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Mike Lofgren | The Revolt of the Lower Middle Class and the Stupidity of the Elites

Why do Tea Party adherents favor policies that are often directly counter to their economic interests?

We read in the aftermath of the government shutdown and near default on the country’s sovereign debt that the US Chamber of Commerce is clutching its pearls. “We are going to get engaged,” said a mouthpiece for the chamber. “The need is now more than ever to elect people who understand the free market and not silliness.” The chamber is the top lobbying organization in America, and it gave 93 percent of its political contributions to Republican candidates in the 2010 election that birthed the Congressional Tea Party Caucus. Apparently it is now having buyer’s remorse. Politico, the newsletter of the Beltway illuminati, reports similar tidings: Rich Republican mega-donors like hedge fund vulture Paul Singer are expressing frustration with Republican office holders, even though Singer has been a major financial backer of the Tea Party-oriented Club for Growth, which egged on the politicians who forced the shutdown. Even the Koch brothers have been distancing themselves from the shutdown.

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Most Democrats, needless to say, are rubbing their hands with glee, and predictions of doom for the GOP are too numerous to count. The Tea Party, according to this narrative, has taken over the Republican Party and will lead it to inevitable electoral oblivion: The sheer irrationality of their demands constitutes electoral suicide. Others are not so sure. Michael Lind has advanced the theory that the Tea Party is an aggregation of “local notables,” i.e., “provincial elites [disproportionately Southern] whose power and privileges are threatened from above by a stronger central government they do not control and from below by the local poor and the local working class.” He links it to a neo-Confederate ideology that is “perfectly rational” in terms of its economic objectives – a stark contrast to the prevailing description of the Tea Party as irrational. Lind further contends that progressives have misread the Tea Party, downplaying the element of elite control and obsessing over the anger and craziness of its followers.

There is some truth in this. The Tea Party definitely is disproportionately Southern, as Lind stipulates, and any movement that seeks to hobble the functioning of the federal government naturally will advance themes and tactics that sound a lot like the template of the Confederacy: states’ rights, disenfranchisement of voters, use of the filibuster and so forth. Some Tea Party candidates look an awful lot like neo-Confederate sympathizers. But Lind misconstrues some of the data. If, as he says, 47 percent of white Southerners express support for the Tea Party, how does that square with his “local notables” theme: That the “backbone” of the movement is “millionaires [rather than] billionaires?” It is doubtful that 47 percent of the white population in the poorest region of the country consists even of local notables, much less millionaires.

That a fair number of local big shots is involved in the movement is unsurprising and natural, given their economic interests; what is more interesting from a sociological point of view, as well as more significant from a political perspective, is the millions of non-rich people, including those dependent on federal programs like Social Security and Medicare, who pull the lever for Tea Party candidates. The fact that 144 of 231 voting Republican House members opted for shutdown and default is not explained by the Svengali-like influence of a relatively small, regionally based group of Lind’s “second-tier” affluent people, especially because the first tier, the people that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce represents, was opposed strongly to the shutdown and to allowing a default. The most plausible answer is that there is a mass popular movement (albeit working in carefully gerrymandered Congressional districts) that would throw these members of Congress out of office if they had voted otherwise. If big-shot money were the sole criterion, the office holders would never have threatened default in the first place.

In advancing his thesis that Tea Party adherents are more affluent and more educated than average, Lind cites a New York Times/CBS News poll from early 2010 that claims those findings. This poll is frequently quoted in characterizations of the Tea Party, and there has been relatively little work done on the demographics of the movement since then. But one study found slightly lower levels of education in GOP Congressional districts than in the country as a whole. Given the paucity of reliable data, it is not unreasonable to use GOP district demographics as a rough surrogate for Tea Party demographics if 62 percent of House Republicans are voting the Tea Party line on shutdown and default.

While it may be true that the Tea Party was originally about fiscal issues and initially attracted more affluent people, what appears to have happened is that the Religious Right, always on the lookout to infiltrate and take over organizations (see your local school board) gradually became the demographic center of gravity of the movement. That would explain why the Tea Party initially described itself as wholly con­cerned with debt, deficit and federal overreach but gradually became almost as theocratic as the activists from the Religious Right. If anything, they were even slightly more disposed than the rest of the Republi­can Party to inject religious issues into the political realm. According to an academic study of the Tea Party, “[T]hey seek ‘deeply religious’ elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates.” A glance at the bios of the steering committee for Tea Party Unity suggests a strong theocratic bias. That probably explains why Tea Party darling Ted Cruz took time from obstructing Senate proceedings to be the marquee speaker at the Values Voter Summit, whose straw poll he won handily. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of low-church zealotry, rather than typical plutocratic manners and mores, to be gained simply by watching Tea Party protests. Economic elites just might comport themselves like this, this, this, this or this when publicly expressing their political views, but – with the possible exception of Donald Trump – I doubt it.

It is more likely that however the Tea Party initially presented itself, it is no longer a group of mainly affluent, well-educated people whose primary obsessions are the deficit, debt or health care policy. This became evident in the later stages of the shutdown, when it was obvious that Tea Party-influenced office holders had no coherent strategy for achieving concrete, tangible political goals. This confusion was memorably expressed by Rep. Marlin Stutzman, a Tea Party favorite: “We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”

As Dr. Freud knew, sometimes we say more than we intend. While the media collectively pounced on Stutzman’s ignorance of his goal, they did not ask why he did not have a goal that he could express. And they let pass his comment about being “disrespected,” an idee fixe of outsiders like teenage gang members who have self-esteem issues. Stutzman could not articulate a policy goal because he did not have one that he could utter. He was channeling the unfocused cultural rage of the principal body of his constituents: predominately white, lower-middle-class Americans who feel “disrespected” because the main currents of American life, economically, demographically and culturally, are passing them by. This accounts for the fevered, emotional, irrational tenor of their complaints, a hyperbolic resentment that cannot be explained by the fact that the federal budget is not in balance[i] or that the Affordable Care Act is costly and creates an unwieldy bureaucracy – features that did not seem to concern them when the Medicare Prescription Drug Act passed in 2003 under a Republican administration. It also explains the weird preoccupations, such as denying contraception to women and rolling back legal protections for children, of North Carolina Republican Mark Meadows, a Tea Party caudillo who helped lead the charge to shut down the government. None of those preoccupations are on the agenda of the wealthy funders of the Tea Party; rich Republicans have a tendency to be socially somewhat liberal, or at least more socially liberal than the Republican voting base. For the wealthy, delving into private consensual matters is at best a distraction from their own preoccupation with maintaining their economic hegemony over society and, at worst, as in the case of the Tea Party voters’ fixation with Obama’s alleged foreign birth, it is a positive embarrassment.

In periods of political crisis or threatening social change, the lower middle class[ii] often has been the demographic segment most susceptible to militant authoritarian movements – such as the Klan or the Coughlinites in earlier times in American history. In other countries as well, the lower middle class has been the basis of fascist movements. As Richard J. Evans documents in The Coming of the Third Reich, the original electoral backbone of the National Socialists was the lower middle class, exemplified by petty shopkeepers, the lower rungs of the white-collar professions and land-poor farmers. As the great economic calamity of 1929 intensified, these groups feared, above all, sinking into the despised proletariat. It was this emotion that caused them to identify the source of their problems less in the banks, corporations and cartels that were the proximate cause of the crash than in the contaminating presence of foreigners and the underclass. France has had periodic bouts of this phenomenon, with movements like Action Francaise, the post-World War II Poujadists (the definitive small shopkeepers movement) and, more recently, the anti-immigrant party of Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose psychologically penetrating political catchphrase was “I say what you are thinking.” Capitalists are of course more than willing to fund such parties if they are on the brink of success and can be useful to capital, just as the German cartels began to fund the Nazis after their breakthrough election in September 1930. Nothing succeeds like success: University professors and intellectuals flocked to the Nazi Party once it gained power. But the motivating energy of the movement sprang, above all, from the fear and resentment of those tenuously situated a couple of rungs above the actual poor.

Lind will have none of this. In a follow-up piece further advocating his thesis, he takes swipes against those who see cultural deformations among ordinary people as a strong factor in the rise in authoritarian movements. Every critic of reactionary populism – Max Weber, H.L. Mencken, Richard Hofstadter, Theodore Adorno, C. Wright Mills – comes in for scorn as being a sniffish elitist. But Mencken’s (and the some of the others’) disdain for the Southern Baptists and Methodists of the day certainly had a basis in fact, given that these organizations had plunged America into the long national nightmare of Prohibition, as well as having revived the Ku Klux Klan. And it is nothing other than Weber’s “status politics” (meaning politics closely entwined with cultural issues) rather than purely elite economic concerns that explains the slogan “take back our country!” Populism certainly has had its progressive aspects. But in attempting to salvage a populism – particularly Southern populism – that does not have some seriously debilitating flaws, Lind overshoots the mark.

Lind provides data that do not really make his case. He cites a PRRI poll as follows: “White working-class voters in households that make less than $30,000 per year were nearly evenly divided in their voting preferences (39% favored Obama, 42% favored Romney). However, a majority (51%) of white working-class voters with annual incomes of $30,000 or more a year supported Romney, while 35% preferred Obama.” He construes this as proof that the extreme rightward tilt of the GOP (of which the Tea Party is mostly the symptom, rather than the cause) is a result of the work of wealthy elites. Certainly the elites have bankrolled the Tea Party up to this point; only a fool would deny it. But that would not translate into more than a few percent of the vote if people in quite modest circumstances were not prepared to vote for Tea Party policies. If nearly 40 percent of white working class voters making less than $30,000 a year (with many of them eligible for government income maintenance programs) were willing to vote for Romney, who famously expressed his disdain for “the 47 percent,” that is significant. Regardless of the official poverty line, an annual income less than $30,000 represents straightened circumstances. By his own admission, Romney should not have carried anything more than a negligible percentage of these voters. And the fact that an actual majority of white working class voters making more than $30,000 per year voted for Romney is the clincher. Had they represented all of America, Romney would have won comfortably. Unfortunately the PRRI poll does not indicate the upper bound of incomes for those persons, but people likely would not describe themselves as working class if they were making six-figure incomes. And we may assume anyone described as working class would not be one of Lind’s “local notables.”

Many observers have puzzled over the tendency of Tea Party adherents to favor policies that are often directly counter to their economic interests: Why would a disproportionately older group that is accordingly more dependent of Social Security and Medicare opt for candidates who want to “reform entitlements” (i.e., privatize Social Security and voucherize Medicare)? This line of analysis dates in its contemporary American form to Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, in which he marveled at this self-defeating syndrome. He located the source of the problem in the cultural anxieties that have driven the culture wars of the past 40 years and how cleverly the right wing and its business allies have exploited that anxiety. Frank identified the culture wars as trumping economics, but the fascinating question he never sufficiently answered is how this mechanism works at the granular level.

In 1933, psychologist Wilhelm Reich attempted to answer that question in The Mass Psychology of Fascism. His answer: The virus is all around us, because it is latent within ourselves. But it flourishes in rigid, punitive and authoritarian upbringings, whereby a person’s early domestic circumstances foreshadow his future relationship with state and society. In a home life filled with punishments, taboos and guilt, Reich saw the kernel of the future fascist: repressed, conformist and outwardly submitting but filled with a rage over his humiliation whose source could never be admitted. This dilemma accounts for the curiously contradictory psychology of the adherents of authoritarian movements. They are highly suggestible followers of some strong leader whom they can masochistically adore, yet at intervals they become anarchic and rebellious. And as they cannot admit the roots of their rage, they displace it onto others: Hence the xenophobia, the militancy, the endless search for scapegoats. It is no coincidence that this kind of personality finds an outlet on the Tea Party – which overlaps so heavily with followers of the Religious Right, whose lives are often a catalogue of commandments, taboos and shibboleths.

All this unhealthy energy usually does not find a unified political objective unless coaxed along by money and organizational skill from outside. Frank’s identification of business interests as the nurturers of cultural resentment for their own political and financial gain is of course correct, and we have seen this pattern more and more vividly illustrated since the 2004 publication of his book. But that thesis, which is now common knowledge, seems to implicitly assume that the business interests know what they are doing, and that the dupes are under the firm control of the plutocrats. As we have seen with the US Chamber of Commerce, the plutocracy has gotten more than it bargained for. Local business interests are beginning to be appalled by the berserker antics of Tea Party stalwarts like Justin Amash and Mike Lee.

It was ever thus; there are always not a few businessmen willing to finance an ostensibly populist movement so as better to manipulate it, and who then get an unpleasant surprise. In the most infamous example, the German industrialists convinced themselves that it was so important to crack down on the left that it was worth holding their noses and bankrolling a déclassé Austrian corporal. They could even tolerate him as chancellor; after all, he would be easily controllable because his Cabinet had “sensible, pro-business conservatives” such as Hugenberg and von Papen who would shape the new chancellor’s intended policies in the preferred direction. But sometimes Frankenstein’s monster does not respond to the commands of its master, and money does not invariably dictate the wayward course of ideas and emotions. In short, our elites, for all their Machiavellian wire-pulling, can be stupid and shortsighted.

[i] It is always instructive to ask such persons to estimate the size of the federal budget, list the half dozen programs that make up the bulk of spending and to guess at what percentage of the budget consists of foreign aid.

[ii] In America, where everybody likes to think of himself as middle class, there is a hopeless blurring of class definitions (which always seems to accrue to the benefit of the super-wealthy). Traditionally the working class in every society was poor or near-poor. It was only in the early post-World War II United States that the working class began to exhibit middle-class lifestyles and attitudes. After 35 years of de-industrialization, however, the working class is now beleaguered and, at best, hanging on to the lower rungs of middle-class status. One can accurately call them lower middle class, although this term connotes somewhat different things in different countries. The American working class is not the English lower middle class of George Orwell’s prewar novels such as Keep the Aspidistra Flying or Coming Up for Air.

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