Thursday, April 22, 2010

A not altogether unsympathetic look at the teabaggers

Everyone knows about the New York Times/CBS survey published earlier this month of those who say they are part of the teabaggers - excuse me, the “Tea Party movement” although it really has to be Parties since there are several of them, some created by GOPpers and some merely embracing them while claiming to be nonpartisan and altogether independent and exactly why, considering what “tp” is for, being a “TPer” is supposed to be such a much better label than “teabagger” escapes me - in any event, that survey and others have shown them to be a clearly conservative grouping and a clearly political minority one. They are multiple steps to the right of the general public on a variety of attitudes - in some cases, the NYT/CBS survey reports, 20 or even 30 percentage points to the right.

Put another way, they are the typical right wing of the GOPpers: socially reactionary, xenophobic, and racist.

But is that because they are in the TP or are they in the TP because they are such people? In other words, is the teabagger movement just a collection of backward bigots who happened to get louder than normal and get some media attention by doing a lot of screaming - or do people get sucked into the movement because others play on their fears, not creating them but exploiting them, amplifying them, focusing them, turning those fears into the underpinnings of a cause for other purposes which would not function without the energy that bigotry generates?

It’s been demonstrated often enough by both psychological testing and historical analysis to be common wisdom that the one common factor that unites those who call themselves “conservative,” crossing all lines of age, sex, race, nationality, and gender, is fear of change. The more change, the more conservatism grows. Conservatism, bluntly, is based on fear - and I don’t mean fear-mongering as a political tactic here, I mean an internal fear, a personal fear, that the world around you is no longer comprehensible. I’ve written before of the idea of a “worldview,” a way of organizing the world we perceive around us such that it makes sense. As I said one time, our
worldview significantly shapes our views on matters of philosophy and morality and it informs our positions on issues of public policy. Even those who have no concern with the latter still have a worldview shaping the former. What that worldview consists of can vary wildly from person to person, but every sane, sentient being has one; you can't function without it.
If the world, if society, around you is changing in ways you can’t seem to understand, that don’t fit your personal worldview, you can become disoriented and frightened - and that fear, that fear of the changes, will make you more conservative. (Which is also why people in general tend to become more conservative as they get older: The more “set in your ways” you are, the more used you are to things being a certain way, the more disturbing changes can seem.)

Now, remember when Barack Obama was attacked during the campaign for referring to people in western Pennsylvania as “clinging to their guns and their religion?” The point was clumsily expressed and deserved a clearer explanation, but the point was entirely valid: The people in the area were suffering real economic dislocations. Jobs were disappearing and more importantly for the purpose here, the sort of stable communities on which those people had depended for generations were disappearing along with them. So of course they clung to their guns and their religion. When you are under pressure, constantly stressed, when the things you have counted on seem to be slipping away, you are going to cling ever more tightly to those things you have left, those parts of your world that still make sense, that you still can control. It is a natural, normal, entirely human reaction.

So when people already subjected to social and economic stresses inflicted by forces beyond their control and usually their understanding are faced with things becoming even more - from their perspective - unhinged, such as by the election of a black president, well that just can’t be right and racist leanings provide the seeds for conspiracy theories that serve, ultimately, to deny this really could be happening legitimately. As one TPer was quoted as saying of Obama:
He’s a socialist. And to tell you the truth, I think he’s a Muslim and trying to head us in that direction, I don’t care what he says. He’s been in office over a year and can’t find a church to go to. That doesn’t say much for him.
We have seen this kind of thing many times before in our history. Indeed, the TPers remind me a great deal of the equally-cliched “angry white male” of the 1990s. To show how much, I’m going to include a lengthy quote from a letter I wrote to a friend in the UK in 1995. See how much of this you think still applies:
What makes the present moment more difficult is that the so-called “angry white male” is not without legitimate grievances: His hopes are shrinking, his dreams for his family and his children are fading, he keeps working harder and getting less for it - he is, in short, losing ground and has been doing it for nearly 20 years now. (Real median family income in the US peaked around 1977 and has been declining more or less continuously since, despite the fact that the average work week has lengthened and more spouses than ever are working. Consider that the rich have gained over that time, and it’s clear that the decline suffered by the middle class and the poor is considerably worse than that average.) Meanwhile, things that he thought he could take for granted in his social relationships have been subjected to almost constant assaults in which he is too often cast as the conscious villain of the piece rather than as what he is: the unwitting beneficiary of standards and (pre-)judgments that profit him in the short run but damage him in the long run.

The result is that he feels pressured, frustrated, haunted by the suspicion that he’s failed his family, that his efforts are unappreciated, and that he’s being blamed for things that “aren’t my fault” - which combine to make him bitter and defensive; ready, even eager, to have someone to blame to relieve his own guilt and creeping despair.

Bill Clinton, of all people, expressed it well in a speech on April 8: Referring to middle-aged white men who when they were 20 looked forward to a “good life” of sending their kinds to college followed by a secure retirement, he said “Now they’ve been working for 15 years without a raise and they think they could be fired at any time. And they go home to dinner and they look across the table at their families and they think they let them down. They think somehow, what did I do wrong? It’s pretty easy for people like that to be told by somebody else in the middle of a political campaign with a hot 30-second ad, you didn’t do anything wrong, they did it to you.”

And who, according to those bastards, are “they?” Intrusive big government. Irresponsible poor people. Environmental elitists/extremists/doomsayers. Selfish minorities. Pushy women. And what is it they “did?” Taxes that take away your money. Laze about on those taxes - your taxes - while you work harder than ever. Environmental laws that take away the job you have. Affirmative action programs that take away the job you deserve.

So the problem isn’t that the “angry white male”’s frustrations are without any legitimate cause. It’s rather that the very people who are most responsible for his contracting future, for his sense of loss (and for his genuine loss of economic security) - that is, the corporate elite, the rich, the powerful, those who’ve selfishly gained from the economic trends of the past two decades, those who benefit the most from the old oppressions and divisions - are the very people who are doing their damnedest (so far successfully) to get him to point his finger at anyone except them. The sad fact is, it’s always easier to blame those weaker than yourself for reasons that are not only sociological but also psychological: In a foot race, you may resent or envy those in front of you, particularly if you see them pulling away - but it’s those coming up from behind who make you feel a threat to your position. Meanwhile, challenging the legitimacy of the position of the leaders would require an adjustment in how the structure of the race itself is viewed. In other words, blaming the poor requires only calling them names. Blaming the rich requires re-thinking the nature of society. Which of those is more likely to be seized on by lost people who feel their world no longer makes sense?
Doesn't a lot of that, particularly the economic stress, the shrinking future, the looking for someone to blame, sound like today? Consider that according to the survey, TPers
are far more pessimistic than Americans in general about the economy. More than 90 percent of Tea Party supporters think the country is headed in the wrong direction, compared with about 60 percent of the general public. About 6 in 10 say “America’s best years are behind us” when it comes to the availability of good jobs for American workers.
So yes, for many of those who identify with the TPers, they are not without real grievances and not without genuine frustrations. But, as should be obvious, now just as then while the anger may be justified, the target, for the most part, is not. These people have been misguided. Misled. Lied to. Manipulated. They are directing their frustrations at the weak, not the strong; at the victims, not the victimizers; at the servants of the powerful (in and out of government), not the powerful themselves (mostly not in government). For all of the noise, all of the shouting, all of the energy, all of the speeches signs slogans, the fact is they for the most part really have no idea what’s going on, what the real causes of their stresses are. They just know they want things to be the way they used to be. They want “their country” back.

But that in turn raises the single thing that has struck me most about the entire movement - assuming it could properly be called that, which is yet to be seen. Yet I’ve seen little comment on it; perhaps that’s to be expected in the face of the overt bigotry to be seen in many expressions coming from their midst, but I still find the lack of attention a little surprising.

That something is that there is an overwhelming, an extreme, sense of what can only be called entitlement in the entire undertaking. It comes through clearly in the pronouncements of the teabaggers (in their signs and comments) and as something being heavily played by their leading voices (in their speeches and press releases). They repeatedly, repetitiously, say “it’s our country.” They loudly declare that they’re going to “take it back.” They insist that government failure to do what they want is “ignoring the will of the people.”

Leave aside the obvious responses of wondering just who it is that they’re going to “take it back” from and why elections are not “the will of the people” and consider a particular point in that NY Times/CBS survey. One question asked “Do the views of the people involved in the Tea Party movement generally reflect the views of most Americans?” Some 25% of all respondents said yes - while 84% of people who identified themselves as TP supporters did.

Overwhelmingly, they are convinced that they do represent “the people," that they are "the people." According to the survey,
[t]he overwhelming majority of supporters say Mr. Obama does not share the values most Americans live by and that he does not understand the problems of people like themselves. ...

“The only way they will stop the spending is to have a revolt on their hands,” Elwin Thrasher, a 66-year-old semiretired lawyer in Florida, said in an interview after the poll. “I’m sick and tired of them wasting money and doing what our founders never intended to be done with the federal government.” ...

“I just feel he’s getting away from what America is,” said Kathy Mayhugh, 67, a retired medical transcriber in Jacksonville.
They maintain this even as their views widely diverge from - and are more to the right of - the general population on a number of significant points and to a significant degree. In some cases, the difference is not just wide, it’s wild:

For example, their opinion of the job Obama is doing as president is more negative than that of the general populace by over 40 percentage points. Not 40 percent more, 40 percentage points more. Their personal opinion of him is 50 percentage points worse. (Yes, I know many of us have an unfavorable view of Obama but that's on an entirely different basis and doesn't take away from the point, especially because an unfavorable view based on left convictions adds to the negative numbers among the general public and so reduces the gap between the TPers and the nation as a whole.)

Some other examples: On the question of government creating jobs versus reducing the deficit, the gap between what the public wants (jobs) and what the TPers want (cut the deficit) is over 30 percentage points. The gulf between TPers who want “smaller government with fewer services” and the general public is over 40 percentage points.

TPers are more than 20 percentage points likelier to say that “too much been made of the problems facing black people” and 13 points more likely to claim that blacks and whites have an equal chance of “getting ahead in today’s society,” which is another way of saying that racism just isn’t a problem any more.

Asked if income taxes should be raised on households making more than $250,000 a year to help pay for the health insurance bill, 80% of TPers said that was a bad idea while 39% of all respondents did - a gap of 41 percentage points. And while a majority of TPers approved of a ban on denying health insurance due to pre-existing conditions, they were still 22 points less likely than the general public to feel that way.

I don't want to weigh this down with numbers and you can go to the link and check the results for yourself. The point is that time after time, the views of the TPers are clearly, sometimes dramatically, sometimes stunningly, to the right of the general public - but the TPers are still convinced that their views represent those of the majority.

And that, I think, is the key or at least a key to that extreme sense of entitlement. Consider the demographics revealed in the survey: The teabaggers are, on the whole, white, male, older, somewhat richer, and somewhat more educated than the general populace. Which means that until fairly recently, these people were “the people.” That is, their views, their take on life and society and politics did define what it meant to be American. They did define the standard to which others were expected to hew, the default from which others diverged as anything from odd to abnormal to aberrant. When someone pictured "an American," they tended to picture a somewhat older, upper-middle-class white male. And it's entirely reasonable to think that those who are now TPers came to maturity thinking of themselves in just that way: that they defined "American."

But that has been changing for several decades now. The world in which they grew up, the world in which they formed their worldview, is disappearing, splintering, crumbling. To be black is no longer to be inferior, to be Latino is no longer to be alien, to be a woman is no longer to be second-class, to be a single mother is no longer to be marked for life, to be gay or lesbian is no longer to be "the love that dare not speak its name." The casual racism, the offhand ethnic slurs, the "gentlemen's agreement" about Jews, no longer prevail. No, of course this is not to say that racism, sexism, homophobia, and antisemitism no longer exist, but it is to say they are no longer regarded as acceptable parts of normal social discourse. The world has changed, it is changing and will continue to even against resistance. (You want a good example of that? According to the survey, only 16% of TPers think same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, as opposed to 39% of all respondents. But an additional 41% of TPers approve of "civil unions." So even among the TPers, 57% approve of some form of legal recognition for same-sex couples, close to the 63% of all respondents who feel that way. And how long ago would either of those numbers have seemed an impossible notion?)

Not only are attitudes changing in ways the TPers find difficult to absorb if not beyond the pale, the demographics are as well. According to projections, by 2025, "the immigrant, or foreign born, share of the population will surpass the peak during the last great wave of immigration a century ago." By 2050, nearly one in five Americans will be immigrants as opposed to one in eight now. By that same time, something approaching 1/3 of all Americans will be Hispanic. And most shockingly for the TPers, the most difficult for them to accept, is that it is projected that by 2050 whites will make up just 47% of the population of the US and TPers will be "a minority in our own country!"

The TPers may not know those particular numbers, they may not know the particulars of the projections. In fact, I expect that they do not. But they know the feel. They know the look. They know that the world around them is changing in ways they don't understand and can't control. They are confused and frightened and worried about the future, not only the social future but the economic future as well: The TPers rate their own economic condition about the same as members of the general public do, but they are considerably more likely to rate the economy as "fairly" or "very" bad and to say it's getting no better or even getting worse. What you have there is a combination ripe for exploitation by political con artists among the right wing, the GOPpers, and the monied, who are skilled at pointing fingers and creating a "them," an "other," for people to blame.

So in some ways I understand the TPers. In some ways I share their frustrations and sympathize, even empathize, with the roots of those frustrations even as I reject the TPers' convictions on a host of issues and attitudes. Ultimately, however, I have two main overriding responses: One obvious one is concern that this could turn (again) to murderous violence: The line between TPers and such as Timothy McVeigh and Scott Roeder is not nearly as thick as they would suggest.

The other is that I feel sorry for them. Truly. First because some of the changes that are so frightening to them will not be stopped. They can adapt or they can live the rest of their lives in fear because they will not turn the clock back. They are no longer the definition of American and never will be again. Second because they are almost a sort of Greek tragedy with the doomed hero: They have, again, been manipulated and mislead into blaming their troubles on the wrong forces and the wrong people. To the very extent that their movement, if it develops that far, succeeds, to that very same extent they will lose and find themselves even deeper in the pit they themselves dug on behalf of their real masters who they failed to recognize.

Footnote: One amusing bit from the survey was the ranking of Congress. Asked "Do you approve of the way Congress is handling its job?" TPers disapproved by a whopping 96%-1%. Asked the same question about their own Congressional representative, the disapproval dropped to 49%-40%. (The figures for all respondents was 73-17 disapproval and 46-36 approval, respectively.)

So just like the population as a whole, the TPers essentially said "Congress sucks! My own Rep? Well, they're not so bad. It's all those others who really suck."

Oh, and one other thing to keep in mind in looking at the poll results: The results for the TPers were of course included in the figures for "all respondents." Which means the difference between the TPers and the rest of us, the non-TPers, is even greater than indicated.

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