The Tea Party is the latest of a long series of Rich People’s Movements, but its reactionary zeal now challenges the rich people who seeded it. (More)

“I think he’s the most dangerous person that’s ever walked in these United States”

Last month the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart interviewed David Jackson at the Belmont General Store in Belmont, North Carolina. While Jackson doesn’t mention the Tea Party, his comments mirror common Tea Party rhetoric and they’re worth reading in full.

Jackson repeats many right-wing fables, from undocumented immigrants using the Affordable Care Act (they can’t) to President Obama hosting a Muslim Brotherhood meeting on the White House lawn (which never happened), faking the death of Osama bin Laden (a conspiracy that began within hours after the raid), and refusing to send help to the U.S. consulate in Benghazi (CIA security officer Glen Doherty, who died at Benghazi, was part of a team that flew in from Tripoli to provide help after the attack began). Jackson even claims President Obama lost his license to practice law (false). Jackson summarizes his view of the president in this passage:

Look at what our country has become. You can’t go to church without somebody persecuting you. You can’t say anything about the Muslim religion without somebody persecuting you for it. He makes it very well known what his intentions are and how he wants to change the country. And it goes completely against everything this country was founded on. He’s a smart guy, he’s brilliant. But I think he’s the most dangerous person that’s ever walked in these United States. I fear from him, and I’m not afraid of anyone. I’m afraid of him.

“A dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy”

Jackson’s comments on President Obama are strikingly similar to John Birch Society founder Robert Welch’s claim, in his initial draft of The Politician, that President Dwight Eisenhower was “a dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy.”

That similarity is hardly surprising, as we saw in the conclusion of our series on Isaac Martin’s Rich People’s Movements. The “tea party” theme for modern anti-tax protests began in California with Vivian Kellems’ Liberty Belles and, when that and other California anti-tax groups folded, their mailing lists were given to the John Birch Society. The JBS then provided what Dr. Martin sees as one of three essential elements of Rich People’s Movements:

  • A policy threat – The 1% usually avoid populist movements and instead rely on campaign donations, lobbying, and other “inside” strategies to exert influence on government. Rich People’s Movements have arisen only when “inside” strategies failed to prevent a policy that threatened their interests: land-grant banks in the 1920s, the New Deal in the 1930s, expanding Social Security to cover domestic workers in the 1940s, civil rights and Great Society reforms of the 1950s and 60s and, most recently, the Affordable Care Act and Wall Street Reform Act.
  • Movement entrepreneurs – Because the 1% usually avoid populist movements, they rely on what Martin calls “movement entrepreneurs” to develop and coordinate local groups. In the 1920s, Treasury Secretary Andrew Carnegie relied on J.A. Arnold to organize southern rural bankers against the land banks. In the late 1960s, the JBS took over the organizing work of Kellems and her Liberty Belles. In the 1980s, Charles and David Koch, the sons of JBS co-founder Fred Koch, founded and funded the Citizens for a Sound Economy that later split into Americans for Prosperity and Freedomworks, who in turn helped organize today’s Tea Party groups.
  • Policy framing – It’s hard to rally a populist movement around cutting taxes for the 1%, and thus successful Rich People’s Movements have always framed policy proposals to bring in other groups: from economic appeals to southern rural bankers in the 1920s, to anti-war appeals to women in the 1940s and 50s, to “traditional values” appeals to white Christian men in the decades since.

Dr. Martin notes that Rich People’s Movements often borrow both the language and the tactics of previous progressive movements, and are more likely to succeed when his three elements are met and pro-business Republicans hold power. The movements are more likely to fail when Democrats hold power, when outside events like the Great Depression and World War II make Americans skeptical of appeals to self-interest, or when movement entrepreneurs are exposed as using the movement to enrich themselves.

“Fox News as a means of forging a collective identity”

In Change They Can’t Believe In, Christopher Parker and Matt Barreto show that the Tea Party is a reactionary movement for which the election of President Obama was the catalyzing event. While the seeds of the Tea Party have existed for decades, and while Tea Party members typically score high on typical conservative personality traits like Social Dominance Orientation, Drs. Parker and Barreto also show that the Tea Party itself helps to radicalize its supporters:

Still, we think it’s more likely that support for the Tea Party … influences anti-Obama attitudes.

Our confidence rests on the role played by Fox News as a means of forging a collective identity among Tea Party elites, activists, and supporters. As Kathleen Hall Jamieson and John Capella’s research demonstrates, increasing exposure to conservative media tends to crystallize, even change opinions on important issues. Moreover, they show that the insularity of consumers of conservative media from more mainstream media outlets, in which they’d come across viewpoints counter to what they see on, say, Fox, tends to promote attitudes at variance with the rest of America.

Indeed the rise of right-wing talk radio, Fox News, the internet, and social media may explain why ‘mainstream’ Republicans now find it difficult to rein in the Tea Party. Drs. Parker and Barreto show that Tea Party members are more likely than other conservatives likely to vote in midterm elections and GOP primaries, boosting their electoral influence.

And unlike Rich People’s Movements of the past, the Tea Party does not have to rely on local meetings or expensive direct mail to exchange ideas. The rise of right-wing media and social media make the Tea Party more self-sustaining, and the group polarization effect of these “information islands” makes the Tea Party self-radicalizing, a Rich People’s Movement that Rich People no longer control.

In light of the Tea Party’s roots in millenia of human evolution, centuries of conservative rhetoric, and decades of Rich People’s Movements – now unleashed by our modern media – it is unrealistic for progressives to hope the Tea Party will Just Go Away. Instead, we must recognize that they represent less than a third of Americans, and focus our efforts on reaching out to median voters like our archetypal Fred.

When we reach out person-to-person, as we did in 2012, progressive values can win elections and enable positive change.

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Happy Friday!