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How the Tea Party Has You Fooled

Why do so many American progressives blame the masses for a movement of the classes?

In recent essays for Salon  I have argued that progressives and mainstream pundits are making a profound mistake by treating Tea Party radicalism as an outburst of irrationality by moronic “low information” yokels, rather than understanding it as a calculated (if not necessarily successful) strategy by the regional elite of the South and its allies in other regions. In an Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal titled “ The Tea Party and the GOP Crackup,” William Galston presents data that reinforces this conclusion:

Many frustrated liberals, and not a few pundits, think that people who share these beliefs must be downscale and poorly educated. The New York Times survey found the opposite. Only 26% of tea-party supporters regard themselves as working class, versus 34% of the general population; 50% identify as middle class (versus 40% nationally); and 15% consider themselves upper-middle class (versus 10% nationally). Twenty-three percent are college graduates, and an additional 14% have postgraduate training, versus 15% and 10%, respectively, for the overall population. Conversely, only 29% of tea-party supporters have just a high-school education or less, versus 47% for all adults.

I have also argued that the Tea Party is not a new movement that sprang up as a result of spontaneous populist anger against Wall Street bailouts in the Great Recession, but rather the “newest right,” the most recent incarnation of an evolving right-wing tradition that goes back beyond Reagan and Goldwater to mostly Southern roots. Galston notes the high degree of overlap between the Tea Party and mainstream Republican conservatives:

Nor, finally, is the tea party an independent outside force putting pressure on Republicans, according to the survey. Fully 76% of its supporters either identify with or lean toward the Republican Party. Rather, they are a dissident reform movement within the party, determined to move it back toward true conservatism after what they see as the apostasies of the Bush years and the outrages of the Obama administration.

Against progressives and pundits who insist on blaming the white working class for Tea Party radicalism, I have argued that the radical right agenda serves the interest of the economic elites of the South and some areas in the Midwest and other regions — particularly those whose business models are threatened by unions, high minimum wages and environmental regulations. Here, too, Galston understands what most commentators miss:

Many tea-party supporters are small businessmen who see taxes and regulations as direct threats to their livelihood. Unlike establishment Republicans who see potential gains from government programs such as infrastructure funding, these tea partiers regard most government spending as a deadweight loss. Because many of them run low-wage businesses on narrow margins, they believe that they have no choice but to fight measures, such as ObamaCare, that reduce their flexibility and raise their costs—measures to which large corporations with deeper pockets can adjust.

I have high regard for Galston’s abilities as a political analyst, and no small regard for my own. But this is not rocket science. All of this has been obvious to anyone who bothered to examine the polling and voting data, since the term “Tea Party” first entered the national dialogue following the crash of 2008.

Why, in the face of all of this evidence, are so many progressives and pundits convinced that the white working class, rather than affluent and educated conservative elites, are the driving force behind the right? Why do so many American progressives blame the masses for a movement of the classes? The answer is that the American center-left has been misled for half a century by the bad scholarship of the historian Richard Hoftstadter (1916-1970) and by German Marxist emigres of the Frankfurt School.

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