Really, What Is The Tea Party Movement?
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
We want to talk more about an emerging political movement, the so-called Tea Party Movement. They are credited with depriving President Obama and the Democrats of their 60-seat filibuster proof majority in the U.S. Senate, making the outlook for the Obama administrations legislative agenda that much more uncertain.
Where they came from and what drives them is the subject of a new piece in The New Yorker magazine by writer Ben McGrath. Hes with us now from New York. Welcome, thank you for joining us.
Mr. BEN McGRATH (Staff Writer, The New Yorker): Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: The piece is titled The Movement, appropriately enough, and you say that their mantra is: Can you hear us now? Who wasnt listening? Who did they think wasnt listening?
Mr. McGRATH: Well, I would say Washington, in general. I mean, theres a sense that the Republicans and the Democrats are both the enemy here, although particularly the Obama administration isnt listening. And I think this movement began last winter with a sense of frustration with the new president we have.
MARTIN: Who are the Tea Party activists? Because I can tell you that from what I see, they seemed to be very white, older for some reason, which is interesting and I couldnt tell if there was a gender breakdown. It seemed to be both male and female. So, what did you find out?
Mr. McGRATH: I think theres two ways of looking at them. One is a collection of the people that you see holding the signs that have been on the news. And the people standing up at the health care meetings tend to be somewhat older people and angry. But you have urban libertarians as well as people in flyover country, as I think they are probably apt to call it than some of the rest of us are, bonding together. So you have evangelicals and the Ron Paul campaign, people sort of wondering where to go with that, and then constitutionalists, people who really believe, literally, in the founding tenets of the country.
MARTIN: Well, why dont we just sort of break down what were some of the issues that brought them together because one of the points you made is that this was, for the most part, really grassroots. I mean, there were some people who were a focus of their interest in organizing, but this is not leader-led, in a sense that there isnt, say, one has been Svengali behind the scenes sort of telling everybody where to show up and when.
Mr. McGRATH: No, in fact, its pretty chaotic. I mean, if you type tea party in the Google, this is one of the things I found when I was starting. I was trying to find, you know, who are the people I should be talking to, and I tried typing, you know, tea party groups to find that theres the Tea Party Nation and the Tea Party Patriots and the Tea Party Express and the Tax Day Tea Party. Because of the Internet, its become really easy for people to organize on local levels and then communicate with other people who are organizing all the way across the country, and to a lot of those people, that sort of chaotic, disorganized nature is very important to them, to really feel that they're not being steered by one particular person, whether it be Glenn Beck or Dick Armey or whomever.
MARTIN: You say that the political establishment, both Republicans and Democrats, seem to have misread the force of this movement. It kind of started in New York's 23rd district last year. John McHugh was the incumbent. He was selected by President Obama to be his secretary of the Army. That led to a vacancy. The Republican establishment chose a fairly liberal Republican as their choice to run for that seat, meaning Dede Scozzafava, and there was a conservative backlash.
And you say that the fact that the Democrat wound up getting that seat seemed to, what, cause people to misread the potency of what was behind that movement?
Mr.�McGRATH: Yeah, I think it confirmed on both sides what they've been hoping to see. I mean, on the left, commentators have tended to focus on the sign carriers at these rallies and to seize on some of the most racist indicators and to suggest that this is a fringe that doesn't control the country anymore, and so the fact that they manage to disrupt a district where the Republicans have been in control for more than 100 years, was a nice confirmation of that, if you were looking at it from the Democrats' point of view.
I think the Republicans naturally worry that here we are in a period with an extreme Democratic majority and a Democratic president had just been elected, and here you've gone to a district that though traditionally Republican did in fact vote for President Obama, and the Tea Party movement in this case came in and ignored the local conditions on the ground, which is to say relatively moderate Republicanism where Obama won and thereby helped a Democrat get elected for the first time in 100 years.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with New Yorker writer Ben McGrath about his latest article. It's about the Tea Party movement.
You say that American history is dotted with moments like this when, as the Princeton history Sean Wilentz says, quote, "panic and vitriol come to the fore." Is that what you think is happening here?
Mr.�McGRATH: I don't really think that's what's happening anymore. I think that's the context in which this began. I think, you know, most of us probably became aware of the Tea Party through, as I say, these angry rallies and signs and the town hall meetings.
I don't really think that that's what the movement is anymore, if it ever was. Now I think you find a large group of people consolidating around a general sense of being fed up with politics as usual, and I think you'd probably find that sentiment recurs throughout history, yeah.
MARTIN: One of the points that you make that's interesting is that populism has usually been located on the left, and it has been - traditionally we've associated it with a desire for more government involvement instead of taking down the big guys, as it were, or in leveling the playing field. This is very much a movement of the right.
Mr.�McGRATH: Sure, and it's true. I mean, the original populist party at the end of the 19th century was in favor of the income tax and sort of pro-nationalization. And what you have with the Tea Party movement is actually, you know, a real fear of creeping nationalization, all this talk about socialism coming.
I think what you've had ever since the New Deal, really, is a slide of that kind of anti-establishment sentiment that we associate with populism towards the political right, through McCarthyism or Barry Goldwater's forgotten Americans, or even Nixon's silent majority.
MARTIN: I have to ask what role race plays in this, because I look at a lot of the people who are involved in these movements, and you want to say to them, well, what's working so great for you now that you're against everything that this administration is trying to do?
And you do look at a lot of these signs, which frankly are racist. I mean, there's one that you quote in your piece: The zoo has an African lion, and the White House has a lying African. And of course there are the ones with Obama with a bone through his nose and that sort of thing, and you look at markers like that, and you say, well, how much of this is really fear of change, fear of the fact that minorities, particularly an African-American, has such a prominent leadership role in this country, and that just, for some reason, is stimulating a kind of anxiety that people don't even know what it's about?
Mr.�McGRATH: Sure, and I think that's one of those questions that's obviously very difficult to get a real accurate answer on. I mean, one of the things they find now is that everyone is familiar with that question hovering over things, and so it's become almost like a meta-level of commentary.
MARTIN: But you're saying just because people won't talk about doesn't mean it isn't there.
Mr.�McGRATH: Well, I guess what I'm saying is I think they do talk about it. They're aware of the criticism, and so they preempt it by expressing it out loud, almost sarcastically.
It is a fact that the country is becoming more diverse, and the people in power are not white men, as I think Pat Buchanan referred to on Rachel Maddow's show, but it's a difficult thing to pin on any one individual person and say this is what's driving you.
MARTIN: And to the degree that you feel comfortable saying, how do you think the Tea Party movement related to the Republicans taking Ted Kennedy's seat, former seat, in Massachusetts? How did that work? And I think a lot of people find that sort of puzzling, given that there's this complaint about, you know, big government and creeping nationalism, but this is a state that already has universal health care, which was promoted by a Republican governor. So what's the connection there?
Mr.�McGRATH: Yeah, well, I mean, it's a pretty funny situation where you have the emotional appeal of taking Ted Kennedy's seat overtook the practical concern of wait a second, this guy who we're supporting is, by our standards, one of the establishment, basically, and a kind of a moderate.
I think a lot of people in the Tea Party movement saw a chance to work within the local conditions and have a national effect on, oddly enough, health care. I mean, I think all the stranger for the fact that they did it in a state where health care is already more inclusive than was even being discussed in Washington.
MARTIN: So what was the funnest part of your reporting on this story?
Mr.�McGRATH: I would say it was the first rally I went to, which was in Burlington, Kentucky, right near the border of Kentucky, and Indiana and Ohio, and one of the things that I was reminded is, you know, the image you get from cable news and sort of zooming in on the signs and some of the fights that seem to have taken place on the outskirts of a lot of these early Tea Party rallies is one of animosity and that kind of atmosphere of panic and vitriol that you mentioned.
And yet what I found was a lot of people were having a lot of fun, and everyone was incredibly welcoming of me, and I think one of the things you're reminded is that whenever a lot of people get together who share the same ideas, even if those ideas are based in discontent, they have a lot of fun. It's a kind of a festive atmosphere, and I think that's one of the things that's driving this.
This is a social movement, and it's creating a level of sociability for people that they maybe weren't getting before.
MARTIN: How widespread, finally, do you think these sentiments are? I know that you focused your reporting in so-called flyover country, which is where the people described it that you were reporting on. So this wasn't meant derisively on your part. How widespread do you think this movement is? And I know I'm asking you to speculate, which is a bit unfair, but just based on your reporting, what do you think?
Mr.�McGRATH: I think it is pretty widespread on the broad-sentiment level of we want government to be more responsive and smaller and more accountable, and we are alarmed by the national debt. I think that sentiment probably would capture at least a third of the country, if not more.
The question is how long it'll hold together. You do have an unlikely grouping of people together who are, for the moment, united under the same umbrella of the Tea Party, but ultimately you have these urban libertarians in Brooklyn who don't have a whole lot in common on social issues with Sarah Palin supporters in Kentucky, and it remains to be seen whether they will part ways at some point.
MARTIN: Ben McGrath is a staff reporter for the New Yorker. His latest article is called "The Movement: The Rise of Tea Party Activism." And he was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York. Ben, thank you.
Mr.�McGRATH: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.