Alex Massie

Glenn Beck and the Tea Party Revolutionaries

Text settings

Larry Sabato's latest forecast predicts that the Republican party could pick up as many as 47 seats in the House of Representatives this November. He also thinks they have an outside shot at retaking the Senate. This is the background to Conservative Cabbie's post tweaking me for this blog's previous - and many! - suggestions that the GOP was in heaps of trouble.

He's right. I didn't anticipate unemployment remaining close to 10% through the mid-terms and I didn't think that Pat Toomey, for instance, would be well-placed to win in Pennsylvania. And he's also right to suggest that I under-appreciated the impact the Tea Party movement might have, not least the effect it has had on the prisms through which the mid-terms are going to be viewed.

It's tempting to look at Glenn Beck's prayer-fest on the Mall last weekend as a high point for a certain kind of nostalgic conservatism. There's some merit to that view. But the dominant feature here is nostalgia, not a conservatism re-tooled for government. Beck talked about the need to "restore honour" if America was ever to be great again. That this was an echo, though perhaps an untitting one, of George W Bush's promise to "restore honour and dignity to the White House", actually demonstrates the extent of the nostalgia permeating the rally and, more broadly, the Tea Party movement. America, you see, is always threatened and always needing to be restored to its past glory*.

This can be interpreted, then, as the latest episode of America's Culture Wars. This being America, the cultural is also political but it's culture that infiltrates politics not the other way round.

Perhaps the stupidest - politically speaking - thing Obama said on the campaign trail were his remarks about rural whites who were bitter and clinging to their guns and their bibles. Not because there wasn't an element of truth to his remarks - which also argued that Democrats needed to do more to reach out to these voters - but because they confirmed a sense of lofty, metropolitan and cosmopolitan disdain for these parts of America. It wasn't a mistake Bill Clinton would have made and Obama's remarks essentially confirmed Jim Webb's diagnosis of what's wrong with both political parties.

It wasn't, then, a surprise that even in the Democratic primary Obama did poorly in the arc that runs from middle-Pennsylvania down through Appalachia and west to the Ozarks and eastern Oklahoma. What's sometimes, if lazily, called "Real America" wasn't convinced by Al Gore (not least because of guns and coal) and it surely needed to be convinced that Barack Hussein Obama was One of Us. 

Racial animus doubtless explains part of the hostility to Obama but only a very small part. The President, who made his unusual background a major, perhaps even the major, part of his campaign, exemplifies how the United States is changing. As both Reihan Salam and Christopher Hitchens argue the elderly, largely white crowd at BeckFest don't look very much like the American future.

That future arrived very quickly. Those conservatives who complain they don't recognise America these days have a point. It really isn't how it was when they were kids playing catch with pop on perfect, never-ending summer evenings. That's just a statement of fact.

Of course there had been minorities and immigrants before. But for much of the United States these could seem to belong to different worlds, far from your own experience. It was a metropolitan, coastal and border thing, a long way from life in the heartland. We're speaking broadly here but this was still generally true even fifty years ago. The changes since have been immense.

Even the history the kids learn today - with its focus on Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King - is necessarily very different from the history their grandparents learnt. And that, inevitably I think, has had an impact on the ideas about America held by young Americans and helps explain why they're much more comfortable with change - as a cultural phenomenon - than are their grandparents.

Often it's silly to speak of America as a young country since it is, after all, much older than many other countries. But this incarnation of America is a young** place, no more than 70 years old and perhaps only 50.

It is only recently that African-Americans have become true and full members of the Union; it is only recently that Hispanic-America moved beyond California, Texas and the south-west. It is only recently that there was a new wave of considerable immigration from Asia. And so on. You could include the changing status of women, of gays, of the workplace and much, much else. And since America often makes a virtue of embracing the new because it's new it's not surprising that some people feel alarmed and even left-out or left-behind by much of this. Obama's presidency, coming at a time of economic turmoil, merely serves to reinforce this sense. 

As Reihan puts it, BeckFest was concerned with

[...] a spiritual restoration, a return to time-tested virtues that had been celebrated by the more homogeneous America of the past, in which non-traditional families were stigmatized and relatively rare, church attendance was far more common, and the dominance of Anglo-Protestant culture was unquestioned.

Instead of accepting or embracing this transformation, a large and growing number of white Americans are, knowingly or otherwise, taking a page from minority protest movements of the past by asserting themselves and demanding recognition from political and cultural elites. Many on the left find this sense of anger and alienation risible, seeing in this movement of “are-nots,” as opposed to “have-nots,” a class of ignoramuses duped by Fox News into acting against their supposed economic interests.

Yet it seems more plausible that Fox News is following its audience rather than leading it — that this anger and alienation has existed for years, and has only now found a decidedly unconventional tribune in the form of Glenn Beck. Though this is a class with economic grievances, it seems more concerned with psychic injuries — with a profound sense of disempowerment in the face of centralized political power.

Again, this is the kind of thing Jim Webb has been talking about for years (and one reason why, though there were obvious drawbacks to the idea, there was also a good case for putting Webb on the ticket).

It is, on the face of it, absurd to suppose that white Americans are over-looked or victimised by contemporary American culture. Nonsense too to suggest that there's no place in public life for God and Jesus. But this is what many people, however incoherently, feel and their concerns can't be wished away or dismissed out of hand.

Nevertheless, 80% of American pensioners are white and you can't build a long-term political coalition on their votes. Nor can the current discontent - real and widespread - be divorced from unemployment, a stuttering economy and a decade of negligable income growth for millions of middle-class Americans. The combination of economic uncertainty and major, structural change to society is fertile ground for a conservative populism.

So what do the Tea Partiers want? Dave Weigel has an excellent post on the movement and its relationship with the Republican party which I commend to you in its entireity and he reminds us of the Tea Party's "Contract From America", a ten point plan for restoring American greatness which reads:

1. Protect the Constitution

2. Reject Cap & Trade

3. Demand a Balanced Budget

4. Enact Fundamental Tax Reform

5. Restore Fiscal Responsibility & Constitutionally Limited Government

6. End Runaway Government Spending

7. Defund, Repeal, & Replace Government-run Health Care

8. Pass an ‘All-of-the-Above” Energy Policy

9. Stop the Pork

10. Stop the Tax Hikes

Never-mind the duplication and never mind too that points 1 and 5 are, alas, wishful thinking since no President since at least the Second World War has respected the office's constitutional limits but do note how points 1 and 5 are themselves nostalgic for a long-gone America that (probably!) won't be coming back and might well be unpopular even if it did.

Note instead that this is a call for a) tax cuts b) spending reductions and c) a balanced budget. Well, good luck with that. Maybe that's too pessimistic a view. Over to Weigel:

The politician who’s rightly seen as the ideological vessel of the tea party movement is Sen. Jim DeMint. I’d argue that he’s more important to the movement than its bigger star, Sarah Palin, because DeMint has actually gotten specific about what he wants to do in power and why he thinks tea party activists can help him do it. He thinks that Congress needs to reckon with popular entitlements and spending programs, and it needs to cut them even though this has been, consistently, politically disastrous. His theory is that things are bad enough that Americans understand what needs to be cut. They are ready to give up benefits and programs that, in the past, they’ve supported, because they realize how bad things are. That was the not-so-hidden subtext of Glenn Beck’s big rally on the mall last week. Beck, who’s done so much to inform the Tea Parties, told a crowd of 100,000 or so people in person, and many in the TV audience, that they needed to look inward and look back to God and be ready to restore the pre-New Deal vision of America.

Trouble is, I'm not sure the country as a whole is ready, no matter how much they look to God, to restore the "pre-New Deal vision of America". Even if it were desirable I don't quite know how you go about doing it.

Nor is it obvious that, no matter what Tea Partiers and Republicans say, that America really is ready to cut either entitlements or popular spending programmes. (GOP concerns about fiscal responsibility will carry some additional credibility when they demand cuts to the Pentagon budget.) Debt may have filtered down into the public consciousness; dealing with it may not have.

And pensioner-opposition to Obama's healthcare reforms is often less-rooted in opposition to "government-run healthcare" (since many pensioners benefit from said care) than in fears that their own generous benefits will be cut. So, some of the GOP's most reliable voters are simultaneously demanding budget restraint and protesting anything that might reduce their own benefits. This is a tricky circle to square.

More fundamentally the GOP's increasing reliance on elderly and white voters is problematic at a time when the United States is becoming less white. In one - and it is only one - sense then, the GOP can win now at the expense of its longer-term prospects. That's certainly better than losing now but it doesn't solve the problems posed by demographic trends.

Those trends may change and the Democratic coalition may fracture too. So there's that. But, understandably, the current GOP approach is both better suited to full-throttled opposition than the compromises that will inevitably be forced upon it should it retake either branch of Congress and that, again reasonably, are much better-attuned to a time of economic uncertainty than a period of renewed growth and optimism.

Almost by definition a two-party system can't exclude one party from power permanently and, equally clearly, GOP strength amongst white voters will continue to be vital. But in the longer-term it must be supplemented by support from other kinds of Americans.

So, yes, suggestions of its permanent eclipse are exagerrated but this doesn't mean that the Tea Party and its discontents are going to lead the way to a bright new Permanent Republican Majority.

Still, the mid-terms are going to be interesting. Which is not nothing.

**This is true elsewhere: Britain and France and Canada and Australia have undergone comparable changes too but in different ways and with different successes and different failures and coming from rather different places.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articlePolitics