Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Inclusive Ethnocentrism: The political logic of the Tea Party

In Class and Social Stratification, Domestic Politics, Media and Politics on April 19, 2010 at 2:41 pm

It has been hard for most of us not to pay attention to the Tea Party movement. This fascinating right of center and middle American rejection of the activist politics of economic crisis is just colorful and controversial enough to have become the talk of the town in a mid-term election cycle. In 2009 the group, which broke onto the national scene with shouts of (T)axed (E)nough (A)lready in a national mall protest on tax day, managed to garner even more attention in their 2010 rally. The semiological savvy of the group is profound and there is more to expect from it, but this weekend witnessed a sea change in group’s narrative that will stick until the November elections. As Peter Beinart argued, in the wake of a New York Times/CBS News poll on the group, the Tea Partiers are widely regarded as phony populists,  and that is what they will stay until we have a real test of their electoral power. With the demonstration of power, everything can change, but for now, the conversation has turned.

I assume that most people have read accounts from the poll I mention above. There are plenty of discussions about it to choose from. Just today, E.J. Dionne weighed in with a gloss that he has spoken much of already on air: the populism of the privileged. Charles Blow had a devastating piece over the weekend as well. The arguments are not appearing by chance. The New York Times poll was surgically targeted to expose the true face of the movement at a crucial moment in the current political opportunity structure.

The findings were devastating for the group on two counts. First, the movement has been shown to draw on relatively well off citizens and not the lower classes. This is important because the greatest fear the democrats face is that false consciousness will drive their “natural constituency” of voters with an interest in activist government on economic matters toward the Right. If the class structure is working as traditional class voting hypothesis would predict, then there is little reason for the Democrats to worry and these economic and education data tamp down the anxiety on the Left.  Second, the poll pointed out that there is a troubling racial component to the movement that gives the lie to the theory that this is a movement tightly located inside the mainstream of anti-racist sentiment that has been ascendant since the era of the Brown v. Board decision. Not only are members overwhelmingly white, but they also sensitive to the racial implications of government activism.  One item that stands out is item 72:  “In recent years, do you think too much has been made of the problems facing black people, too little has been made, or is it about right?” Many have noticed that on this question 52% of the Tea Party says too much, in comparison to 28% of the general population. To say the least, they are, on average, less than charitable in their racial imagination.

Today, Politico released a new poll with a neat design in which they deployed an exit poll approach to the Tea Party rally on the mall. The two populations described in these polls are quite different because only 13% of the 18% who said that they support the Tea Party had attended a meeting. We find here that 59% of the rally attenders had a college degree, which is quite high by national standards.  Similarly, 34% of the attendees had incomes of over 100K a year. In the poll, 59% were 45 years old or older and they were 84% white. The simple charge against the group is that they are a splinter group of the Republican Party and there is much to support that view. There is little reason to suspect that Obama is losing people who would otherwise vote for him, even if the ideals of the movement could draw in sympathetic voters at the margins.

What most interests me in these findings and in the movement more generally are the implications for racial conflict in the country. I have written about these issues on this site here, and my view is that the ethnopolitics of the country are changing, certainly not always in salutary directions, but nevertheless in important ways. My read on the current case is that the various rebellions of which the Tea Party is the salient example are conditioned by racial anxiety, but on the whole, they are not formally racist movements.

We require new descriptive language that carries less moral baggage and more transformative capacity through which to map this conflict. I am proposing that we use the term inclusive ethnocentrism as a new term for the phenomenon, which builds on the prevalence of inclusive norms in the group, while recognizing the deeply biased evaluation of cultural styles and demographic attributes that are typical of racial anxiety in a changing America.

This is important for reconciliation because those troubled by racial anxiety are becoming immune to the charge and are, in some cases even bolstered in their polarization by accusations of racism, which allow them to retreat into producerist rhetoric. Once there, poverty and hardship are explained away with work ethic interpretations. This well worn theme has the potential to appeal quite widely in the electorate. A finding as important as any other from the Times poll was that only 18% of the population is a self identified member of the Tea Party. When we are tempted to dismiss the group on the numbers, we might remember that the percent African American is something like 13.5%. In a culture war, this 18% can make for a mighty ethnic front if properly roused. I venture to say that that would benefit none of us.

It will become necessary to make sense of the logic of the group’s demands. The most telling image I encountered in this latest cycle of protest was the message on a sign that was reported in the times: “redistribute my work ethic” (which is also the name of Facebook group with over 150 members). If you want to understand the Tea Party, try your best not to dismiss this sentiment, as hard as it may be. Yes, there are inexcusable racial stereotypes embedded in it that should be noted, but it is bigger than that. In a now forgotten social science classic, Reinhard Bendix described the development of this ideological style in early 19th century England. The targets of the attack then were not members of another race, but were co-ethnics dismissed as slackers who deserved their cruel fate. These ideas are old, foundational, and have legs; they are quite powerful on their own, but are even more so when blended with the devaluation of group power that many middle Americans are now experiencing in the recession. Social changes in the power of groups have been the cause of the last century and probably of this one as well, but they could prove to be quite explosive. Those of us with a taste for Conflict Resolution should be prepared with the intellectual tools that will help us to navigate the coming gale.

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