As a student in the exciting new field of Tea Party Studies, I’ve noticed that no one agrees on what the Tea Party actually is. Is the anti-Obama, anti-big government movement simply AstroTurf fabricated by Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks? Is it a bunch of Birthers, Birchers, conspiracists, and white power misfits? Is it a strictly economic phenomenon—the inevitable result of high and persistent unemployment? Or are the Tea Partiers nothing more than indulgent Boomers who combine 1960s social libertarianism with 1980s laissez-faire economics? Does the Tea Party draw on longstanding American constitutional, political, and economic traditions, eddies of thought that one can trace back to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson? Or is it of a more recent vintage: Are the Tea Partiers simply the same folks who once were called Reagan Democrats and Perotistas?
All of the above. There is no single “Tea Party.” The name is an umbrella that encompasses many different groups. Under this umbrella, you’ll find everyone from the woolly fringe to Ron Paul supporters, from Americans for Prosperity to religious conservatives, independents, and citizens who never have been active in politics before. The umbrella is gigantic. But there are discernible ribs that extend outward from its central post, and points of shared concern that support the overall structure.
First, the Tea Party is unified by the pervasive sense that the country is wildly off course. It believes the establishment has bent and twisted the rules for its own benefit. America, the Tea Partiers believe, is headed for a fiscal reckoning unlike any it has ever seen.
Second, the Tea Party is unified in opposition to the policies that it believes put America in its current predicament. It’s opposed to bailouts, which favor the wealthy and connected. It’s opposed to out-of-control spending at every level of government. It’s opposed to an expansive state that subsidizes bad behavior while accruing more and more power for itself, opposed to a limitless government that nonetheless fails in the basic duties of securing the borders, regulating the financial sector, and keeping America safe.
Third, the Tea Party draws its strength from the American founding. It celebrates the Founders and their ideas. Tea Party members devour books about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Samuel Adams. They carry pocket copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. They believe strongly in the Bill of Rights, especially in the Tenth Amendment’s admonition that all powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved for the states and the people. Their rhetoric invokes the constitutional vision of a limited government with enumerated powers.
These beliefs support a political message with great promise. The bad economy and the Obama administration’s liberal agenda have produced widespread voter discontent. The president’s approval rating has declined significantly since his inauguration. Support for Congress is at record lows. The idea that economic distress would cause the American people to embrace the federal government has been exposed as hokum. In April, the Pew Research Center released a survey that concluded, “by almost every conceivable measure Americans are less positive and more critical of government.” The center’s pollsters found that, “rather than an activist government to deal with the nation’s top problems, the public now wants government reformed and growing numbers want its power curtailed.”
On bailouts, stimulus, and health care, the public is closer to the Tea Party than to the Democratic party. This is one reason why, despite the unpopularity of both major parties, voters are focusing their anger on Democratic incumbents. In a recent Gallup poll, 49 percent of respondents said the Democratic party was “too liberal.” That’s only one point less than the record, which Gallup measured in 1994. An NPR poll last week of battleground House districts found Republicans leading Democrats by eight points on the generic ballot.
This is the sort of political environment where one would expect to find the Tea Party feeling its oats. And in many respects the Tea Party’s record has been impressive. The movement helped force Arlen Specter and Charlie Crist out of the Republican party. It helped end the career of Republican senator Robert Bennett of Utah. It’s brought large numbers of new people into the political process. It’s upset the ossified Republican establishment in primaries around the country. It’s pushed American politics to the right, and shaped public opinion of the stimulus and health care reform.
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.
The topic may have been economic policy, but Santelli really was making a moral argument. For him, the housing plan rewarded bad behavior. It changed the rules so people could remain in homes that they shouldn’t have been able to purchase in the first place. The responsible taxpayer’s earned wealth was being diverted to bail out the irresponsible. Government modification of interest rates was a band-aid that didn’t address the underlying problem. “You can go down to minus 2 percent [interest],” Santelli said. “They can’t afford the house.” This, in Santelli’s view, was the textbook definition of moral hazard.
America was on a path, Santelli said, that its Founders would not recognize. “If you read our Founding Fathers,” he said, “people like Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson, what we’re doing in this country now is making them roll over in their graves.” That was why he was planning a “Chicago Tea Party” for all “the capitalists out there” who were fed up with the situation. It turns out that there are a lot of capitalists out there. Santelli’s rant has been viewed on YouTube more than 1.2 million times.
In Santelli’s opinion, American elites had neglected the people surrounding him, the commodities traders who made up “a pretty good statistical cross-section of America, the silent majority.” The silent majority felt separated from the democratic process. It was tired of seeing the government redistribute income to individuals who did not deserve it. If the people had the power to shape policy, Santelli implied, things would be different. “How about this, president and new administration,” Santelli said:
Why don’t you put up a website to have people vote on the Internet as a referendum, to see if we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages, or would we like to at least buy cars and buy houses in foreclosure and give them to people who might have a chance to actually prosper down the road, and reward people that could carry the water instead of drink the water?
The reference to “losers” may have been a little harsh. But Santelli’s analysis was compelling. In the runup to the financial crisis, individuals at every level of American society did make reckless decisions. What’s more, the Obama mortgage program does try to prevent homeowners from feeling the consequences of their irresponsible actions.
And it’s not as though Santelli was singling out the poor. When another CNBC anchor asked him what he was going to throw into Lake Michigan during his Chicago Tea Party, Santelli said, “We’re going to be dumping in some derivative securities, what do you think about that?” Neither the borrowers nor the lenders have the sympathy of the silent majority.
What bothered Santelli was that Obama’s proposals made neither moral nor intellectual sense. “You can’t buy your way into prosperity,” he said. “And if the multiplier that all of these Washington economists are selling us is over one, then we never have to worry about the economy again. The government should spend a trillion dollars an hour because we’ll get $1.5 trillion back.” To Santelli, such an idea was plainly absurd. It takes the silent majority to recognize that spending, debt, and subsidies for the undeserving do not create a prosperous future.
This is the same mix of symbols, allusions, and issues that conservatives have deployed for decades. This is the same impulse as the one behind the tax revolt in the 1970s, behind Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan’s critique of the welfare state in the 1980s, behind Newt Gingrich’s Opportunity Society rhetoric in the 1990s. The language of fiscal responsibility, individual initiative, self-discipline, and market competition is embedded in the conservative movement and the Republican grassroots. It’s a political language squarely in the mainstream. Large majorities of voters have embraced it in the past. They are likely to embrace it again.
What Santelli did not say was just as important. His speech contained no conspiracy theories. He did not rant against “the system.” He did not say that Obama is an illegitimate president. He did not say that Obama is a socialist. Instead, he said (perhaps slightly sarcastically) that White House adviser Lawrence Summers is “a great economist.” On March 2, 2009, he wrote, “I hope that the president and the final stimulus plan succeed,” and, “I love my country and hope that the current administration succeeds in fixing the complicated economic and social issues our country now faces.”
These are not the words of a conspiracy theorist. They are not the words of someone who believes the government is fundamentally corrupt. They are the words of a man who is worried about America’s future, but who thinks the right mix of policy and leadership can cure the nation’s ills. They are the words of a forward-looking, optimistic, free-market populist.
Around the time of Santelli’s rant, Glenn Beck invited his large radio and television audience to send him pictures. He wanted to see the faces of his listeners and viewers, and share the images with others. “I think a lot of people feel like they’re alone and they just want to give up,” Beck said. “I’m here to tell you something important and that is, you are not alone.” Beck said his staff would collect the pictures for a special edition of Glenn Beck, to be aired on March 13, 2009. That episode, which goes by the title “We Surround Them,” launched Beck’s 9.12 Project. It generated the idea for the massive taxpayer march on Washington that took place on September 12, 2009. It transformed Beck from a conservative talk show host into one of the fathers of the Tea Party.
On the surface, the differences between Santelli and Beck are striking. Santelli is a former businessman who parlayed his knowledge of markets into a successful career in broadcasting. He’s the type of guy you’d expect to find at the Rotary Club or making speeches to the local Chamber of Commerce. He is, in other words, an upstanding member of the community. Beck’s story is more dramatic. The former Top 40 DJ was addicted to alcohol and drugs before bottoming out, converting to Mormonism, and retooling his radio skills to a new format—conservative talk. He is dramatic, unpredictable, charismatic. Where Santelli is the voice of the silent majority, Beck is the voice of a reactionary counterculture.
And yet in some ways the two men are similar. They both appeal to the spirit of the Founders. They both believe that redistributing goods to the ignoble is unjust. In his bestseller Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, Beck wrote, “You don’t think it’s right that while you worked hard, lived prudently, and spent wisely, those who did the opposite are now being bailed out at your expense.”
Furthermore, Santelli and Beck both say government has been incompetent. “If our leaders want to address the growing disdain,” Beck wrote in Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, “they need to first restore trust with the American people. . . . If you don’t know what needs to be done to fix our economic meltdown, don’t spend trillions of dollars, take control of private companies, vilify corporate executives, and tell us that everything will be okay.” Those sentences would be right at home in a Rick Santelli rant.
What distinguishes Beck from Santelli is the breadth and depth of his critique. In his broadcasts, books, and stage performances, Beck provides his audiences with a dark vision of American life. In this bleak tableaux, rich, highly educated, radical elites are using the instruments of power to control the common man and indoctrinate his children. The elites, Beck says, seized on the 2008 financial crisis to shape America according to their socialist, fascist, globalist vision. The only remaining obstacle to the elitist agenda is the pro-freedom movement that wants to return to America’s founding principles. The elitists fight the patriots by calling them racists and extremists.
Beck is not simply an entertainer. He and his audience love American history. They are hungry for new ways to interpret current events. And Beck is creating, in Amity Shlaes’s words, “a competing canon” of texts and authorities. This competing canon is not content to assault contemporary liberalism, but rather deconstructs the very foundations of the New Deal and the Progressive Era. Among the books Beck regularly cites on his programs are Shlaes’s Forgotten Man, Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, Larry Schweickart and Michael Allen’s Patriot’s History of the United States, and Burt Folsom Jr.’s New Deal or Raw Deal? And books like Matthew Spalding’s We Still Hold These Truths, Seth Lipsky’s Citizen’s Constitution, and William J. Bennett and John Cribb’s American Patriot’s Almanac all belong on the list as well.
This intellectual journey has led Beck to some disturbing conclusions. Whereas Rick Santelli says the housing plan and the stimulus aren’t sensible, Beck says the Obama administration is the culmination of 100 years of unconstitutional governance. On the “We Surround Them” episode, Beck said, “The system has been perverted and it has to be restored.” In between bouts of weeping, he asked, “What happened to the country that loved the underdog and stood up for the little guy?” That country, he implied, is vanishing before our eyes. In Beck’s world, politics is less about issues than it is about “us” versus “them.” We may have them surrounded. But “we can’t trust anyone.”
The reason no one can be trusted, Beck says, is that the political system is compromised by the ideology of progressivism. At his keynote speech to the 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference, Beck wrote the word “progressivism” on a chalkboard and said, “This is the disease. This is the disease in America.” He said again, “Progressivism is the cancer in America and it is eating our Constitution.”
When he refers to progressivism, Beck is not only highlighting the liberals’ latest name for liberalism. He is referring to the ideas of John Dewey, Herbert Croly, and Walter Lippmann. According to Beck (and many others), these early 20th-century thinkers believed that there is no such thing as natural right. The Constitution, in their view, was not equipped to deal with the complexities of modern society. They argued that government should do more to protect free competition by busting trusts, and also promote equality and individual development through redistribution. The progressive tendency found political expression in Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” speech of 1910 and in Woodrow Wilson’s presidency from 1913-1921. It became the foundation for FDR’s New Deal.
Beck believes progressive ideas infect both parties and threaten to destroy America as it was originally conceived. “Progressivism,” he wrote in Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, “has less to do with the parties and more to do with individuals who seek to redefine, reshape, and rebuild America into a country where individual liberties and personal property mean nothing if they conflict with the plans and goals of the State.”
By attacking progressivism, Beck is taking on a big idea. He is forcing people to question their assumptions. He is introducing new thinkers to the reading public. But he is also engaging in a line of inquiry that—interesting though it may sometimes be—is tangential to the political realities of our day. And his intellectual inquiries have a purpose: to foster the perception that a benighted American public is being preyed upon by an internationalist conspiracy.
So, the difference between communism and progressivism, Beck argued at CPAC, is “revolution” or “evolution.” In other words, the difference between communism and progressivism is one of means not ends. “There is no difference,” he said, “except one requires a gun and the other does it slowly.”
“Socialism and fascism,” the author writes in Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, “have been on the rise for two administrations now.” Beck’s book Arguing with Idiots contains a list of the “Top Ten Bastards of All Time,” on which Pol Pot (No. 10), Adolf Hitler (No. 6), and Pontius Pilate (No. 4) all rank lower than FDR (No. 3) and Woodrow Wilson (No. 1). In Glenn Beck’s Common Sense Beck writes, “With a few notable exceptions, our political leaders have become nothing more than parasites who feed off our sweat and blood.”
This is nonsense. Whatever you think of Theodore Roosevelt, he was not Lenin. Woodrow Wilson was not Stalin. The philosophical foundations of progressivism may be wrong. The policies that progressivism generates may be counterproductive. Its view of the Constitution may betray the Founders’. Nevertheless, progressivism is a distinctly American tradition that partly came into being as a way to prevent ideologies like communism and fascism from taking root in the United States. And not even the stupidest American liberal shares the morality of the totalitarian monsters whom Beck analogizes to American politics so flippantly.
Read and watch enough Glenn Beck, and you realize that he is not only introducing new authors and ideas into public life, he is reintroducing old ideas. Some very old ideas. The notion that America’s leaders are indistinguishable from America’s enemies has a long and sorry history. In the 1950s it led Robert Welch, the head of the John Birch Society, to proclaim that President Dwight Eisenhower was a Communist sympathizer. For this, William F. Buckley Jr. famously denounced Welch and severed the Birchers’ ties to mainstream conservatism. The group was ostracized for decades.
But not everyone denounced Welch. One author, the Mormon autodidact W. Cleon Skousen, continued to support the Birchers as he penned books on politics and the American founding. And Skousen continued to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that American political, social, and economic elites were working with the Communists to foist a world government on the United States.
Glenn Beck is a Skousenite. During the “We Surround Them” program, he urged his audience to read Skousen’s 5000 Year Leap (1981), for which he has written a foreword, and The Real George Washington (1991). “The 5000 Year Leap is essential to understanding why our Founders built this Republic the way they did,” the author writes in Glenn Beck’s Common Sense. More controversially, Beck has recommended Skousen’s Naked Communist (1958) and Naked Capitalist (1970), which lay out the writer’s paranoid scenarios in detail. The latter book, for example, draws on Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope (1966), which argues that the history of the 20th century is the product of secret societies in conflict. “Carroll Quigley laid open the plan in Tragedy and Hope,” says a character in Beck’s new novel, The Overton Window. “The only hope to avoid the tragedy of war was to bind together the economies of the world to foster global stability and peace.”
For Beck, conspiracy theories are not aberrations. They are central to his worldview. They are the natural consequence of assuming that the world hangs by a thread, and that everyone is out to get you. On his television program, Beck promised to “find out what’s true and what’s not with the FEMA concentration camps”—referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a federal bureaucracy that chiefly funnels relief funds to victims of natural disasters, and is more commonly (and accurately) thought of as punchless. Beck later acknowledged that his staff could not find any evidence for such camps.
Beck has urged his viewers to read The Coming Insurrection, an impenetrable political tract by a French Marxist group called The Invisible Committee that has no clear relationship to U.S. politics (or to reality). In Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, the author writes that “efforts are now also being made to empower the State to retain, test, and research the blood and DNA of newborn babies.” The plot of The Overton Window is one big conspiracy theory in which the United States government, Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and the Trilateral Commission are all plotting an antidemocratic coup. It is a fever-dream that Oliver Stone would envy. “Who needs a list when they can monitor you whenever they want?” says one of the book’s characters at a fictional Tea Party rally. “You’ve all heard of that ‘Digital Angel’ device that can be implanted under your skin, right? They say it’s to store medical information and for the safety of children and Alzheimer’s patients.” Scary stuff. But also fantastical. In an author’s note, Beck says his novel is not fiction but “faction”—“completely fictional books with plots rooted in fact.” Which “facts” are those?
Conspiracism is only one reason Beck’s populism is self-limiting. Another is that its attitude toward government is radically adversarial. The American electorate may have turned against Obama liberalism, but it has no appetite for ending the New Deal, much less the FDA. Nor is it true that both parties are equally corrupted by the progressive “cancer.” There always has been a wing of the Republican party hostile to progressivism, stretching back to William Howard Taft’s nomination over Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.
Nor is it as easy to distinguish the “State” from the people, as Beck might imagine. Americans do not live in Russia or Germany or China. Socialism and communism never were mass movements in our politics. Our constitutional machinery and democratic ethos continue to operate as checks on state power. For evidence, look no further than the Tea Party.
Exploring the ideological origins of American progressivism is an interesting intellectual exercise. But at the end of the day, it is just that—an intellectual exercise. Even Beck seems to recognize this. There are moments when the lost America for which he pines does not seem so distant after all. Here, for example, is a passage from Glenn Beck’s Common Sense:
There was a time when our political leaders inspired America to greatness and motivated us to face daunting challenges with courage and resolve. Our political leaders led us to successfully revolt against the British. They convinced us to defeat Nazism, fascism, and imperialism by fighting it in the homelands that gave birth to those ideologies. They encouraged us in our fifty-year-long struggle against the spread of communism—and they captivated the world as we watched it collapse under its own weight.
It does not take a doctorate in history to note that all but one of these achievements took place after TR spoke of the New Nationalism at Osawatomie, Kansas, in August 1910.
Here, then, are the two faces of the Tea Party. They look in different directions. They appeal to different audiences. They have different goals, different methodologies, different prescriptions. Both are angry. But one’s anger is tempered by hope while the other’s borders on despair. Two faces, one entity. This is the reason why the Tea Party is so hard to understand, why it provokes such disparate reactions.
And why its future remains a mystery. One imagines the Santelli face could be easily integrated into a conservative Republican party, with an affirmative agenda of spending cuts, low taxes, entitlement reform, and free trade. Some Tea Party groups, such as the Contract From America, are working toward this goal, even if they do not state it so baldly. Paul Ryan’s Roadmap for America’s Future is another example of free-market populism channeled into politically potent outlets. Despite what its critics say, the Roadmap does not end the welfare state. It refashions the welfare state using conservative means. It seeks to make the welfare state work for the poor, not an entitled middle class, and thereby remain sustainable.
It is harder to integrate the Beck face into mainstream politics. It is harder to imagine even a unified Republican government being tempted by the Beck program. Entitlements are not about to be abolished. The Federal Reserve is not going away. A flat tax is a long-term goal not a short-term fix. The budget will not be balanced by cutting pork-barrel spending alone. America is not about to renege on her international commitments.
The tensions within conservative populism are durable and longstanding. Consider two other faces. The first is Ronald Reagan’s: sunny, cheerful, conservative. Yet it is often forgotten that Reagan was the first Republican president to identify with FDR. He drew support from unions and other parts of the New Deal coalition. He left Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid intact. He was less concerned with undoing the work of his predecessors than he was with implementing reforms that promoted competition, investment, and growth. Not coincidentally, he was the most successful Republican president of the 20th century.
The second face is Barry Goldwater’s, circa 1964: tart, dyspeptic, radical. For Goldwater, “Extremism in the defense of liberty [was] no vice.” For Goldwater, the aim was “not to pass laws, but to repeal them.” It is no wonder that conservatives are attracted to such a message. But they are often the only ones who feel this way. Goldwater lost in a landslide.
The Tea Party cannot choose one face over the other; they are both part of the same movement. But the Tea Party can decide which face it puts forward. And in the coming days that decision will be of great consequence. It is the choice between Reagan and Goldwater. Santelli and Beck. Reform and revolution. Common sense and conspiracy. The future and the past. Victory—and defeat.
Matthew Continetti is associate editor of The Weekly Standard and author, most recently, of The Persecution of Sarah Palin.