25 August 2010

The Tea Party and the Angry White Male

Dan Maes, the Republican nominee in the Colorado Governor's race, named a running mate as credible as most. Tom Tancredo, in contrast, has named Pat Miller, who served only a single term as a state representative a couple of decades ago and has run some second rate anti-abortion groups in the meantime. Her views are probably further to the right than any other candidate who will appear on the ballot this fall and her track record marks her as someone who is not credible.

People like Tom Tancredo and Dan Maes live in an America where the only language spoken is crazy talk. Tancredo, by adding Pat Miller to his ticket, is apparently trying to out crazy Dan Maes and perhaps come in second place with support from radicalized conservatives in a race he has handed to Democratic nominee John Hickenlooper.

Maureen Dowd has it about right when she despairs that:

The country is having some weird mass nervous breakdown, with the right spreading fear and disinformation that is amplified by the poisonous echo chamber that is the modern media environment.

She is likewise on point when she notes that:

As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

The weird mass nervous breakdown that our country is experiencing is largely confined to conservative Republicans. There are a handful of exceptions, but Democrats and independents remain, as they were before the 2008 election, overwhelmingly reality based. When opinion polls are broken out by political identity, Democrats and independents don't look much different than they did before the election, while the weirdness pollsters are hearing from Republicans starts to look like a pervasive hysteria.

Republicans are the ones seeing U.N. bicycle conspiracies, ignoring science on climate change, insisting on equal time for creationism in our classrooms, claiming that President Obama is a Muslim or was not born in the United States, seeking to repeal the 14th and 17th Amendments of the United States Constitution (birth right citizenship and direct election of Senators), acting on absurd rumors that pro-Second Amendment President Obama would take away their guns, longing to secede from the United States, claiming that tax cuts increase government revenues, urging the nation to bomb Mecca, insisting that health care reform and Social Security are unconstitutional, trying to drown government in a bathtub, passing laws that purport to overrule federal law in their states, and arguing (on the floor of the Colorado General Assembly no less) that stoning people for adultery is a good idea.

What happened?

Once upon a time, a few election cycles ago, the Republican party was supposed to be the party of successful business people, who favored facts learned from experience over ideological theories, and supported Christian values. Then, sometime in the last few years, it reached a tipping point. A critical mass of sane people from the establishment wing of the party disavowed it, and the balance of power shifted to the GOP's paranoid, delusional, angry wing. The grown ups left the smoke filled rooms, leaving the lunatics in charge of the asylum.

Even more remarkably, pluralities of college educated, middle class suburban men with serious jobs and small businesses to run, who mow their lawns every week, pay their mortgages, go to church every Sunday, and send their kids to poverty free suburban public schools have decided that they prefer to vote for the paranoid, delusional, angry politicians of the Tea Party rather rational, reality based, problem solvers. At first glance, this seems absurdly out of character.

The upstanding citizens of Colorado Springs (the largest share of whom are government employees or work for government contractors) have decided that street lights and police helicopters and suicide prevention hot lines and municipal parks are big government and can't be tolerated. The people of suburban Aurora collectively decided that libraries are a bad idea and permanent closed half of them - selling the books in the fire sale.

Cranks like Doug Bruce and Rush Limbaugh have become the de facto public faces of the conservatives.

The Republican Party has nominated W.R. Stapleton to be state treasurer, despite the fact that he failed to show up for a large share of scheduled campaign appearances, and Ryan Frazier to run as their nominee in Colorado's 7th Congressional District, despite the fact that he has missed about as many city council meetings in his current post as an Aurora City Councilman as the rest of the City Council combined (a point made emphatically by old guard Republican Bob Beauprez in the primary campaign).

It takes a certain amount of gall to complain about teacher tenure when you support candidates who would be swiftly fired if held to the attendance standards of tenured teachers, professors and civil servants. Even the Detroit Public Schools has decided to make clear that routinely not showing up for work is grounds for losing your job.

Admittedly, Colorado Republicans did have a brief moment of lucidity when they realized should not support the nomination of Scott McInnis, who was caught red handed plagiarizing essays that he was paid $300,000 to write about Colorado water law, and had previously used campaign funds to pay his wife to be his campaign manager after he decided he wasn't running for office. Shocking revelations that come just as you are about to cast your vote can jolt you back to reality, if only for a moment.

But, how can a political base that tend beautiful front lawn gardens of columbines and tulips, who ground their kids for weeks if a teacher reports that they copied a classmate's homework, who routinely fire subordinates for showing up late to work or failing to meet sales targets, and who pay extra at the car wash to get an extra coating of wax that will keep their SUVs shiny a week longer, support such a flawed slate of candidates to be their political leaders?

The answer, I think, lies in the invisible struggle hiding behind the serene Desperate Housewives facade of suburban America.

Colorado Republicans, collectively, have been through the psychological trauma of seeing their political party lose both houses of Congress, most of the seats it held in the state Congressional delegation, the Presidency including your own state's electoral votes, the Governorship, the state house, the state senate, several statewide offices, the dishonor of seeing the national economy fall to pieces while the President they supported was in office, the chagrin of learning that a war that the President they voted for was fought to stop weapons of mass destruction that weren't there, and the confusion of seeing the fiscal conservatives they supported bring the national deficit to record levels.

Even more importantly, the recent setbacks have been personal as well as political for the class of people from whom the Tea Party has drawn support.

Politicians may lie, but your quarterly mutual fund and 401(k) statements don't sugar coat your declining net worth. It is hard to ignore the "bank owned" message atop the "for sale" sign down the street. People who mow their lawns and tend their gardens are acutely aware that their home equity has eroded and houses in their neighborhood are taking longer to sell. The layoffs happening in the office down the hall to people you knew personally are real. Even for families whose daily lives haven't actually changed at all, their perceived wealth and financial security has plummeted.

Of course, for many families in the Republican base, their daily lives have changed. Small business people have to explain over the dinner table every week to their spouses why their incomes aren't enough to pay for everything in their budget again this month. It hurts the pride of an upper middle class professional who gets most of his compensation from bonuses to have to send "jingle mail" to the bank that owns the mortgage on his vacation home, or to have to sell the boat he bought a couple of years ago at a deep loss. Once successful realtors and high end salespeople have to forget about taking the exotic vacations they used to get as perks for meeting sales goals. Life goes on after you pull your kids out of an expensive private school and enroll them in a local public school district, despite the fact that you keep doing your job as well as you always have and have played by the rules, but it leaves you with a cauldron of negative emotional energy that you'd love to blame on anyone but yourself.

When you have built your identity around your job, your business and your financial success, and you have attributed your financial well being to your personal virtue, stoic acknowledgment that economic success and failure often has nothing to do with your personal professional merit is a hard pill to swallow. In the world that the Republican establishment lives in, the first rule of life on the job is that you must be optimistic and upbeat no matter what, because nobody like a whiner; so you need to find another outlet for you intense angry, frustrated and bitter feelings.

When a political party that you opposed controls all the levers of political power, you can vent viciously in the political world without betraying the people you supported. When you know that the extremist candidates that you voted for don't have a prayer of winning anyway, you can even vote for them without feeling guilty about the harm that they would do if they were actually elected and allowed to govern.

Voting for a demagogue is the functional equivalent of watching porn that depicts acts you would never engage in yourself, or a fantasy about quitting your job with a dramatic "fuck you" to your boss. There is a reason that a certain Jet Blue flight attendant exit out the airplanes exit ramp made him a national hero, and that a hoax You Tube video about an administrative assistant telling off her boss in a series of statements written on a white board became viral hit. A vote for someone who is spouting angry political profanity allows you the catharsis of fantasies, that you know are wrong to play out in real life, vicariously, without having to suffer the consequences.

When reality is full of defeat and disillusionment, fantasy starts looking pretty attractive and cognitive dissonance no doubt reaches surreal levels. Sometimes the truth gets so ugly that it is easier to put its picture in a desk drawer where you don't have to look at it. Selling hard truths to the electorate has rarely been a tactic that leads to political success. The Tea Party has provided in the political world the kind of outlet for the darker feelings of the Republican establishment that football and hockey provide for the violent tendencies of the middle class.

In support of the "vote for wacko candidates as political fantasy" theory, I would suggest that it is not coincidental that one the least loony major insurgent candidates in Colorado on the Republican ticket, Cory Gardner, is running in the 4th Congressional District, rather than for some other office. The 4th CD has a strong Republican voter registration edge, but is now served by conservative Democrat Betsy Markey, after the previous Republican incumbent, Marilyn Musgrave, imploded by obsessing about hot button social issues to the exclusion of everything else. The fact that Gardner was chosen by Republicans to represent them in the race where the Republican party has the best shot at picking up an important elected office this year in Colorado, suggests that Republican voters are willing to be pragmatic when it matters.

Sure, the financial crisis has brought prolonged unemployment to millions of working Americans. But, most of them didn't have deeply felt expectations of uninterrupted prosperity and have learned since the 1970s that for them, employment insecurity is a fact of life. Their balance sheets have had nothing to lose, and they've long ago decided psychologically and emotionally, that their periodic economic setbacks are often not their fault. They have suffered hardship, but not dramatically upset personal expectations and the rising political fortunes of the people that they have supported give them some reason for hope and more reason not to vent their frustrations at the ballot box.

The economic losses of the middle class, in contrast, have been stark. In a recession where a minority people have most of the wealth, they have the most to lose when the foundations of the nation's economy start to crack. They may still have jobs to a much greater extent than the working class, and they may still manage to preserve a standard of living better than most, but those who benefit most from the economy's bounty when it thrives are also the ones who lose the most when it flounders. The figures most often reported in the newspapers don't always reveal this fact, but housing markets in the Republican dominated suburbs, at least in Colorado, have been suffering much more seriously than those in Democratic party strongholds in major central cities.

If history has taught us anything about politics, it has taught us that economic failure drives political extremism and scapegoating. Those who have lost the most relative to their expectations are prone to go the farthest off the deep end. And, in these economic times, in Colorado at least, that means the Republican base. So, perhaps the fact that a base made up of seemingly serious people is supporting candidates who aren't, isn't really so surprising after all.


Michael Malak said...

For me and many of the others who collectively donated $20m to Ron Paul in 2007Q4, it was Bush's policies that angered us, not the recession which at that time was minimal.

Anonymous said...

This was a really good post. I've tried to articulate this, but you did a much better job...

gabbahey said...

Hey - I'm trying to post this to facebook but it is using Michael Malak's comment as the description. Any way to fix that? Great post.