How the 1 Percent Suckered the Tea Party Crowd into Doing Their Bidding
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Even commentators who recognize that the Tea Party has historical roots might be forgiven for thinking those roots do not go very deep. Social scientists have noticed other movements that share many of the hallmarks of rich people’s movements—including the use of protest tactics by relatively affluent people; the fact that the activists were already fully enfranchised participants in the political system; and the fact that these activists seem to demand the preservation of comfortable consumer lifestyles, rather than the realization of some utopian vision of the future—and have argued that these are distinguishing characteristics of late-twentieth-century social movements. An influential body of scholarship on “new social movements” argues that protest movements took on these characteristics in postindustrial economies of the late twentieth century because economic development had made earlier agrarian and industrial class conflicts passé. The rising incomes of even ordinary wage earners made the late-twentieth-century United States into a consumer society. It is small wonder, to this way of thinking, that some protest movements today consist of affluent consumers protesting their taxes, rather than wage earners protesting their poverty. Another body of scholarship argues that the professionalization of social movement organizations in the late twentieth century made possible a mainstreaming of social protest, by taming the more disruptive protesters and by standardizing tactics so that they became easier for ordinary citizens to learn and apply in new contexts. Some scholars have also credited, or blamed, the mass media for the spread of social movements to the middle classes. Television, for example, brought images of the 1960s protest movements to middle-class households around the country, and thereby taught a new style of politics to previously staid suburbanites. All of these scholars describe how the economic and technological transformations of the twentieth century made the social movement repertoire available to ever-more affluent people. It is tempting to see the rich people’s movements of our time as the endpoint of these transformations—the newest new social movement, the capstone on the social movement society, or the last ripple in the widening circle of people who have appropriated and repurposed the political techniques of the poor.
Whatever the uses of theories like these for explaining the emergence of new social movements in the late twentieth century, they would miss the mark in accounting for rich people’s movements, because rich people’s movements are not that new. When the Texas tax clubs under the leadership of J. A. Arnold mobilized for tax cuts in the top brackets, they were not expressing the demands of suburban consumers in a postindustrial economy; they were advocating for the interests of rural bankers in a predominantly agrarian economy. When Edward Rumely and Vivien Kellems first began to commit civil disobedience in protest against the federal income tax, television had not yet brought images of the Civil Rights movement into the homes of millions of Americans. For much of the twentieth century, these movements relied on tactics that were decidedly old-fashioned even for their times. In the 1940s, Rumely used direct mail techniques to bypass existing civic associations and recruit directly, because that was the model that he had learned in the Progressive Party. In the 1950s, Kellems organized through women’s clubs, argued on the basis of constitutional rights, and attempted to inspire imitators through civil disobedience, because those were the techniques she had learned from the fight for woman suffrage. In the 1960s, Willis Stone recruited supporters for the Liberty Amendment through fraternal organizations and veterans’ organizations, because those were the organizations in which he had acquired his own civic education after the First World War. The tactics of all of these activists hearkened to the early decades of the twentieth century because these social movement entrepreneurs acquired their skills and organizing experience in social movement organizations of that era.