The Tea Party has drowned
The Tea Party is over. In the way of parties that end, there are still people around. Those who remain search for a return of the old energy and make unconvincing demonstrations of people having a good time. But the central focus, the excitement, the purpose of the thing is dissipating. That is because the bad stuff that its members and boosters put out — lies, slanders, paranoia, ignorance — is losing what grip it had over the minds of people with minds. What’s left, though, is something else, which will not go away: the identification of moral choices blurred and contemporary indifferences ignored.
The core membership of the Tea Party is composed of people of the Christian faith, many of whom are devout Bible readers. The political scientists Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell, who have researched the attitudes of Tea Party members, found that party members were more concerned with putting God into government than with trying to pull government out of people’s lives. They will thus know well the Sermon on the Mount, which is spread across Matthew, chapters 6 and 7, and which contains the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, which art in heaven…”
It also contains a verse (Matthew 7:15), which runs: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” The Tea Party has been rich in false prophets, but it is presently getting something of a comeuppance, in part because of its ravening.
The heat of the Republican primaries, in which the Tea Party’s themes have been well rehearsed, have, paradoxically, tended to melt rather than fire up the group’s stars. First, Rush Limbaugh, whose talk show is aired daily to millions of listeners, insulted a student, Sandra Fluke, calling her a “slut” and a “prostitute.” He did so because she had argued, at a Democratic committee hearing, for health coverage for contraceptives. Limbaugh’s comments went out first on Feb. 29. He repeated the slur in different forms in two more broadcasts — and then made a stilted apology, as advertisers pulled ads from his show. Behind the support for him voiced by his network you could sense the unspoken question: Where is Rush’s tipping point? When does he become more loss than profit?
Glenn Beck, once the major draw on Fox News, found his tipping point last year and left the network in June. Roger Ailes, head of the company, said Beck had been insufficiently focused on his show, since he did so much else — tours, rallies, radio shows, and books — to capitalize on his fame and notoriety (and the advertisers were deserting him after he called President Obama a racist).
Capitalizing (a modern synonym for ravening) is the motive force: Outrageousness, followed or not by an apology, drives traffic to the shows and the rallies, and pushes income higher. On the left, comedian Bill Maher, who has often insulted Sarah Palin (“a moron”; joking that her down-syndrome child was a result of sex with John Edwards, the former Democratic presidential candidate now facing six felony charges; and at a concert in December 2010, many in the audience, presumably his fans, attested that he called Palin a “cunt”), makes enough money from his shows to donate $1 million to President Obama’s re-election campaign.
Partisans behave like partisans everywhere, no matter which side they’re on: They cheer their people, excuse them and at best say the other side is worse. Civility, obviously, suffers: Just as important, the political scene’s diversity, its challenges, its many shades of red and blue are all collapsed into an exchange of libel and defamation — excused, including by the mainstream media, as the necessary cost of free speech and being a public person. It’s a cost, but it’s not necessary.
There’s a new film out, Game Change, about Palin’s run for the vice-presidency. It’s not an outright attack on Palin. The Washington Post reviewer, Maura Judkis, said that “the film’s most scathing indictment is a symbolic one: It attacks our mutual inability to communicate.” But that movie is more chilling, for existential reasons, for Palin. It took Hollywood two decades to do a Margaret Thatcher movie (2011’s Iron Lady with Meryl Streep), but it does a Palin movie with Julianne Moore while the subject is still an active, and relatively young, political figure. Implicitly, the film is saying: Palin’s moment is over.
No mourning for Beck and Limbaugh as they withdraw from visibility; some for Palin, who levered herself up the steep ladder of politics from humble beginnings and a sketchy education and who had her moments of populist clarity — though more of populist rubbish. She and her colleagues, who switched back and forth between commentary, “journalism” (mainly for Fox, a major sponsor of Tea Party boosters), and political engagement, specialized in often mendacious attacks on Obama and the Democrats, constant denigration of the mainstream media, and aggressive victimization. There was also the view that the majority of decent, hardworking Americans had been silenced but would now be heard through the intercession of the Tea Party, who are bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh.
The paranoid in U.S. politics has a long history. (This is also true of most countries’ politics: In democracies, it has more or less free expression, while in authoritarian states, it is often co-opted by the regime to both placate and control the masses.) There has been much citing of Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 article for Harper’s, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” with its tremendous opening sentence: “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.” Its conclusion is even better: “We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.” But those who use that, or any such judgment, as an assumption that this sums up all that needs be said on the subject, are wrong.
In a recent column in Time titled “Rick Santorum’s Inconvenient Truths,” Joe Klein wrote that Santorum and his wife, Karen, decided not to abort a child diagnosed in the womb as having Trisomy 18, a condition that so far means certain death soon after birth and for which doctors advise an abortion. Instead, they had the child and for three years cared for her. She died earlier this year. (CORRECTION Mar. 15: Santorum’s daughter was gravely ill in late January, but recovered.)
Klein describes their choice, and continues:
All right, I can hear you saying, the Santorum family’s course may be admirable, but shouldn’t we have the right to make our own choices? Yes, I suppose. But I also worry that we’ve become too averse to personal inconvenience as a society — that we’re less rigorous parents than we should be, that we’ve farmed out our responsibilities, especially for the disabled, to the state — and I’m grateful to Santorum for forcing on me the discomfort of having to think about the moral implications of his daughter’s smile.
What Klein sees is the moral challenge with which Santorum — and the best of the Tea Party-affiliated right — presents us. The routinization of abortion and of contraception; the reliance on the state to take care of the elderly and the physically and mentally disabled; the shifts we make with our children to pursue careers and make a larger income — all of these are, indeed, inconvenient truths, the kind of thing that fills the long minutes of wakefulness in the small hours, when our conscience will not let us sleep. And we in Western Europe are more dependent on the state to take care of these problems than are Americans.
Santorum’s brand of fundamentalist Catholicism is not to most tastes — indeed, it’s not to many Catholics’ tastes, and polls show that Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner, got more Catholic votes than Santorum did in some states. Gay marriage in the U.S., after long wrangling over it, is inching toward majority acceptance; the need for women in the working and middle classes to earn money to keep the family going cuts directly against his view that women should stay at home to have and raise the kids. Santorum has a powerful, but minority, message.
But for the heirs of the sixties, when sexual liberations of various kinds were framed as all gain and no pain, his pitch is a jolt — late, perhaps, but necessary nonetheless. The Tea Party’s aftertaste need not be only sour. Matthew’s chapters on the Sermon on the Mount also contain this much quoted line (Matthew 7:20): “By their fruits shall ye know them.” By our fruits we will know ourselves: One fruit worth tending is that which might, for thinking men and women of the right and the left, give a taste of doubt and reflection, which could be used to repair the resentments of America.