The Tea Party's Phony Populism
“Populist,” like “idealist,” is one of those words reporters use when they’ve checked their critical faculties at the door. George W. Bush routinely gets called an “idealist” in foreign policy because he gave soaring speeches on behalf of democracy. Whether his actions—in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Central Asia, the horn of Africa, or for that matter, Washington, D.C.—were particularly idealistic usually escapes scrutiny. He said he was for democracy, therefore he was.
• Tunku Varadarajan: Liberals, Wake up: Tea Partiers Are People TooIt’s the same with “populist.” Every time someone compares Barack Obama to Chairman Mao, the press garlands him with the word. But historically, the standards for what constitutes populism have been a little higher. In American history, populism has a specific meaning: It’s our non-Marxist way of talking about class. Being a populist means standing up for the little guy against ruling elites. Hating Washington isn’t enough, or else J.P. Morgan would have been a populist when he fumed that Theodore Roosevelt was busting his trusts. You have to be angry on behalf of the underdog.
The Tea Partiers aren’t standing up for the little guy; they’re standing up to the little guy.
Which is why we now have scientific proof that Tea Partiers don’t deserve the label. According to a survey in Thursday’s New York Times, Tea Partiers are wealthier and better-educated than average Americans. They’re not today’s version of the Nebraska dirt farmers who rose up against the railroads and the banks more than a century ago. They’re today’s 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. We’ve long known that their leaders, like Sarah Palin, opposed against real regulation of Wall Street. Now we learn that what the Tea Partiers dislike about Barack Obama’s economic policies is that they don’t do enough for the rich. According to the Times, Tea Partiers are more likely than other Americans to think Barack Obama’s policies favor the poor, and they’re mad as heck about it. Not exactly William Jennings Bryan stuff.
The Tea Partiers aren’t too fond of racial underdogs either. They’re more likely than other Americans to believe that the Obama administration favors blacks over whites, and that black people’s hardships have been exaggerated. America does have a history of right-wing, often racist, populism. Segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace ran as a populist in the American Independent Party in 1968. But at least Wallace’s economic views were reasonably progressive. The Tea Partiers favor the economically and racially privileged. They fail the populism test on both counts.
So the press has a problem: what to call this intriguing new force in American politics? What kind of adjective suits older, grumpy, well-off Americans who believe Democrats are communists, the poor have it too easy and white people are oppressed? The term “Republican” comes to mind.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, will be published by HarperCollins in June. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.