Class/Cultural reactions to the tea party
I’ve been out of the loop a bit these past couple weeks, helping out peripherally on a local primary race, and afterward just needing a few days to kind of process some thoughts without writing. I mostly dodged political opinion pieces during my little hiatus, but did manage to catch Glenn Greenwald’s column on the “misguided reaction to Tea Party candidates,” and liked much of what he wrote.
I can’t fully agree with him that the Tea Party is just Republican Plus. The name alone suggests something else, as does the 1776 iconography and the overtaking of old charges of “liberalism” with 21st century charges of “socialism.” When the spectacle is stripped away, I do see something that, at its core, is much closer to libertarianism than traditional Republicanism, even the more vitriolic Republicanism of the last decades. But that’s a lot of layers of spectacle to strip away, so I understand why the point can be debated.
Greenwald’s larger point, that the backlash is primarily cultural rather than ideological, does resonate with me but I would broaden it beyond his contrast of Washington Elites and Unscrubbed Americans. Karl Rove and Andrea Mitchell might be perfectly acceptable villains in this scenario and Christine O’Donnell might very well be the victim of some cultural bigotry (and yes, with the necessary caveat that being such a victim is in no way an endorsement of, or excuse for, her politics). It’s just that the two camps are seemingly more evenly divided – like a less geographic, more instinctive rehashing of red and blue states.
The limitation of Greenwald’s argument is that it makes class and culture almost interchangeable. Over and over again, the enemy is regarded as “effete Guardians of Elite Political Power” or “the ruling class.” If that were the whole story, and culture could be measured in class terms (income, education level, etc…), than the expected ratio of that ruling class to the class who “struggle with tuition bills and have their homes foreclosed” would be roughly 100 to 1. Personally, I’d much prefer to see politics break down in this way – with the dividing line between the privileged and underprivileged. I just don’t buy it. Cultural hierarchy seems to have little to do with class hierarchy; even Sarah Palin, who Greenwald labels another victim of cultural bias, was raised comfortably middle class. And yet, I cringe when I hear someone criticize her or her supporters based on cultural cues, and most often I’m not hearing that from the Guardians of Elite Political Power.
So I’m a little torn. I agree that a lot of criticism of the tea party has cultural as opposed to ideological roots and I agree that that’s wrong. I just don’t think the dividing line is as comfortably class-based as Greenwald implies or as I would like.