Ever since these Tea Party folks began yapping about in the wake of the Obama Presidency, I have sensed something vaguely familiar and frighteningly sort of endearing about them. I wrote the feeling off over the past few months as a creeping nostalgia for my youth in the Heartland. I recognized the people in the press photos of the rallies–their clothes, their accents, even their demeanor. The people on my side of the political spectrum, along with the press and late night comics reinforced my conclusion that ol’ Merle was just off his feed again.
But even snug in the warm embrace of the popular wisdom I felt as though I was jumping on a bandwagon that I would later regret–partially because my image of people in the middle west is woefully out of date. I have been back to visit but never for long and rarely far from my parents’ home. I have only made it to one reunion in what will this coming spring be forty years. Also partly because the Tea Party is not a midwestern, southern or even rural phenomenon. I have witnessed first hand it’s roots in upscale neighborhoods from Rochester, New York to really upscale neighborhoods in Northern New Jersey. I have seen people of all colors (okay mostly shades of white), varying accents and widely dispersed geographies embrace the metaphor if not the agenda. Primarily though I have resisted fully committing to the Tea Party common wisdom for the same reason I have on those rare occasions resisted beautiful women who seemed to be flirting. It’s too simple; if she is as perfect as she seems why is she so interested in me? Nothing so cut-and-dried is ever as simple as it seems.
It was just a couple of days ago that it finally hit me. I had read the third or fourth in a row of stories about Tea Party people turning on the right wing career politicians they had carried to their clear win in the midterm elections. By early Wednesday morning it had become obvious that it wasn’t the democrats they wanted to defeat; it was the system. My murky nostalgia wasn’t for the midwest per se; it was for our high school’s first and I suspect only “underground” newspaper, for the lunatics at Ball State University who threatened (unconvincingly) that they would ignite the cute little puppy with napalm if their demands weren’t met. Tea Party activists aren’t children of the Klan; they are children of the revolution.
Consider the parallels.
Burn it down!
There is a lot of nihilistic fury these days. Members of the movement think the system is so corrupt that it can’t be saved. The call to get big government off our backs is not fundamentally different today than when the young radicals insisted that all authority was corrupt, that people should be left alone to do their own thing, and that morality was not subject to legislation. The sixties radicals turned their movement over to some really off the wall extremists. Their leaders more often than not kept the podium by spouting outrageous and uncompromising versions of the movement’s philosophy. We knew they were nuts, but they were so committed we bought into it. What our opponents saw as irresponsible reckless fanaticism, we saw as autheticity. Is there any difference in degree between Sharron Angle and Abbie Hoffman? Between Rand Paul and Tom Hayden? Content, yes. Style and pure out gall? One and the same.
A lot of the people in the movement tossed off religion as a tool of suppression. Some though, the Jesus freaks, fashioned an organic belief in religion as an unfettered natural experience–a direct link between the savior and the not-yet-saved. The jesus freaks knew it because they felt it. They were, in other words, not so different from the radical evangelicals who drive the right wing populists today. They need no evidence save their own experience of the truth of God. They can be a tad more militaristic and lot more political, but their uncompromising passion is the same. The Jesus freaks were light on vengeance and not much concerned with the end of days, but every time they were pressed they doubled down.
You Can’t Legislate Morality
The incidence of teen pregnancy is unsurprisingly the highest in the deepest bastions of abstinence education. Spousal and child abuse is nearly epidemic in communities where people identify themselves as strongly Christian. But if you ask those people to speak to that irony, they will say that they see none. They will tell you that problems of teen licentiousness and broken family structures are the results of decades of government interference in people’s lives. They are not failing, because their methods are unrealistic; they are fighting a gargantuan battle against nearly unstoppable opponents. Were it not for their valiant stand against the forces of social experimentation, they would be living in a totalitarian nightmare where babies having babies would be the least of their problems.
The hippies and yippies and all of their variants found themselves in the same circumstances. The more they’d tried to free their minds with reckless chemical experimentation, the more they damaged themselves. The more they banked on doing their own thing and letting it flow, the less livable their lives became. It only took a few years for the ground zero of the movement–Haight Ashbury–to become an unlivable eye sore of illness and victim-age.
Someone once said that a neoconservative is a liberal with a daughter in high school. Is it really that big a stretch to see the modern Tea Party members not as true-believing children of Maddox and Wallace, but as disillusioned followers of Huey and Bobby? Think about the thirty years since then. Virtually every left-wing social movement has threatened to tear itself apart with infighting and lack of willingness to compromise. That chemistry is much more evident in the Tea Party movement than the rabid, paranoid exclusionary character of truly ultra-right wing groups.
We will know soon enough. We already see reports of turf battles among various local groups. Can a leaderless mass of people with what they believe to be a righteous cause buck the tide of history and stave off the inevitable dissolution of a rudderless swarm? History does not bode well for them. After the third or fourth rally it starts to get old. After a while you look back at the swill you were fed by your demagogues du jour and feel little more than embarrassment. The question is not whether they will prevail. They won’t. The question is whether they can see the light and get themselves back to the garden before their spirits are destroyed.