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Tea and Hostility

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books and culture

Tea and Hostility

Two new books show how alienated Americans have become from Washington. October 3, 2010
Politics and law

Mad As Hell: How the Tea Party Movement Is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System, by Doug Schoen and Scott Rasmussen (Harper, 336 pp., $27.99)

Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America, by Kate Zernike (Times Books, 256 pp., $25)

During the 1980 presidential campaign, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a man of considerable prevision, was, as he described it, “terrified” by the “movement to turn Republicans into Populists, a party of the people arrayed against a Democratic Party of the State.” This restructuring of American politics was occurring, he argued, “not by chance but by dint of substance and often complex argument.” Moynihan had anticipated what would become, a generation later, the Tea Parties.

Two new books on the Tea Party movement are nicely complementary. Doug Schoen and Scott Rasmussen’s Mad as Hell relies heavily on public-opinion surveys to show that the Tea Party movement has, for the moment, achieved parity with the two major political parties in terms of public support. In Boiling Mad, Kate Zernike, a New York Times reporter, draws on her extensive interviews with Tea Party activists to provide a ground-level view of the movement. In different ways, both books draw a picture of a populace alienated from government, which Americans now see as just another self-serving interest group.

Zernike captures the texture of a disparate movement, some of whose leaders one could describe as rock-and-roll right-wingers. But she rightly sees that, like a fractal, the movement can, within a shared political geometry, take on different shapes and tonalities. “Every time you thought you could put the movement in a box,” she writes early on, “you encountered something that didn’t fit in.” The book’s early chapters, its strongest, show that the Tea Party’s just-so creation story—Rick Santelli’s famed February 2009 rant against the housing bailout on CNBC—had been preceded by earlier stirrings. She describes how, in the unlikely locale of politically correct Seattle, 29-year-old Keli Carender, a pierced-nosed, libertarian child of Anglo and Mexican parents, who taught math to adults on welfare, created a proto-Tea Party organization. Carender learned from anti-globalization activists and Obama enthusiasts how to organize political meetings and then build for future activity by collecting the names of all participants in a database. She staged a protest against the stimulus bill, Porkulus; conservative blogger Michelle Malkin sent her some real pork to feed the crowd. When Carender wound up with some leftover pork, she donated it to a homeless shelter.

But Zernike never deepens her Carender profile—one of a collection that comprises the core of her book—because she misunderstands the dynamic that drives the Tea Parties. From her perspective, the stimulus bill and Obama’s health-care reform, for instance, are considerable achievements, whose merits the Tea Partiers have unfortunately overlooked in the misguided hope of restraining the growth of federal power. Her reasoned attempt to show that even the Tea Partiers, some of their rhetoric notwithstanding, don’t want to abolish entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare leads to a less-well-reasoned argument that what the Tea Parties represent is just a recurrent phase in the age-old American ambivalence about government.

What Zernike doesn’t grasp is the class dynamics of the Tea Parties—a revolt in the name of self-government against the pretensions and failures of the best and the brightest. The Tea Partiers believe that an out-of-control and incompetent government has time and again ignored the public will in pursuing its own ends. This growing sense of aggrievement is behind the continued intensification of anti-government protests.

Doug Schoen authored an early biography of Moynihan, and he and Scott Rasmussen unsurprisingly build on the insights of the former New York senator. Rasmussen and Schoen hone in on the tensions between ordinary Americans and the political class, a division clearly delineated in polling data showing that while the public is sharply critical of both the stimulus and Obamacare, the political class endorses both. As Rasmussen and Schoen see it, the intersection of declining middle-class incomes and the enormous peace-time growth of government has fundamentally altered the parameters of American political culture.

The weakness of both books is that neither discusses in any depth the unprecedented growth of public-sector unions, one of the primary drivers of ballooning public spending. Forty years ago, Harry Wellington of Yale Law School presciently warned that the power of public-sector unions to elect their own bosses at the ballot box posed a serious threat to democracy. The Tea Parties are a response to that ongoing threat. They may not continue in their current form, but as all levels of government get hit with the coming wave of out-of-control public-pension costs, the Tea Party spirit is likely to become integral to our politics.

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