The Left’s Response to the Tea Party and what it Reveals
Without a doubt, the rise to concrete govermental power of the Tea Party has been one of the most important political developments in 2010. Much has already been written about the origins and developments of this movement, starting as it did from a variety of grassroots libertarian or conservative movements and blossoming as more American citizens became outraged 7at the government’s willingness to provide bailouts in the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown. But what interests me most is the left’s reaction to this upwelling of violent anger. It is not hard to understand why the left has serious problems with the movement: it is radically individualistic, against social programs, in favour of a small government and an unregulated or minimally regulated economy, and violently opposed to anything that appears liberal, leftist, or socialist. That the Tea Party lacks a coherent platform and presents contradictory demands has been pointed out by numerous pundits; but if we look at the movement as a sociological phenomenon – a grassroots political uprising led by fairly ordinary and minimally educated citizens based in a strongly-held moral ideology – there is much to commend it. We may completely disagree with everything that the Tea Party is saying, but the very fact that the people saying it are ordinary citizens who are passionate about the direction of their country and willing to organize themselves politically to change it is important, and worth taking seriously. And yet the overwhelming response from the left in both America and Britain has been either dismissive or hysterical, with a few noteworthy exceptions. I want to argue that the response of the left has been both problematic and troubling; problematic in the sense that it has only led the Tea Party to more heated rhetoric and an even more determined attack, and troubling because it points to what is a growing rottenness at the core of the Left.
In an article entitled “The Tea Party: A Creedal Passion Past Its Time”1 Michael Weiss, writing for Comment is Free at guardian.co.uk calls the Tea Party “a helter-skelter of conservative populism” and “a Twitter feed in search of an ideology.” He claims that the Tea Party “lacks a coherent vision and prefers paranoid sloganeering and anti-establishment platitudes to a viable platform” and argues that the aftermath of the eruption will be “apathy and a return to equilibrium, the humdrum history by which the American experiment is more characteristically judged. There’s every likelihood that the Tea Party movement will peter out in the same way.” Weiss’ essential point is that there’s nothing to be worried about here – the Tea Party has no staying power, it’s just a brief moment of furor interrupting the apathetic status quo.
Others employ similar rhetoric to make different points. Mark Lilla, writing for the New York Times Book Review2, calls the Tea Party a “populist insurgency” and claims that in the Tea Party “a new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that. This is the one threat that will bring Americans into the streets. Welcome to the politics of the libertarian mob.” However, unlike Weiss, Lilla sees the Tea Party as a deeply worrisome iteration of a growing tendency in American culture; he writes that “we need to take it even more seriously than they do; we need to see it as a manifestation of deeper social and even psychological changes that the country has undergone in the past half-century.” He goes on to argue that “today’s conservatives prefer the company of anti-intellectuals who know how to exploit nonintellectuals, as Sarah Palin does so masterfully. The dumbing-down they have long lamented in our schools they are now bringing to our politics, and they will drag everyone and everything along with them.” In this rather bleak view of matters, the Tea Party is nothing less than the self-interested, uneducated and utterly uninformed masses storming into the halls of power and overthrowing the wise and enlightened guardians of society.
There have been other voices as well, and other attempts to show how the Tea Party is somehow a completely illegitimate movement. Take, for example, Sarah Posner’s article “The Tea Party’s Religious Roots Exposed”3, in which she argues that “the Tea Party movement is driven in no small measure by religious fervour” and that “anyone who sees Ron Paul as a secularist fails to grasp the theocratic roots of his politics, and of many Tea Party activists.” She finishes the article by reminding her readers that “to fail to see the religious roots of the Tea Party mantra – or the ways in which it reverberates as a divine imperative – is to blind oneself to a fundamental feature of American conservatism.” The article tells us more about Posner than it does about the Tea Party – of course American conservatives tend to be religious, this is nothing new. To claim that stating this fact counts as “exposing” something is journalistic posturing, posturing which Posner uses to encourage the idea that the Tea Party is a conspiracy with a hidden agenda. Why is it so important that the Tea Party have its roots in religion? To the liberal, secular audience for which Posner is writing, fanaticism of all kinds ultimately comes back to religion. The irrationality exhibited by the Tea Party must have its roots in fundamentalism, because what else could drive such irrationality? More importantly, nothing makes a movement so easy to dismiss out of hand for liberal, secular audiences as religious roots, and the main goal of most liberal comment on the Tea Party has been dismissal rather than engagement.
Other examples of this are not hard to find. Take the allegations that surfaced in October 2010 that the Tea Party has connections to white supremacist groups (“Report Links Tea Party Movement to White Supremacist Groups”4). It seems that the more power the Tea Party is able to wrest, the more hysterically the liberals and the left become in their attempts to convince others and themselves that the Tea Party doesn’t matter, or can be broken down to an easily marginalized group (fundamentalists or white supremacists).
Stanley Fish, writing for the New York Times, provided perhaps one of the most insightful readings of the movement. In an article entitled “Antaeus and the Tea Party”5 he suggests that it is precisely the distain of the elites that fuels the Tea Party. The Tea Party is a movement for those who feel that they have been left out of the political process, voiceless in the face of a massive government which seems to be out of control. Its life blood is the righteous anger of people who feel they have been marginalized, and “Democrats are helping them by saying scathing and dismissive things about the Tea Party and its candidates.” The more the liberals dismiss the Tea Party, the more it confirms to them that they are being marginalized and need to rise up. Fish relates the story of Antaeus, who “won victory after victory because his opponents repeatedly threw him to the ground, not realizing that it was the earth (in the figure of his mother, Gaia) that nourished him and gave him renewed strength. The Tea Party’s strength comes from the down-to-earth rhetoric it responds to and proclaims, and whenever high-brow critics heap the dirt of scorn and derision upon the party, its powers increase.” The solution Fish offers is the same solution Hercules used: lift Antaeus from the ground and deal with him face to face. He writes that we must “engage them as if you thought that the concerns they express (if not their forms of expression) are worthy of serious consideration, as indeed they are. Lift them up to the level of reasons and evidence and see how they fare in the rarified air of rational debate where they just might suffer the fate of Antaeus.”
However, while Fish marries keen analyses of the reasons for the Tea Party’s success, and the failures of the Left to properly engage the movement, there is still in his essay an assumption that the goal is to choke off the Tea Party. While I agree that the Tea Party’s political ideology if put into action would have disastrous consequences (not least on the white middle class, of which the Tea Party is largely constituted) I want to resist what is I believe the main thread of all of these arguments: that the Tea Party should go home, stop messing about in politics, place their vote when they are asked to and leave running the country up to the people with money, power and education.
I believe that the Tea Party, like a strong wind that blows down dead trees, has revealed a rottenness already present in the modern Left. That rottenness is the disconnect between the educated intellectuals and the women and men doing shiftwork in a factory or the small time beef farmer. As any electoral map of Ontario will show you, the people voting Liberal and NDP live in the cities, and the rural people are generally the ones voting Conservative.6 The Left has traditionally been on the side of the dispossessed, the lower classes and the workers, even if it has often been made up of middle class university graduates. It has always hoped and prayed for a time when the political apathy strategically encouraged by capitalism would be broken by the righteous anger of people who realize that they are being used. Well, this time has come. Unfortunately, the Left has deserted the towns and villages, ensconced itself in the academic world, developed a taste for good scotch and the right kinds of music, learned to turn up its nose at those who have the wrong opinions about abortion and become more or less indistinguishable from the other elites. Socialism is an ideology; the tools for its analysis are intellectual and the universities, the halls of government and places of commerce are the fields of struggle. However, it must never lose its connection to the dairy farmers, the carpenters, the factory workers and the land, for as soon as it does others will be quick to take its place.
I believe that this is precisely what is going on in North America right now. The narratives of international stability and endless prosperity which have been the great mythology of North America at the end of the twentieth century have collapsed in the first decade of the twenty-first. Citizens are in search of alternative narratives, ways to explain to themselves why it is that their world seems to be collapsing. Too bad the Left wasn’t present to provide one. J. M Bernstein, in his excellent Hegelian analyses of the Tea Party7, wrote that “more than their political ideas, it is the anger of Tea Party members that is already reshaping our political landscape.” This anger must not be ignored, silenced or explained away. It must be engaged, and, if we can, we must try to direct it against the real enemy of ordinary citizen: the irresponsible economic system which has robbed them of their livelihoods, their savings and their security in the name of greater profits for the few, and the false shepherds who have let it happen.
Andre Forget is a member of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He recently completed a bachelor of arts at Canadian Mennonite University in English, and has spent the last year traveling and teaching in Istanbul, Turkey. He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.
1 Weiss, Michael. “The Tea Party: A Creedal Passion Past Its Prime.”
Guardian.co.uk., January 15th 2011, accessed January 23rd, 2011. URL:
2 Lilla, Mark. “The Tea Party Jacobins.” The New York Times Review of
Books, April 29th 2010, accessed January 23rd 2011. URL
3 Posner, Sarah “The Religious Roots of the Tea Party Exposed.”
Guardian.co.uk. October 12th, 2010, accessed January 23rd, 2011. URL:
4 MacAskill, Ewen, and Ed Pilkington. “Report Links Tea Party Movement
to White Supremacist Group.” Guardian.co.uk. October 20th, 2010,
accessed January 23rd, 2011. URL:
5 Fish, Stanley “Antaeus and the Tea Party.” The New York Times
Opinionator, September 27th 2010, accessed December 20th, 2011. URL:
6 When Stephen Harper was first elected Prime Minister in 2006 the
Toronto Star ran a political cartoon showing Stephen Harper being
carried to victory on the shoulders of moronic, straw-chewing farmers.
7 Bernstein, J.M “The Very Angry Tea Party” New York Times Opinionator,
June 13th 2010, accessed December 20th 2010. URL