Magazine | May 17, 2010, Issue

Those Blue-Blooded Rednecks

In which plutocrats pretend the tea partiers are plutocratic

Idiots! Racists! McCarthyites! Fascists! Uh . . . never mind.       

That, roughly speaking, is the evolution of the tea parties in the liberal imagination. Individual assessments may vary (e.g. first racists, then idiots), but as a generalization, it works.

Let’s have a quick flashback. In February of 2009, CNBC’s Rick Santelli went into an on-air rant about how the stimulus package should prompt protests like the original Boston Tea Party. Boom: Almost overnight, informal tea-party-themed protests popped up across the country.

After an initial surge in ironic “teabagging” jokes, reporters and liberal commentators were completely flummoxed as to why so many Americans didn’t want to spend nearly a trillion dollars on weatherizing attics, subsidizing digital-TV coupons, sprucing up the Department of Commerce’s offices, and erecting highway signs that said, in effect, These Construction Delays Brought to You By the Democrats.

So they used Occam’s razor as a tool of self-mutilation. A CNN reporter covering one of the first tea-party rallies began by trying to show how little the protesters knew about Obama’s agenda and tax schemes. When the crowd took exception and let her know it, she turned to the camera and propounded the simpler theory that the protesters were “anti-CNN.”

When, during the 2008 presidential campaign, a Slate columnist insisted that calling Barack Obama “skinny” amounted to racism, many thought liberal race-obsession had reached its nadir. But it turned out that it could go much lower. Suddenly, when millions of Americans objected to vast new expansions of the federal government, which by definition must take resources from the private sector (through either borrowing or taxation or both), and embraced the sort of deficit concerns that the New York Times and Washington Post editorial pages have been mouthing for decades, the most satisfying explanation liberals could come up with was racism.

“Let’s be very honest about what this is about. This is not about bashing Democrats. It’s not about taxes. They have no idea what the Boston Tea Party was about. They don’t know their history at all. This is about hating a black man in the White House,” Janeane Garofalo told a nodding Keith Olbermann. “This is racism straight up and is nothing but a bunch of teabagging rednecks. There is no way around that.” Obviously, using Janeane Garofalo as a stand-in for an intelligent spokesman of the Left is terribly unfair, like judging the women of Paris by the aging streetwalkers who prowl the docks of Marseilles. But Olbermann himself insisted that tea partiers were simply “a bunch of guys who are just looking for a reason to yell at the black president.” If that’s still too low-rent, Jimmy Carter — the one-time leader of the free world — insisted that the “overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he’s African-American. . . . It’s an abominable circumstance and grieves me and concerns me very deeply.”

By the time of the Obamacare vote in March of this year, the kindling had been prepared for a massive bonfire of asininity. All that was needed was the spark, and the arsonists at the Congressional Black Caucus were of course happy to provide it. In a deliberately provocative stunt, a self-segregated group of African-American lawmakers walked through a throng of tea-party protesters on Capitol Hill, rather than take the normal route through underground tunnels. It was a self-conscious effort to conjure memories of brave civil-rights workers from the 1960s battling their way through the assembled forces of bigotry. Because, as we all know, Bull Connor was really working for the HMOs. The problem, as Andrew Breitbart has demonstrated at BigGovernment.com, is that the protesters didn’t take the bait. So the CBCers evidently just lied about being called the N-word some “fifteen times” and being spat upon. Numerous video recordings demonstrate that this was all bogus. Alas, as the old English proverb has it, “a lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.”

Based almost entirely on this one non-incident, the press made it sound as if the tea partiers had been this close to pulling a “Number 6” on Washington. Fans of Blazing Saddles may remember what that is. It’s where the racist band of hooligans “go a-ridin’ into town, a-whompin’ and a-whumpin’ every livin’ thing that moves within an inch of its life.” ABC’s Diane Sawyer claimed that tea partiers were “roaming Washington, some of them increasingly emotional, yelling slurs and epithets.” CBS’s Bob Schieffer insisted that “demonstrators” were bandying “racial epithets” and “sexual slurs,” reminding him of civil-rights-era abuses. “One lawmaker said it was like a page out of a time machine,” Schieffer approvingly noted (time machines have pages?).

#page#Then, of course, there was the charge of fascism. Threats, vandalism, and nasty e-mails aimed at Republican politicians are routine events. When they are aimed at Democrats, Frank Rich sees the rise of Hitler. “Take back our country” — perhaps the chief rallying cry and sentiment of Democrats from 2003 to 2008 — suddenly betrayed a fascistic impulse when uttered by Obama’s opponents.

On April 15, the New York Times released a poll of tea-party supporters (which is not quite the same thing as tea partiers, since many supporters don’t go to the rallies). The data provided a fascinating Rorschach test. For a slew of liberals — E. J. Dionne, Michael Lind, Rick Perlstein, Peter Beinart — the poll confirmed that tea partiers are the familiar racist, McCarthyite hobgoblins. But it also proved that they are Junior League plutocrats and, in the words of E. J. Dionne, a “media-created protest movement” that isn’t worth anyone’s attention.

Dionne calls the tea-party movement “populism of the privileged.” Michael Lind sniffs that since “68 percent” of respondents (the correct figure is 56 percent) told the Times that they live in households with incomes greater than $50,000 a year, they reside in the “top half” of earners and are therefore ignorable. They aren’t populists so much as the heirs to the “affluent members of the Liberty League” who gave FDR a hard time, says Lind, who is indignant that respondents are optimistic about their economic circumstances (70 percent say their situation is “fairly good”), yet still describes them as “a sullen, defensive mobilization of the Have-Somes who dread the Have-Nots.” The tea partiers’ wealth and education, according to Beinart, make them a “version of the California suburbanites who rose up against their property-tax bills in the late 1970s rather than pay for decent schools for the Golden State’s black and Hispanic kids. They’re the second coming of what Robert Kuttner called ‘the revolt of the haves.’” The tea partiers “aren’t standing up for the little guy; they’re standing up to the little guy,” huffs Beinart.

This proletarian outrage from well-compensated pundits is intriguing. For starters, the notion that household income should determine the legitimacy of democratic protest is an odd standard. Moreover, the notion that households — not individuals — making about $50,000 a year are members of the privileged class is something of a mystery, since that figure is close to the U.S. median household income. By the standard of these pundits, the bulk of public- and private-sector unions should get out of the politics game too — not to mention all the limousine-liberal Huffingtonistas who make up the core of groups like MoveOn.org. Indeed, according to this standard, the bailouts of the union-dominated auto companies were a bailout of the “petty bourgeoisie,” as Lind calls them.

In 1970, political scientist Richard Scammon and author Ben Wattenberg (my old boss) wrote a book called The Real Majority. The political center, according to Scammon and Wattenberg, was a “47 year old Catholic housewife in Dayton, Ohio whose husband is a machinist” and whose brother-in-law is a cop. Scammon and Wattenberg wrote The Real Majority in an effort to save the Democratic party, which was increasingly seen as the party of radicals and welfare recipients. Unfortunately for them, Richard Nixon took the book to heart, while the Democrats needed another two decades to understand that belittling the middle class was a recipe for electoral — and economic — disaster.

The median annual salary for a machinist in the United States is $36,210 (the median salary for a cop in Dayton, by the way, is $52,270). Throw in a wife making 14 grand a year part-time and, presto, you’ve got Mr. Monopoly, according to the leading voices of contemporary liberalism.

Now many in the press seem to be realizing that they were had: Since the tea-party movement is really just an extension of the GOP, the party of the rich, all this attention was a blunder. Nothing to see here, folks; it’s just a bunch of Republicans. What remains to be seen is whether voters will give the Democrats and the press a do-over. The tea-party message is not purely economic; the size of government has become the central social issue of our time. The Democratic party and its spokesmen in the press have spent the last year claiming that anyone who is concerned about the size of government is either a fascist bigot or in league with fascist bigots. But now Barack Obama and the Democrats are trying to sound very concerned about the deficit and the economic prospects of the middle class. Since liberals also spent the last year demonizing anyone who raised those concerns, it might be hard for people to take them seriously.

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