Reflections on the Tea Party People/Movement

By Dennis Loo

"Many of the people coalescing around the Tea Party Movement, young and old, are at the beginning of their political awakening. They are angry and frustrated by what they see and rightly so. They're in the midst of a personal storm. They see their own little boats on the verge of capsizing and they're looking for the calmer seas of yesterday. Eventually many of them will realize that there are no simple solutions and reason will moderate their fear struck emotionalism."
--"William," Peoria, Illinois, in his comment at the New York Times, 2/16/10, in response to David Barstow's 2/15/10 article, "Tea Party Lights Fuse for Rebellion on Right." 
William recounts at the beginning of his comment his personal saga of holding up Goldwater signs in 1964:
"I remember in my callow youth, at eighteen, in 1964 standing on one of the main streets in Peoria holding my Goldwater sign aloft as Lyndon Johnson's motorcade drove by. I was against 'segregation' but nervous in an inchoate way that LBJ was proposing giving rights to blacks at the expense of the 'rights of white men' and would usher in a socialist revolution. I was afraid, even then, that some bogyman was going to take my guns, though I didn't have one and wasn't interested in buying one. It was just the prospect of not being able to wave one any time I wanted at some perceived threat that the Goldwater people had convinced me was an assault on my liberty and the beginning of tyranny. (It seems ironic now that LBJ gave me my first gun and provided me the training in its use.)
"I had little grounding in politics and almost no understanding what a modern nation state was about. I didn't realize that we had gone from an agrarian nation to an urban mass society where a highly structured hierarchy was required for cars to move seamlessly from New York to California and a coordinated system of higher education was necessary for all of the technological changes that were to improve my life in so many ways. I was wedded to the idea that if I followed the common sense of any 18th century yeoman farmer democracy would be saved. At eighteen, the life I'd known was changing all too rapidly for me and I was afraid. JFK was dead and LBJ was co-opting his magnificent political vision to his own unsavory ends. The draft and Vietnam were lingering in the not to distant future. The prospect of bombing North Vietnam 'into the stone age' seemed preferable to having to risk my own life in the much more reasoned approach of limited warfare in the world of international power politics."
William makes a number of very insightful observations about the Tea Party movement - the fact that the Tea Partiers are terribly new to political life/activism, that their world has been upended, for the most part because of the economic crisis, and in part, the lesser part, but a nonetheless prominent part, due to Obama's color, and the fact that they seek simple answers to very complicated problems. 
As someone from the political Left, I must add that the Tea Party people to a significant extent (since they are such a variegated and motley group) are responding with appropriate outrage on certain matters. The "Oath Keepers," for example, Frank Rich describes as "a rising militia group of veterans and former law enforcement officers who champion disregarding laws they oppose.” I am not an expert on the Oath Keepers, but I do not quarrel with their stand on what kind of orders they call upon law enforcement and military personnel to disobey: warrantless searches, arresting Americans as unlawful enemy combatants, or forcing civilians into “any form of detention camps.” Their recognition that such orders are coming - or here already - is correct. Warrantless searches have been going on since the passage of the Patriot Act. Treating Americans as unlawful enemy combatants, including ordering their assassination by Obama, has begun to happen, albeit in a small number of cases so far, and detention camps have been built and roundups conducted of thousands of suspected immigrants.
The Tea Partiers cohere the extremely widespread and just outrage against the bailouts and the corporate control over the country. The 9/11 Truth Movement, which has its adherents among the TP’ers, gets some of its impetus from the simple fact that the government’s explanation for 9/11 violates the laws of physics in some important particulars. The Tea Party movement is both right-wing, especially in terms of its national reactionary “leaders” such as Beck and Palin and libertarian (thus, the popularity of Ron Paul), but it also overlaps with left-wing sentiments, despite its lily-white character.
Is a civil war coming? The Tea Partiers are getting ready for one. And they are probably right about that. Which way will they point their guns, will it be in the interest of reaction or the reverse? That question is unsettled because the forces in motion are complex, powerful, and unfixed. The situation is unstable. Some of the Tea Party people, only a part, but a distinct part, can potentially be won to a progressive, left-position. They aren’t all dyed-in-the-wool racists. Those who dismiss them as loonies are mistaking a part and an element of their movement for the whole. Emotion isn’t a bad thing per se. Passion is a good thing. It needs, however, to be based on a scientific and accurate appraisal of what’s actually going on. They won’t become more rational spontaneously, which is where I disagree with “William.”
The Tea Party movement reflects the fracturing forces of capital and imperialism as capital attempts to hold the center together, even as the forces of capitalism and its logic create greater and greater levels of instability through plunder and manifest and increasingly dramatic inequities. The GOP and the Democratic Parties are both in danger from this movement, even as the GOP tries to stoke, hijack, and control the Tea Partiers. The Massachusetts election of Brown demonstrates both the power of the Tea Party movement and the bankruptcy of their "rejection" of establishment politics by participating in electoral, establishment politics - how is electing a Republican any kind of repudiation of what is wrong in this country's political arena? 
The Tea Party movement also reflects, in part, the relative strength of the forces of the reactionary Right and the relative weakness so far of the Left. Imagine the impact if the genuine Left (needless to say I'm not speaking here of the Democratic Party as the Left) had the equivalent of Fox News and the pulpit that that network alone is. We don't have its equivalent, obviously, and we're not going to get it, either. But what we can do with even a modest increase in funding and participation in the Left by new forces is immense...