A Mile Wide And An Inch Deep
By Tom Sullivan
May 17, 2010 - 4:40am ET
A recent New York Times/CBS News poll reports that only 39 percent of Tea Party supporters consider themselves “evangelical or born again Christians.” Yet Tea Party members share several traits with born-again Christians — the evangelism, the enthusiasm and the in-your-face conviction of the newly converted. Only instead of black, Morocco bound, gilt-edged, King James red-letter editions, the Tea Party’s faithful tote copies of the U.S. Constitution.
Like teenage converts with their Bibles, the Tea Party faithful read through the sacred text and became instant authorities prepared to lecture others on matters of constitutional interpretation. Not that they actually believe any of it.
Sixty-three percent of Tea Party supporters get their television news from the Fox News Channel. Fifty-three percent think of Glenn Beck’s and Sean Hannity’s shows as news programs. The Times summarized the poll findings, saying, “The 18 percent of Americans who identify themselves as Tea Party supporters tend to be Republican, white, male, married and older than 45.” In essence, Tea Party supporters form the GOP’s far right flank.
Citing William Gale, co-director of the Brookings Institution’s Tax Policy Center, CBS reported that “taxes are at their lowest levels in 60 years.” Yet 64 percent of Tea Party supporters believe that President Obama has raised their taxes (only 34 percent of all respondents thought so). Anger and resentment among “real Americans” over taxation and deficits has exploded since the election of Barack Obama. But this is nothing new.
Conservatives since before the Reagan Revolution have considered America — the very idea in its Platonic form — as a personal inheritance. It is an abstract entitlement they pledge to support with their lives and their sacred honor, just not with their fortunes. Hell no. Not if it means they have to share it with poor and minority Americans, the poll suggests.
The parallels with conservative Christianity, however, are not limited to style. The far right shares the evangelicals' fascination with imminent apocalypse as well. Last summer, an acquaintance in conservative eastern Tennessee reported that his local Wal-Mart could not keep ammunition in stock. People fearing an H1N1 pandemic were stocking up. They expected to barricade themselves in the hollows, one supposes, and take out with a head shot any disease-ridden ghoul that came staggering slowly over the ridge.
Those not worried about H1N1 were clearing shelves across the mid-South in fear that the new “Democrat” administration would restrict gun and ammunition sales. At the NRA convention in Charlotte, Sarah Palin told gun owners, "Don't doubt for a minute that, if they thought they could get away with it, they would ban guns and ban ammunition and gut the Second Amendment."
Although 56 percent of Tea Party supporters have never been active in a political campaign, 84 percent are convinced that their views on a range of issues “generally reflect the views of most Americans.” Only 25 percent of other Americans polled agreed with that assessment. The University of Washington's 2010 Multi-state Survey on Race & Politics also suggests just how non-mainstream Tea Party views really are. From the study's preliminary results, Tea Party supporters "appear predisposed" to racial intolerance.
Like many fundamentalists, the far right finds differing opinions threatening. Ambiguity and shades of gray make them anxious. Anyone not of their tribe makes them anxious. By Tea Party reckoning (reinforced by politicians such as Palin), they are the only “real Americans.” Thus when they lose elections, the country’s leaders are by definition illegitimate, something about which Digby and Amanda Marcotte have written. The Tea Party is not merely upset over health care and deficits, but because their tribe lost ground in 2006 and 2008. And that loss was just a foretaste.
Reacting to slurs Tea Party protesters hurled at Democratic members of Congress before the health care vote, Frank Rich explained recently in the New York Times:
If Obama’s first legislative priority had been immigration or financial reform or climate change, we would have seen the same trajectory. The conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House — topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman — would sow fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country no matter what policies were in play. It’s not happenstance that Frank, Lewis and Cleaver — none of them major Democratic players in the health care push — received a major share of last weekend’s abuse. When you hear demonstrators chant the slogan “Take our country back!,” these are the people they want to take the country back from.
While some easily explain Tea Party anger as racism, that is an oversimplification. Race is too small a lens to take in all the nuance behind the anxiety. A scene towards the end of “Dances With Wolves” paints a broader picture:
DANCES WITH WOLVES
You have asked me many times about
the white people... you always ask
how many more are coming.
Dances With Wolves looks at his friend and mentor.
DANCES WITH WOLVES
There will be a lot my friend...
more than can be counted.
Help me to know how many.
DANCES WITH WOLVES
Like the stars.
This is what Kicking Bird wanted to know. And it hits him like a rock.
It was a kind of death sentence for the Sioux way of life. That life and the life their fathers' fathers before them had known was over. It hadn't happened yet, but it was just a matter of time.
This is why Tea Party histrionics strike the ear like “the Great Black Father burned our villages, stole our land and slaughtered the buffalo.” Obama's election rubbed their noses in a demographic fact that on good days they could stuff back into their brains just beyond the conscious level: Non-Hispanic white people are on their way to minority status in America. As Rich noted, the Times confirmed in March that minority births will soon exceed 50 percent. Race is a component of Tea Party anger, but it is more broadly about tribe. It is about power. About who has it, about who does not, and about the Others their tribe will soon have to share it with.
Even the lowliest of the "angry white men" Time and Newsweek write about could once see the leadership in Washington as (in some sense) members of their own tribe. Even a liberal, heterosexual male was better than what Rich says they face now. The far right might loathe white liberals, but at least they are a rival faction within their own tribe. So long as they were clearly in the majority, angry white men had a sense that they were in control. What kind of democracy — what kind of America — would it be where their tribe no longer possesses the demographic clout to maintain its firm grip on power, and where people not of their tribe share control?
No democracy at all. Some kind of illegitimate, commie, fascist dictatorship is what it is, led by (as Roy Edroso writes) a “socialist and/or a communist who ignores the Constitution and must be resisted as a usurper with revolution.”
Lock and load.
The America the Tea Parties want to take back is one in which their tribe still gets to lord it over the Others. Whatever the demographics. Whatever the election results. Whatever the policy. The truth about taxes and Obama’s policies doesn’t matter.
This cannot be repeated enough. Liberals and progressives have not fully come to grips with the reality that the facts don’t matter to their ideological opponents. Anyone who has received conservative chain e-mails should know better.
Amanda Marcotte explains:
Their complaints about the federal government need to be understood in terms of right wing speak, where very few beliefs are stated straightforwardly, but usually bundled up in a bad faith argument designed to give the intended audience a belief that the person is speaking from principle instead of prejudice.
Keeping faith with principle is less important than winning the 24-hour news cycle. Even a thoroughly debunked lie will do for as long as the news media will repeat it. Whether the issue is invading Iraq, cutting taxes or health care reform, as soon as one talking point outlives its usefulness, the far right tosses it aside for another, like a hot wing at a sports bar. And why not? They were never invested in it anyway — Saddam is in league with al Qaida; Saddam has WMDs; tax cuts because we can afford them; tax cuts to stimulate the economy; the health care reform bill is too big, the health care reform bill is too small, etc. A friend describes such bad faith polemics as “having a Republican argument.” Because the facts don’t matter.
Besides, much of the high-caliber rhetoric from the far right flank is simply about establishing dominance. Alpha dog displays in Congress and on the talking heads shows are about dominating the political battle space. The goal is sometimes just to snarl fiercely enough to make opponents roll over on their backs and pee in the air.
It is not a mark of courage, principle or an unshakable faith in America, but of congenital insecurity.
Christian fundamentalists adamantly insist their faith in the unseen is unshakable. But how strong is it, really, when the faith of their fathers is so easily threatened by a fossil? And how strong, really, is the Tea Party’s faith in American democracy if it is so easily threatened by losing an election?
The answers lie not in what principles people espouse — even loudly — in good times, but in what principles they refuse to cut and run from when tested.
And how did the far right flank perform post-September 11? Or in the wake of the 2006 and 2008 elections?
Innocent until proven guilty went out the window. Speedy trials? Out the window. The right to confront your accusers, freedom from unreasonable searches, habeas corpus, the Geneva Conventions, the rule of law, one-man-one-vote, majority rule? All went out the window. Constitutional and democratic principles become optional whenever America’s far right wing feels threatened. That is, all the time.
For all the public piety, “Don’t Tread On Me” banners, hands-over-hearts patriotism and conspicuous flag waving, the far right’s faith in America’s founding constitutional and democratic principles is a mile wide and an inch deep.
Help us spread the word about these important stories...
Email to a friend
Views expressed on this page are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Campaign for America's Future or Institute for America's Future