Tea Party Legitimacy Panic

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teaparty.jpgRecent threats of violence against members of Congress who voted for HCR raise questions about the nature of the protest movement that has inspired them. As it happens, Quinnipiac yesterday released a poll that gives us a portrait of the movement’s members.

The Tea Partiers are spread out evenly among those earning less than $250,000 a year, and are a bit more likely to be female than male, older than younger, and lacking than having a college degree. In short, by the standard socioeconomic measures, they are pretty typical “middle class” Americans. What sets them apart from the norm is that they are very white (88 percent) and very Republican (74 percent). Oh yes, and they disproportionately identify themselves as evangelical or born again: Twenty-one percent of born again/evangelicals claim Tea Party status, as opposed to 13 percent of the population at large. Not knowing the exact proportion of evangelicals/born-agains in the sample, I’d guess they make up roughly half the Tea Party movement. Catholics are, as usual, typical of the population as a whole (15 percent Tea Partiers) and Jews, unsurprisingly, are way underrepresented (3 percent).

So this is a movement of neither the haves nor the have-nots, neither the old nor the young, neither the uneducated nor the educated, but of white Republican Christians. While they are, like the organizations of the religious right, formally independent of the GOP, they must be considered as tied to it. One only has to look at the behavior of elected Republican officials over the past year to recognize that. So what, exactly, accounts for the outrage–up to the point of violence? The manifest cause is fear of big government (viz. socialism), laced with opposition to abortion. But there seems to be a deeper, latent sense that they are existentially beset by a threat to their legitimacy as the carriers of American values.

Over at the Daily Beast, Michelle Goldberg is right to call attention to what might be called the majoritarian ideology of the Republican Party. Ever since Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority, the GOP has managed to convince itself–and, to some extent, the country at large–that it represents the heartland: the solid, white citizens of flyover country who have been mythologized as the real America ever since Jefferson held up yeoman farmers as the key to our new order of things. The culture wars of the past 40 years, played out in partisan terms, have succeeded in locking Republicans into this worldview. (Remember the Moral Majority?)

No surprise, but a new survey by University of Washington political scientist Christopher Parker shows that Southerners are 12 percent more likely to be Tea Partiers than inhabitants of other parts of the country.

A critical consequence is that when Republicans lose national elections,
they are forbidden by ideology to recognize it as the result of a
legitimate national choice. For if they had lost in a fair fight, it
would mean that they are not, in fact, the majority. Their response,
then, must be to call into question the legitimacy of the victorious
Democrats. The opposition must have prevailed by trickery, or be
unconstitutionally subverting the American order. The impeachment of
Bill Clinton should be seen as an effort to get the country to throw him
out as an illegitimate president–one who had violated his oath of
office. Likewise, the persistent belief that Barack Obama was born in
Kenya (to say nothing of being the Antichrist) represents a faith in things unseen that his presidency is

What was the original tea party in Boston Harbor but a protest against
allegedly illegitimate government action: taxation without
representation. Nor are the current threats of violence the only
manifestations of the legitimacy panic that the GOP experiences whenever
national decisions don’t go its way. Again and again in the HCR debate,
Republicans insisted that “the country” did not want this, and went so
far as to claim that votes of majorities in  House and Senate were
illegitimate because none of them joined in–as if majorities are
not majorities unless some members of the real majority participate.

The next phase of the health care fight moves to the courts, based on
claims that the new statute is unconstitutional. What’s important to
recognize is that the Tea Party Republicans need to believe that what
has been passed and signed into law was not merely wrong but illegitimate.
And unless and until they come to see themselves as standing for a
particular set of policies and principles rather than The Legitimate
America, they won’t get over it.

Update: case in point.

  • Actually, goes beyond votes. I remember when Obama’s approval was hovering in the hi-50/lo-60 percent some conservatives (mainly the NRO crowd, if my mind doesn’t betray me) argued that these numbers were inflated because his approval among blacks (and to some extent, Latinos) were ridiculously high. The not so subtle message was that “real americans” [TM]did not support Obama since removing these constituencies, which made up by the un-americans comprised the bulk of the president’s support, would give the president a negative net approval.

  • That is one way of thinking about the question, and certainly the pertinent one for future electoral successes. However, I like to turn the mirror in the other direction, and ask about the legitimacy of the religious movements who have supported these extremist movements since the nomination of Obama. What does this say about the place of sectarian Protestants–the self identified “evangelicals”—in the public sphere? Why were their leaders and members so opposed to health care for those who can’t afford it? Why do they condone expressions of outlandish racism from their members? Why do they support tactics of terrorism and intimidation, or at least remain alarmingly silent while their devotees Tea Bag for Jesus? Does contemporary “evangelicalism” have or deserve a place in the public sphere given their overt racism and rejection of democratic processes?