Vanessa Williamson: How the Tea Party Could Win it All

Vanessa Williamson could persuade you that the wily elders in the Tea Party have much more to show for their anger and agitation than the passionate youth of the “Occupy” protest. She pictures us 2012 Americans in rather a desperate generational family fight: conservative Rotarian uncles and aunties in the Tea Party cracking down on the “moocher” mentality even among their own jobless kids and grandkids. It’s the Tea Party people who’ve captured a major political party and are now just one November election away from capturing the presidency and maybe Congress at the same time.

Vanessa Williamson has the voice of an uncommonly earnest, open searcher. She had a formative five-year job lobbying Congress for body armor, then college tuitions for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now she’s a Ph.D. student in government at Harvard who’s spent most of two years listening to the Tea Party grass-roots. With her mentor Theda Skocpol she’s made a compelling tale of The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Convervatism. By now it’s a three-ring circus. She’s untangling with us the web of (1) worried Tea Party locals who’d remind you of your crotchety but dear old conservative Aunt Olive; (2) the predatory plutocrats who swooped on the “rhetorical gold,” the mailing lists and church connections of the Tea Party and paid its candidates’ campaign bills; and (3) Fox News and the right-wing radio hosts who know the entertainment value of social fury, none better than Glenn Beck who brands himself “the fusion of entertainment and enlightenment.” All three “ringsā€ in the circus are intact and somehow in synch after the demolition derby of Republican debates and primaries. Note well that the Tea Party made the right strategic choice to be not a protest movement or a third-party campaign. From the start, Ms. Williamson argues, Tea Partiers came from the experienced pragmatic Republican wing of the Republican party, and they’re in full control of the machinery now.

They have a candidate finally who’s nobody’s dream but he’s a tall, dark and handsome guy with great-looking teeth, hair and family, and a face that fits with the presidents on our greenbacks. He can act out almost any script with plausibility, but in fact he’s solid on the Tea Party basics: tough on immigrants, tough on students, fed-up with taxes, financial regulation and all the fretting about climate change. He’s a poster hero of our culture’s holy zeal for money without introspection or shared benefits. He stands, of course, at the far pole from the Tony Judt ideal we’ve been mulling — of “social democracy” and “collective action for collective good.” His boldness contrasts, too, with the pretty feeble embrace of fairness or any very spirited rebalancing reform agenda on the other side of the ballot.

And still I’m asking Vanessa Williamson why our attention fixes so hard on the exotic variety of symptoms, slogans and proxy labels for our distress, so little on the common disease. The Tea Party looks to me more like the “sorrows of empire” breaking out among these older yeoman Republicans. And some part of me wants to credit them for waking up and recoiling from the evidence: We’re in the grip now of permanent war in the back of beyond, without debate or the Congressional declaration required in the beloved Constitution. We feel the proud industrial base of the country slipping away — not just the factory production but the schools and skills that sustained it, the jobs, profits and tax revenues that came with it. And for all the age-old warnings about borrowers and lenders, we know we’re sinking in a fathomless ocean of war debt, consumer debt, mortgage debt, national debt, China debt — a trillion-dollar debt on just the backs of students coming out of college into unemployment. What’s not to panic about? Tea Partiers, too, are feeling the “need to act,” as Tony Judt put it in Ill Fares the Land “upon our intuitions of impending catastrophe.”

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  • The Parrot

    reflex to go back to: social predation backed by religioius values, slavery, lynchings, people of colour treated as lab rats, child labour, women treated like simpleton chattel, indian/native peoples under the boot of genocide, white men holding all the levels of power, back alley abortions, illiteracy, massive poverty, no consumer protection, no environmental protection (Cuyahoga rivers), elderly and infirm left to fend for themselves, … yeah, i sure miss ’em, we all knew our place back then … onward ho …

    18 months of fox news transcripts: get thee to a psyche ward … stat!

  • Very informative interview.

    Where is Tea Party compassion for the youth and minorities who cannot even score a services sector job? Perhaps they came of age in post war America when the abundance of work made it comparatively easy to be a responsible wage earner.


  • Murray Reiss

    How about following up with an interview with Rick Perlstein? I’m reading “Nixonland,” his epic history of “The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.” Tea Party America is just Nixonland 2.0. And what is Nixonland? “”… the America where two separate and irreconcilable sets of apocalyptic fears coexist in the minds of two separate and irreconcilable groups of Americans. The first group, enemies of Richard Nixon … take it as an axiom that if Richard Nixon and the the values associated with him triumph, America itself might end. The second group … believe, as did Nixon, that is the enemies of Richard Nixon triumph … America might end. … an amazingly large segment of the population disliked and mistrusted Richard Nixon instinctively. … an amazingly large segment of the population also trusted him as their savior. ‘Nixonland’ is what happens when these two groups try to occupy a country together.”

  • Gareth Kucinkas

    During the show it was mentioned that a facebook investor is giving up his US citizenship to avoid taxes. I do not believe he has stated his reason. I live in Switzerland and work as a teacher. There is only one bank in our town that will do business with US citizens due to the paperwork required. I must file a bunch of forms giving my balances and accounts and there are new rules which require insurance and such be reported. It is very difficult for me and even as a teacher we are close to having to pay taxes in both countries. Maybe the paperwork and risk of breaking the multitude of tax laws is why he gave up his citizenship.

  • Potter

    “if you are successful you must have worked hard and earned it”

    I remember from my working class roots, back in the 1950’s, there was suspicion that if you were very successful, you must be a crook or dishonest. Of course that was unfair. But we were strong Democrats, Roosevelt Democrats.
    Hola Parrot!
    I think Ms. Williamson comes up with a lot of cognitive dissonance and it matches what we have heard and read in the media. For instance they want to get government out of their lives, dont’ want to pay taxes or have them raised, don’t like the budget deficit and debt, but don’t touch their social security or medicare and I am not sure about how anti-war they are…vets some of them. I don’t know how they can be for anyone for President unless that candidate lies to them and comes on in a superficial way. Anybody but Obama. To me they sound worse than the youth of Occupy Wall Street, much worse,

    I am disgusted by their strong reaction against Obama who if he were white, I believe would be a lot less of a problem. It’s about racism not socialism. He is not a radical. Did they really get frightened by right wing interpretations about what he meant by change?They don’t want change?

    What is this idea that they latched onto that the poor are morally bankrupt? That they are freeloading (especially in this down economy)? Is this what they get from the founding fathers? What kind of moral values are these? And what about those who have “made it”? They made it all by themselves? With no help whatsoever from having a government that provides the setting and the opportunity? Those who have made it owe nothing back?
    What denial, ignorance, lack of enlightenment, about the common ground we stand on!

    “rhetorical gold” “business elite” “no views that solidfy them”

  • Sean McElroy

    You’re hearing it here: the Tea Party is over!

    The TP helped the GOP win a few elections while the country snoozed. The Republicans no longer need T’ Partiers to pull their strings – they now have big money PACS to do the job. RNC will hold back credit from the TP with its wins. You will see slippage on the TP front when they become disillussioned, culminating with their ultimate demise: limited, co-opted power sharing with the GOP elite, AKA the Romney/GOP political machine.

    That said, this should be no comfort to the DNC.

  • Potter

    We are in a rhetorical civil war with these folks. We hate each other philosophically…. even dear old Aunt Olive.

    A commenter on Krugman’s column (he gets some good comments) reminded that Cheney, while in office, said that Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter. The rhetoric changed as soon as Obama took office. Suddenly deficits mattered (though not the origins of this economic downturn) Most important of all Obama had to be a one- term president .

    Trickle down economics, unproven, just lives on. It’s woven well into that rhetorical gold cloth.

  • Kento

    Occupy is a movement, while American in conception (and it was American in conception), has appealed to the rest of the world, while the Tea Party has remained in the United States. It doesn’t take more than a moment’s thought to know why this is the case, iconography is deeply important for the Tea Party, and the Tea Party’s iconography would make no sense outside of an American context, but we should still consider it somewhat surprising given that many countries in Europe have their own parallel (if less popular) right-wing movements.

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