Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Tea Party

| Tue Jun. 22, 2010 1:26 PM EDT

Matthew Continetti has a good piece in the latest issue of the Weekly Standard about the schizophrenic nature of the tea party movement, and it's worth reading. But even as he goes into considerable depth about the tension and turmoil in a movement that (in his description) is torn between a Dr. Jekyll side represented by ur-tea-partier Rick Santelli and a Mr. Hyde side represented by clownish conspiracy theorist Glenn Beck, I don't think he truly gives the muddle this produces the attention it deserves. Take this passage:

First, the Tea Party is unified by the pervasive sense that the country is wildly off course.

....Second, the Tea Party is unified in opposition to the policies that it believes put America in its current predicament. It’s opposed to bailouts, which favor the wealthy and connected. It’s opposed to out-of-control spending at every level of government. It’s opposed to an expansive state that subsidizes bad behavior while accruing more and more power for itself, opposed to a limitless government that nonetheless fails in the basic duties of securing the borders, regulating the financial sector, and keeping America safe.

....But there are also signs that the Tea Party is in the middle of a tumultuous adolescence. Its activists haven’t had much to say, for example, on the topic of the big banks. A recent Washington Post poll showed it losing support....There is the palpable anxiety among sympathizers that if the Tea Party did gain power, it would be unable to shape its diverse sentiments into a programmatic agenda.

Italics mine. Here's the thing: as near as I can tell, tea partiers are not, in fact, especially put out by bailouts to the wealthy. Santelli's founding rant, as Continetti points out, was aimed at homeowners being bailed out of mortgages they couldn't afford. And as Continetti himself admits just a few sentences later, tea partiers don't have much to say about Wall Street banks. That's pretty odd for a movement supposedly opposed to big bailouts. The reality is quite different: if the tea partiers are really upset that Congress hasn't yet reined in the financial sector, they sure have a funny way of showing it. All the evidence I've seen suggests just the opposite: most tea partiers think not that Obama's financial reform proposals are too modest, but that they verge on socialism. They think he wants to take over the banks the same way he took over the car companies.

Ditto for securing the borders — though here the schizophrenia is a little more explicable. Tea partiers do indeed seem to be temperamentally outraged by illegal immigration, but Dick Armey and FreedomWorks, who are big tea party funders, aren't. So that's tamped things down a bit on the immigration front. (Though obviously that could change if immigration becomes a front-and-center legislative issue later this year.)

In other words, the inchoate rage of the tea party movement is, if anything, even worse than Continetti says. Tea partiers are, obviously outraged about Obama, outraged at his "socialism," and outraged at the increasing deficit and the social programs it funds. But there's simply not much evidence that they're really outraged at Wall Street or at the business community in general. Nor are they outraged by two foreign wars and skyrocketing military spending. Nor are they outraged by the obvious possibilities for government overreach that are inherent in things like massive warrantless wiretap programs and a less than robust attitude toward constitutional rights for anyone suspected of terrorism.

No, what they're outraged by is having to pay taxes that fund social services they don't approve of and having to tolerate social change that alarms them. And whether it's Glenn Beck or Rick Santelli or anyone else that's the face of the movement, this is, at its core, the same thing that the middle class right has been outraged about for decades whenever a Democrat is in office. There's really no need to make this more complicated than it is.

(But the piece is still worth reading. Continetti's take is an honest one, and some of his insights are worthwhile and intriguing. I just don't think the big picture is quite as complicated as he makes it out to be.)

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.