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The Two Faces of the Tea Party

Rick Santelli, Glenn Beck, and the future of the populist insurgency.

Jun 28, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 39 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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But there are also signs that the Tea Party is in the middle of a tumultuous adolescence. Its activists haven’t had much to say, for example, on the topic of the big banks. A recent Washington Post poll showed it losing support. Divisions between Tea Party factions split the conservative vote in GOP primaries in Nevada and Virginia, and threaten the unity of purpose that marks successful activist campaigns. The Tea Party may have guaranteed that Marco Rubio will be the GOP Senate nominee in Florida, but there is a chance that Charlie Crist’s independent campaign will make this a Pyrrhic victory. There is the palpable anxiety among sympathizers that if the Tea Party did gain power, it would be unable to shape its diverse sentiments into a programmatic agenda.

Most important, Tea Party rhetoric has become a double-edged sword. Some of the movement’s ideas are simply too radical for the public. One of the hottest controversies in some Tea Party circles is whether to repeal the Seventeenth Amendment, which allows for the direct election of senators. Part of the reason the Republican candidate lost in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District was that he supported the Fair Tax, which would abolish the tax code and replace it with a consumption tax. Rand Paul may have won the Republican Senate nomination in Kentucky, but he quickly had to walk back statements opposing the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Sharron Angle, the Republican Senate nominee in Nevada, has had to explain what she meant when she said that Social Security and Medicare ought to be “phased out.” Rick Barber, a Republican candidate for Congress in Alabama, opens his latest ad with the words, “I’d impeach him,” and closes it with a man dressed in Revolutionary War garb saying menacingly, “Gather. Your. Armies.”

Now, any large political movement is going to have its share of people who push the ideological envelope. It’s going to have some cranks who break the rules of political decorum. In times of economic crisis and political ferment, tempers are going to become heated. And even liberals have to acknowledge that the Tea Party, despite the wild charges thrown against it, has shunned violence and racism.

Nevertheless, while most Americans disapprove of the Obama Democrats, they do not back a full-scale revolt against the government. They do not support the abolition of the welfare state. They may want to repeal Obama-care, but they do not want to repeal the 20th century.

The Tea Party’s movements and currents, its successes and setbacks, have revealed the dual nature of conservative populism. There is one tendency that tries, in Wilfred M. McClay’s evocative phrase, “to restore and preserve a less regimented, less status-stratified, less school-sorted, more open-ended America.” But there is also another tendency, one that believes the government is so corrupt, the constitutional system so perverted, that only radical solutions will save America from certain doom.

The first tendency is forward-looking, optimistic, and comfortable in contemporary America. The second tendency looks to the distant past, feels not just pessimistic but apocalyptic, and always sees the powerful conspiring against the powerless. And while it is possible to distinguish between the two tendencies, they nonetheless overlap in many places. They are different parts of the same creature. One part, however, is more attractive to outsiders than the other. In our future-oriented, optimistic American polity, the first tendency has limitless appeal. The second does not.

The Tea Party, like the Roman god Janus, has two faces. One looks to the future. The other looks to the past. One wants to repair deformities in the American political structure and move on. The other is ready to scrap the whole thing and restore a lost Eden.

They are the faces, in other words, of the cable TV stars who are arguably the Tea Party’s two founders: Rick Santelli and Glenn Beck.

Return to Thursday, February 19, 2009. The economic picture was bleak. Employment was in free fall. The political system was in a state of emergency. Several months earlier, Congress had passed the TARP bailout. Less than a week before, Congress had passed the $800 billion stimulus bill by a narrow vote. The previous day, the new president had unveiled his “Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan.”

At 8:15 a.m., CNBC on-air editor Rick Santelli appeared on that network’s Squawk Box program from the floor of the Chicago mercantile exchange. Most of the traders hadn’t yet shown up to work. The floor was quiet. Santelli’s booming voice echoed throughout the room. He began to rant about the Obama housing plan, and as his rant gained force some of the traders joined in. By the time the segment was over, the Tea Party had been born.

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