” declared one Tea Party attendee. “I stayed within the rules of the law, treated society right and the government’s intruding more and more and more.”

New York Times columnist David Brooks argues this perceived disconnect between effort and reward is deep at the roots of anger for many in the Establishment. Brooks posits that for many years, the Establishment was satisfied because it believed “America is fundamentally a just society . . . people who work hard can usually overcome whatever unfairness is thrust in their way.”

Brooks argues the Establishment’s confidence was shaken when its members saw “People in Congress were caught up in a spoils system in which money was taken from those who worked and given to those with connections. Money was taken from those who produced and used to bail out the reckless.”

Francis Cianfrocca, a noted conservative financial commentator, believes the true focus of Tea Party anger is about “primarily government corruption, more than anything else. It is less a revolt about the bigness of government than it is about the wrongness of government.”

Ben Domenech, Editor-In-Chief of the conservative New Ledger, takes this mindset a step further. “These are normal people, pragmatic voters polarized by Obama’s domestic policies, and fed up with what’s happening in Washington . . . They think the government is a childish bully – that it doesn’t work, thinks it knows what’s best, and that it’s stealing from them to boss them around more.”

Such a mindset is hardly surprising from a group that no longer recognizes itself in powerful institutions. The old Establishment was surely never so naïve to believe that Wall Street and the Beltway were ever entirely free from corruption. Yet whether blue blood bankers or blue collar workers, they could go to sleep each night know that those who held power not only looked like them but also shared much of the same educations, experiences, and values as themselves.

Their contemporaries no longer recognize this connection. Tea Partiers and their sympathizers see themselves squeezed between undeserving lower class poor, especially illegal immigrants, on one side and meritocratic but out-of-touch intellectual elites on the other side.

Railing against immigrant poor is nothing new – the Establishment has been doing this since our nation’s founding. The fear and anger comes when globalization results in leaders of government, corporations, and labor unions whom the Establishment does not trust to place their interests first (i.e. some animals are no longer created more equal than others).

I do not mean to suggest that this is the single, driving catalyst behind Obama’s critics or that reasons cited by them for their anger with government are totally without merit. However, I do feel a disconnect from power, combined with the realization their glory days are not returning anytime soon, exacerbates their discontent with nearly all aspects of modern America.

The Census Bureau's American Community Survey suggests future political conflicts are likely between those regions of the country growing in population, diversity, and educational attainment versus those in decline. However, the survey also predicts conflicts between younger versus aging populations, even within growth areas.

Howard Fineman of Newsweek posits the Tea Party occasionally runs into trouble, such as eliciting charges of racism, because it driven more by emotional resentment than a logical political ideology. He writes its rapid rise to prominence comes from “a seething anti-federal message – that Washington is spending too much, controlling too much, and taxing too much, and is doing it Unconstitutionally.”

Fineman argues that what Tea Partiers forget in their zeal is the repeatedly proven importance of a strong federal government as the protector of individual rights and freedoms. When it applies its anti-federal message here – such as newly minted Kentucky Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul questioning the intrusiveness of the 1965 Voting Rights Act – it opens the door to easy demonizing by liberals.

For all their intensity and momentum, some fear recent movements of dissent are already doomed to failure, in terms of bringing about lasting change.

Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat writes of the liberal groundswell that brought Obama to power, “Look through these anti-Establishment theatrics to the deep structures of political and economic power and suddenly the surge of populism feels like so much sound and fury . . . . The economic crisis is producing consolidation rather than revolution, the entrenchment of authority rather than its diffusion, and the concentration of power in the hands of [those] that presided over the disasters in the first place . . . And all the legislation we’ve passed, has only strengthened the symbiosis.”

Brooks holds the same pessimism for the conservative counter-reaction to Obama. “[It’s] going to find that the outsiders [it] sent to Washington just screamed at each other at ever higher decibels. [It’s] going to find that [it] unwittingly [helped] create a political culture in which compromise is impermissible, in which institutions are decimated by lone-wolf narcissists who have no interest in or talent for crafting legislation. Nothing will get done.”

Brooks’s worries are likely correct. Republicans may win back Congress in 2010 and/or the White House in 2012 but the growing diversity among those holding power as well as making up the bulk of the electorate is fundamental, widespread, and permanent. The once mighty Establishment will never again enjoy the influence it experienced during our country’s first two hundred years because it will never again represent the majority of Americans.

Tea Partiers, much like the Establishment before them, often regard themselves as the only “real” Americans. They bewail the loss of U.S. wealth, prestige, and power within the world as the beginning of the end for our nation. They might want to consider that one reason for the decline of other historic democracies was their need to dominate and reign, rather than simply to co-exist and endure.

No comments: