When the Tea Party Movement became too visible to ignore last summer, liberals reflexively reached for tried and true reductive explanations; it must be racism excited by Obama’s election, the bitterness of people clinging to “guns and religion” in the face of cultural marginalization, or some such thing that moved people to resist the expansion of government so vocally. That reflex nurtured intellectual complacency in liberal circles; why bother engaging the Tea Partiers if you’re sure that you can just wait them out because they’re living on borrowed historical time?
How’s that strategy working out so far? Not so well if you believe the polls. Rasmussen reports that when likely voters were asked whether their own political views are closer to the Tea Partiers or President Obama, 48% said the Tea Partiers to 44% who said the president. Moreover, if you believe Gallup and the Winston Group, the Tea Party movement is, demographically, pretty representative of the population as a whole—not at all what you’d expect to find if it were just the ephemeral expression of temporary sociological undercurrents.
Liberals are getting less mileage out of their favorite reductive explanations all the time. They call Tea Partiers bigots in the forlorn hope that it will pack the rhetorical punch of calling opponents of traditional civil rights legislation “racists” or “sexists.” But the latter terms still stigmatize insofar as their application ratifies ideological victories that liberals actually won in the 1960s and 70s. Racism and sexism are recognized across the ideological spectrum as the psychological residues of indefensible social conditions like slavery, Jim Crow and a patriarchal socio-political structure that once deprived African-Americans and women of civil personality and continue out of cultural inertia to deprive them of equal opportunity and social status.
That’s why charges of racism and sexism still unsettle and wound conservatives. They acknowledge that really being a racist or a sexist would put them in bad company in which they’d like to think they don’t belong. Yet conservatives’ resentment at being called such things usually betrays at least a trace of self-doubt. Like the rest of us, they can’t be entirely sure that they’ve fully liberated themselves from aspects of their cultural inheritance that are morally tainted in their own eyes.
When liberals apply their reductionist vocabulary to Tea Partiers, they’re firing off ideological blanks. The Tea Partiers seem to know instinctively that such talk has little to do with them; it’s just liberals’ way of showing off their ideological plumage to each other. Liberals won’t stand a chance in the coming ideological contest over the scope of government until they figure that out for themselves.