In “The Tea Parties in Historical Perspective: Conservative Response to a Crisis of Political Economy”, Charles Postel describes the Tea Party as a particular social actor involved in a redistributive struggle. The movement emerges as a defense of the material gains of upper-middle class whites that have accumulated in the post-war economy. It targets both real and imagined redistributive state policies that threaten to extend the social safety net to the uninsured, the working poor, blacks, immigrants, youth and others.
Postel intelligently criticizes the “populism” label that is commonly used to describe the Tea Party movement. According to him, it fails to deal with both the tradition of American populism as a progressive movement, and the contradictions of the Tea Party movement regarding its selective anti-elitism, and selective “anti-government” positions, which sets it rather in the tradition of the anti-democratic, U.S. right. The article is well worth reading. Here is a selection from the introduction:
On February 5, 2009, Rick Santelli, an entertainer and financial commentator on CNBC cable news unleashed his now famous scream against the Obama administration’s economic policies. In the months leading up to this episode, Presidents Bush and Obama had provided hundreds of billions of dollars under the Troubled Asset Relief Program to the Bank of America, Citibank, and other giants of American finance. But what pushed Santelli over the edge was word that the Obama administration might provide mortgage relief to distressed homeowners. Fox News proceeded to explain what had happened: The community organization ACORN had conned the American taxpayer into subsidizing mortgages for people that Santelli defined as “losers,” that is mainly black and Latino families that managed their money badly and did not deserve to own a home in the first place. ACORN, with the aid of its liberal supporters in Congress, had brought the American economy to its knees. Fox and friends had had enough. The tea party movement burst onto the national stage on Tax Day 2009.
In the midst of the most severe financial and economic crisis in over seventy years, the tea parties have been able to tap deep veins of resentment and anger over potential shifts in the post World War II political economy. Since the Second World War, mainly white homeowners – beneficiaries of untold billions of federal subsidies for mortgages and suburban development – have counted on rising home values to anchor their economic security. As home values tumbled in 2008 and 2009, the federal government contemplated coming to the aid of black, Latino, and other minorities historically excluded from the web of federal support. This added insult to injury. Although such aid was never forthcoming, the mere suggestion provoked a storm of opposition. The ensuing debates about health care reform poured gasoline on the fire. At a time of declining retirement portfolios, rising health care costs, and fears about the viability of Social Security and Medicare, the administration’s efforts to extend a health safety net to the forty million Americans without protection appeared as a bitter betrayal of those who already had such protections.
Santelli’s scream also provides clues as to the historical context of the tea parties. It sounded an alarm with deep resonance in conservative politics in America, and especially with the far right that has been locked in a trial of strength for the control of the Republican Party since the 1940s. The tea parties have tapped into fear and anger over potential shifts in political economy to form a grass-roots movement following in the historical traditions of the anti-New Deal American Liberty League, Joseph McCarthy and the witch hunts, Robert Welch and the John Birch Society, and Barry Goldwater and the right-wing Republicans of the early Cold War.