The Democratic Party is likely to receive a harsh rebuke in November’s midterm elections. Republicans will probably take control of the House of Representatives, while a loss of seven or eight Democratic Senate seats may bring even greater gridlock to that now notoriously dysfunctional legislative body.

With the unemployment rate still hovering near 10 percent, Americans are understandably dissatisfied with the pace of economic recovery and apprehensive about the country’s future. What is perhaps less understandable is the degree of rancor toward President Barack Obama and the federal government as a whole. The condemnation and vilification of Obama by his political opponents has only intensified in the wake of each of his modest but undeniable legislative achievements. Among a certain sector of the electorate, that antagonism has been driven by the so-called Tea Party movement, and perhaps best personified by the demagogic high jinks of figures such as Fox News’s Glenn Beck and former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Republican leaders in Congress have been scurrying to stay ahead of what is commonly regarded as a populist or grass-roots revolt within their own ranks, although it has become increasingly evident that much of the “revolt” has been orchestrated, if not fabricated, by right-wing political operatives and their traditional financial backers. In primary after primary, a small sliver of alienated conservative voters has disposed of moderate Republicans, replacing them with antigovernment radicals such as Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle, the Republican candidates for Senate in Delaware and Nevada respectively.

What is going on? How representative of the alienation of the larger electorate is the Tea Party? Do most voters really think it was possible to pull the economy out of a near depression in a mere eighteen months? Why haven’t the Democrats gotten credit for saving the American auto industry? Why is health-care reform, once popular with a majority of Americans, now widely suspect? Why have Republican voters, who complacently accepted the massive deficit spending of President George W. Bush, been born again as deficit hawks?

If the unemployment rate were 6 percent, many political commentators note, the mood of the electorate and the tenor of our politics would be different. Perhaps. In any event, President Obama has gone out of his way to acknowledge the enormous frustration Americans feel. Certainly, economics and fiercely partisan politics have played a large part in voter exasperation. Yet there is also a worrisome cultural component to the Tea Party “insurrection,” one exemplified by Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial. The Tea Party is overwhelmingly older, whiter, and more Republican than the nation as a whole. It emerged as a response to the election of a black president supported, as E. J. Dionne has written, by “a demographically diverse coalition anchored among younger voters.” It is hardly surprising, then, that among the Tea Party’s rallying cries is the call to “Take Back Our Country.”

In order to do that, the Tea Party must first “take back” the Republican Party. In fact, the Tea Party is perhaps best understood as the latest effort by conservatives to rout what remains of the old Eastern “country club” Republican establishment. This struggle has been going on for fifty years. An appeal to similar resentments and anxieties propelled Barry Goldwater to the Republican presidential nomination in 1964, culminating in one of the more raucous political conventions in American history. Nelson Rockefeller, the very incarnation of Wall Street Republicanism, was roundly booed and jeered by the delegates when he attempted to speak. Anger at both the mainstream media and mainstream Republicans convulsed the convention. Upon accepting the nomination, Goldwater famously declared that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.... Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

When it comes to resisting the supposed radical threat posed by a federal government headed by Barack Obama, many in the Tea Party seem to agree with Goldwater. If the polls are right and a new phalanx of conservatives, convinced that “government is the problem, not the solution,” is sent to Washington this November, the nation’s political paralysis will only deepen. Yet as the history of the past forty years shows, paralysis in Washington serves the political, economic, and social forces behind the status quo, not forces for change. Impassioned denunciations of government resolve nothing. Such misdirected anger is good for the corporate and moneyed interests that hold the real reins of power, but it will not help the vast majority of Americans, including those who identify with the Tea Party.

September 28, 2010

Published in the 2010-10-08 issue: 

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