Saturday, March 27, 2010

How to Play Tea Party

Over the past year, the peculiar rise of the "tea party" "movement" has drawn a tremendous amount of attention from the nation's media. As a thousand or so tea partiers arrived here in DC to protest ObambimateurminationCare, or whatever it is they've attempted to rename health care reform, I've been again struck by some of the defining characteristics of the movement. Let me lay some of those out there:

1) Signs Made By Preschoolers. I can't not notice this. Whenever Tea Partiers get out there, they have signs made with magic marker. They are clumsy and roughly done, and stand in stark contrast to the well-printed and designed signs of those who often oppose them. It is a defining feature of the movement.

I think it's supposed to be a mark of authenticity. But honestly, it's just sloppy. If you look back to the populist movements of the early 20th century, you do see hand-made signs. But they used stencils. They looked neat. Organized. Focused. They commanded respect. Surely, surely, amongst all of the folks in that movement, someone must be an assistant manager of a Kinkos. Find that guy. Do a better job.

That may be a highly visible feature of the movement, but it's just surface level. Let's move on.

2) Race: Everyone sees this. In the multihued America in which we live, it is astoundingly obvious. The Tea Party makes the Republican National Convention look like Showtime at the Apollo. Yeah, some of the tea partiers will tell you they have lots of black friends, and their granddaughter is biracial. That's real nice, but honey, y'all are still one big Honkeypalooza.

That doesn't mean they're racists. Not at all. In fact, I think that only a fringe of that fringe harbor nasty ethic hatreds. But it does mean there's a rather impressive monoculture going on...and monocultures have a tendency to fall deep into uncritical groupthink.

3) Class: This is more important. Most tea party folks are working class. They're the folks who used to make things in factories and grow things on farms. They're people with rough hands, with oil and dirt under their fingernails. Though they'd blanch at the very thought, they are the proletariat. They were the flesh-and-blood engine of America's industrial and agricultural might. Now, of course, there's not a thing for them to do besides an eight hour shift at Dennys, followed by two nights a week behind the register at the Gas'N'Go. They are tired, overworked, and underpaid, and their backs hurt.

4) Rage: These are angry, angry people. They are angry because the America they thought they knew is gone. The jobs are gone. The sense of America as a shining city on a hill? Gone. They're on the front line of the collapse of our industrial might.

Why? Well, there's the rub. The reason for that collapse is...well...them. Tea partier's aggressive independence and rugged individualism meant that for decades, they voted for the party of the unfettered and free market. Freedom! Business! America!

That brought about globalization, as capitalism did what capitalism does. The ethic of profit maximization heartily endorsed by American conservatism drove manufacturing to places where it was less expensive. So tea partiers lost their jobs. The ethic of unfettered markets meant that big corporations and agribusinesses flourished, crushing uncompetitive small businesses and small farms under their low, low prices. So more tea partiers lost their jobs. It's the nature of the market, folks. When you voted for Reagan, and then Bush, and then Dubya, that's what you voted for.

But when you exist in a monoculture, which lacks the capacity to critically consider it's own presumptions, you aren't going to be able to make that connection. You just know that EVERYTHING IS GETTING WORSE. Your anger is inchoate, formless, and can't seem to find it's mark...because you can't see that you are responsible for your own downfall. Aimlessly angry people are easily manipulated, and so deeper they go, lost in a trap of their own making. It's hubris in it's most classical form, writ across the broken lives of the common people of our republic.