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The Tea Party

No fan of the Tea Party, Glenn Greenwald attacks [1] the class-based condescension being directed at O’Donnell and those like her:

Much of the patronizing derision and scorn heaped on people like Christine O’Donnell have very little to do with their substantive views — since when did right-wing extremism place one beyond the pale? — and much more to do with the fact they’re so . . . unruly and unwashed. To members of the establishment and the ruling class (like Rove), these are the kinds of people — who struggle with tuition bills and have their homes foreclosed — who belong in Walmarts, community colleges, low-paying jobs, and voting booths on command, not in the august United States Senate.

There is a lot of truth to this. There is a visceral dislike among at least some conservative and Republican elites who have little more than disdain for the rank-and-file supporters who make their careers possible. While they are willing to tolerate the rank-and-file so long as they remain in a supporting role, they will absolutely refuse to accept them as equals, much less as leaders. We saw this in spades during Huckabee’s presidential campaign. There were honest Huckabee critics who genuinely objected to his fiscal record, and there were libertarians who truly found his social conservatism off-putting, but there was also significant hostility towards Huckabee as a person because of where he came from, his education and his vocation before politics. Huckabee’s biggest error from the elite Republican perspective was that he was not only proud of his working-class background as a part of his biography, but he openly scorned corporate executives and indulged in more economic populist rhetoric than any Republican presidential candidate in modern times. Huckabee received a lot of vocal criticism from conservative pundits for this, but more important for the failure of his campaign was his inability to get substantial funding that would allow him to compete seriously with Romney and McCain.

In Huckabee’s case, he erred by saying just a little of what his socially conservative constituency actually thought about economic issues. Much of the scorn being poured on O’Donnell comes from conventional horror at her social conservatism, which has been largely irrelevant to her campaign [2]. What has been remarkable is how unimportant policy is in all of this. Huckabee supported the Fair Tax idea, but received nothing but grief from “economic conservatives” on the grounds that he was some crypto-liberal because he kept Arkansas’ budget balanced and rebuilt the state’s crumbling highways. Because of the hostility he encountered, Huckabee became very outspoken against libertarianism on the right, but he was also one of the only prominent national Republicans to oppose the bailout. As it turned out, his populist instincts were right, but he won’t get any credit from the anti-TARP activists, and he has simply confirmed the Republican elites in their fear and loathing of him. For her part, O’Donnell can dwell on fiscal and economic matters all day, and that doesn’t really matter to a lot of people in the political class and the media, because many of them are much more interested in treating her Catholicism or her pro-life convictions as some sort of joke. TARP was unnecessary and indefensible, so when an anti-TARP candidate wins the only recourse is to talk about something else.

There is something important about Tea Party activists that seems to elude a lot of observers, and I’m not sure why. It’s true that a lot of these activists are regular church-goers, and many of them are social conservatives, but rather crucially they don’t emphasize social conservative issues and these issues aren’t the ones that are energizing the activists and voters this year. Had O’Donnell run her campaign as an Alan Keyes-esque exercise in moral hectoring and Declaration-quoting, she wouldn’t have gone anywhere. Castle was more vulnerable because of his TARP and cap-and-trade votes, and whatever else you want to say about them these are fiscal and economic questions where Castle came down on the opposite side from a significant percentage of his own party. So, no, “the tea party” in general isn’t interested in social issues [3], doesn’t back candidates because of them, and has no great desire to advance social conservative causes. On the whole, the panic about O’Donnell’s social conservatism and the undue attention paid to it are just another way of expressing disdain for her because of her social and cultural background.

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13 Comments To "The Tea Party"

#1 Comment By MBunge On September 16, 2010 @ 1:48 pm

You’re 100% on the money with Huckabee, but I think you have to give the elites a bit of a break when it comes to candidates like O’Donnell. The snobbery is real, but I think it’s a reflex because they don’t know how to actually respond to candidates like O’Donnell when they actually might win races. It’s easy to smile at an Alan Keyes when he has no chance of winning, but it’s just as easy to be flabbergasted at how much the system has broken down when such folks could seriously win office.

Mike

#2 Comment By Young Geezer On September 16, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

How has her Catholicism been treated as a joke?

#3 Comment By kent On September 16, 2010 @ 2:14 pm

Her anti-masturbation beliefs are the only thing I’ve seen joked about. And honestly, they’re pretty much tailor-made to be mocked. Whatever you might think about the claim that this is a “Christian nation,” we’re definitely not a nation that’s much interested in Christian notions of sexual purity as defined by O’Donnell. Last night’s Colbert segment on her was worth a few laughs for sure.

Daniel, where did your firm anti-TARP opinion come from? What should have been done instead, in your opinion? (If you’ve already written about it at length, I missed it and a link would help me out.)

#4 Comment By Charlie On September 16, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

It’s always hard to criticize someone like O’Donnell as being clearly unfit for office, since that seems to obligate you to defend the qualifications of current officeholders. That said, what concerns me about a lot of Tea Party candidates is that they–taking a cue from their great exemplar, Palin–seem to positively revel in their lack of qualifications. This can be viewed in terms of class and snobbery, and I have no doubt that plays a role.

But looking at it that way obscures larger questions of whether baseline levels of seriousness and competence are prerequisites for public office. I don’t know or care if George W. Bush, personality-wise, is a “regular guy” but I do know that by every relevant measure he is and always has been a member of this country’s political, economic and social elite. He nonetheless presented a public persona that invited his supporters to dismiss his critics as ridiculous poindexters who were so distracted by knowing stuff that they failed to see the big picture.

Bush, I think, is a good reminder that there’s nothing wrong or elitist about expecting public figures to be serious people. There’s a difference between appealing to “regular people” and appealing to the lowest common denominator. If you look at genuinely impressive people who are not socially or economically elite–say, top-notch non-commissioned officers in the military–you see a seriousness and commitment that’s totally lacking in some of these clownish candidates running under the Tea Party banner.

On the whole, the panic about O’Donnell’s social conservatism and the undue attention paid to it are just another way of expressing disdain for her because of her social and cultural background.

What constitutes “undue” attention to social conservatism? I agree that social conservatism isn’t propelling these candidacies. Nevertheless, the candidates are social conservatives. Their election would make the GOP caucus more socially conservative, and if the GOP wins one of both houses of Congress and becomes more central to the legislative process it’s reasonable to expect that Congress itself will become substantially more socially conservative than it has been under Democratic leadership. Good thing, bad thing, unimportant thing, that seems to be obvious, and clearly its not something that social moderates or social liberals are necessarily going to like.

Also, given the extent to which these candidates are aggressively positioning themselves as an antidote to corrupt libertine elites who don’t live in the “real America” I’m not sure it’s fair to imply that all the class animus is flowing in one direction.

#5 Comment By M.Z. Forrest On September 16, 2010 @ 2:57 pm

While there is some condescension out there, much of it is really Republican posturing. Neither Palin nor Huckabee were middle class. Most the Tea Party is middle to middle-upper class and white. Upper middle class white folks complaining about being looked down upon is an all too common phenomenon nowadays.

#6 Comment By tbraton On September 16, 2010 @ 3:07 pm

Daniel, I think you are being much too kind to O’Donnell, although I note that, in a subsequent blog, you state that “The basic argument against O’Donnell can be made against Palin: outside the bubble of her devoted followers, very few people like her, and even fewer believe she is qualified for the office.” In this blog, you make no mention that she has lied repeatedly about her college degree, about being accepted by Princeton for graduate studies, and about beating Joe Biden in 2008 in two Delaware counties when they were running against each other in the Senate race. You make no mention of the fact that her personal finances are a shambles and that she has not been especially successful in her career, whether in politics or her private life. After all, she is seeking one of only 100 positions available in the U.S. Shouldn’t our standards be a little higher than Christie O’Donnell? I certainly think so.

I also disagree with your position that we should totally disregard all issues that the candidate is not making part of his or her campaign. If I were voting in Delaware, I would vote against O’Donnell because she rejects Darwinian evolution, that she believes in a literal account of creation set forth in Genesis, that she opposes abortion in all cases including rape and incest. (This doesn’t even get into her rather bizarre attitudes toward sex. However, it is easy to see why she hasn’t married.) After all, she is going to be casting one of only 100 votes should she win the election in November, and her positions on those and other issues will surely affect her vote. BTW I think it is preposterous to assume that O’Donnell’s opposition to TARP is based on the same thorough thinking and analysis that your opposition is based on. It’s just a talking point for her.

#7 Comment By Daniel Larison On September 16, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

I didn’t mention her false statements because I assumed, perhaps incorrectly, that everyone who reads political blogs already knew all about these. I’m not trying to omit them or pretend that they don’t reflect badly on her. Yes, it’s true that her finances have been a mess, and she hasn’t accomplished much of anything. I had thought I had already been sufficiently critical or dismissive of O’Donnell before now, but perhaps I wasn’t. Anyway, our standards should be higher, and mine certainly are.

Her other views are fair game. After all, she’s a public figure and she’s seeking a powerful political office. What I find strange is that there seems to be undue attention to her religious and moral attitudes and almost none to the issues that helped get her elected. I have no idea why she is opposed to TARP. It is interesting that no one seems to have bothered trying to find out her reasons. It could very well be a position she holds merely because she thinks it is useful, or she has a vague knee-jerk reaction to appropriating large amounts of money for any purpose, or it could be something else. That’s the sort of thing that would be worth investigating, since it would be a lot more relevant to ongoing policy debates. If it turns out that she is simply mouthing slogans and has no idea what the arguments against TARP are, that would be yet another mark against her.

Personally, I just find it a bit silly to be obsessing about her attitudes on sex when her views on fiscal matters and foreign policy will have a lot more to do with what she does in the Senate. Is she against ratifying START? She probably is, and even if I were a social liberal that would be a much bigger strike against her. All of this is a bit like when libertarians were having a great time laughing at Rick Santorum because of his moralizing and mostly ignoring his rampant warmongering. I suppose my point is that there are simply far more important things to worry about.

#8 Comment By tbraton On September 16, 2010 @ 3:40 pm

“Personally, I just find it a bit silly to be obsessing about her attitudes on sex when her views on fiscal matters and foreign policy will have a lot more to do with what she does in the Senate. Is she against ratifying START?”

I guess we all have our own fantasies. I expect we will hear an intelligent discussion of START from O’Donnell only after we have an intelligent analysis of the John Marshall Supreme Court presented by Sarah Palin.

#9 Comment By conradg On September 17, 2010 @ 9:09 am

This is GOP identity politics coming to bite its leaders in the ass. Since Reagan’s time, the GOP has been trying to find candidates who their rank and file (and independents) can identify with. Especially since Bush in 2000, this has been the dominant value built into the GOP message machine, used by its elites to manipulate voters into imagining that patrician-raised Ivy League guys like GWB were “one of us” because they mimicked certain speech and outer habits of “regular folks”.

This became so popular that honest-to-goodness “regular folks” actually got the idea that they could go into politics. Now these regular folks are displacing the elites. This is the problem with cultural-based populist identity politics. Eventually, it’s not enough to just be “for the real people”, you actually have to be one of the “real people.” In fact, after years of telling people not to vote on policy or competence, but on identity politics, this has now become the most important qualification of all. Hence, the rise of Palin, O’Donnell et al and the demise of Castle. Bashing elites for years on end has worked, to the point of destroying anyone who seems “better” than you, such as having an education and being better qualified than Joe the Plumber. Now the GOP elites are being devoured by the beast they created, and it’s quite amusing to watch.

I have to disagree with you about Palin. While Romney is the old-school front runner, in the new environment he’s definitely an underdog, even though he won’t be portrayed that way, and regular folk Sarah is the new overdog, running of course as the underdog. Two years is a lifetime in politics, so anything could happen, but it sure looks like Palin is going to be the nominee. Insurgents rarely do take the GOP nomination, but 2012 is looking like the new 1964.

#10 Comment By conradg On September 17, 2010 @ 9:17 am

Also, regarding the notion of it “being Romney’s turn”, do remember that Sarah was the VP nominee last time around, so she has a decent case for it being “her turn” this time, and not Romney’s, who dropped out early. Even Huckabee has a case that it’s “his turn”, since he got more votes than Romney. Personally, I think the race is between Sarah and Huckabee, with Sarah winning out.

Romney still, in Huckabee’s famous remark, “looks like the guy who fires you”. He can’t pass the identity politics test. Throw in the Mormonism and the insufferable sense of personal falseness, the Mass health care mandate and the support for TARP, and he loses big time.

#11 Comment By conradg On September 17, 2010 @ 9:18 am

Not posting properly?

This is GOP identity politics coming to bite its leaders in the ass. Since Reagan’s time, the GOP has been trying to find candidates who their rank and file (and independents) can identify with. Especially since Bush in 2000, this has been the dominant value built into the GOP message machine, used by its elites to manipulate voters into imagining that patrician-raised Ivy League guys like GWB were “one of us” because they mimicked certain speech and outer habits of “regular folks”.

This became so popular that honest-to-goodness “regular folks” actually got the idea that they could go into politics. Now these regular folks are displacing the elites. This is the problem with cultural-based populist identity politics. Eventually, it’s not enough to just be “for the real people”, you actually have to be one of the “real people.” In fact, after years of telling people not to vote on policy or competence, but on identity politics, this has now become the most important qualification of all. Hence, the rise of Palin, O’Donnell et al and the demise of Castle. Bashing elites for years on end has worked, to the point of destroying anyone who seems “better” than you, such as having an education and being better qualified than Joe the Plumber. Now the GOP elites are being devoured by the beast they created, and it’s quite amusing to watch.

I have to disagree with you about Palin. While Romney is the old-school front runner, in the new environment he’s definitely an underdog, even though he won’t be portrayed that way, and regular folk Sarah is the new overdog, running of course as the underdog. Two years is a lifetime in politics, so anything could happen, but it sure looks like Palin is going to be the nominee. Insurgents rarely do take the GOP nomination, but 2012 is looking like the new 1964.

#12 Comment By Norwegian Shooter On September 17, 2010 @ 10:05 am

Daniel: “What I find strange is that there seems to be undue attention to her religious and moral attitudes and almost none to the issues that helped get her elected.”

We’re talking about the first couple of days of national media attention. The biggest biases of the MSM are still sensationalism and laziness. All the serious stuff will come out, but for now, running with video of a big hair slamming masturbation is TV gold.

I also see no attention at all to her religion. I didn’t know she was a Catholic until now. As far as abortion, just being pro-life isn’t news-worthy. But being [4] is.

#13 Comment By petey On September 18, 2010 @ 11:05 am

“While there is some condescension out there, much of it is really Republican posturing.”

this is exactly right. i heard that ‘elites’ were attacking and/or frightened of o’donnell before i heard a single crack about her.