I attended part of a UC Berkeley conference on the Tea Party on Friday. I was not excited by the event, but my interest in the topic is not academic, so that was probably inevitable.
The Tea Party looks to me like simply the latest iteration of a recurrent reality; the country has had these outbreaks since the Know-Nothings of the 1840s. About a quarter of the people here live in a bubble that comes with being part of the richest and one of the freest countries in the world. They look around and think they deserve all they've got and probably should have more of it. They get riled up when reality -- racial and social change, corporate greed, international insecurity -- threatens to intrude upon their bubble. When anything looking like wellbeing spread more widely than their immediate clique comes along, the permanent Right wing infrastructure is on hand to channel these people's formless distress into outrage and votes for Republicans. Sure, sometimes the nutty unrest gets out a little ahead of the folks who pay for it (see also Christine O'Donnell), but I'll put money on the Tea Party "movement" fading if it serves its purpose of re-establishing a Republican ascendancy. These folks' permanent enjoyment of grievance doesn't go away, but its political expression comes and goes.
My question about this swamp of resentment is not what is it? -- but how do we cure it or at least decrease its influence? That's not the sort of thing academics do, so the Berkeley conference wasn't my kind of scene.
I did collect one observation that rang true however by way of Debra Saunders, a rather slimy Republican operative* (pictured here on a panel with reporter Dave Weigel.) Saunders, who plays "good conservative" for the San Francisco Chronicle, began her talk by saying "California is not a Tea Party state."
She's correct; California doesn't need a Tea Party because those forces warped its government structures decades ago.. The Tea Party won in California in the late 1970s and early 1980s, breaking state government so that it cannot carry out its functions. A 30 percent minority -- the California Republican Party -- can veto any government action through the two-thirds requirement in the legislature to pass a budget or tax increase. California is what you get when one third of the population holds the needs and desires of the rest of the people hostage, because they refuse to pay taxes or share power with people who are different from themselves.
It took a long time for the full horror of this situation to manifest itself. After Prop. 13 and its attendant government-restricting gimmicks passed, inertia from smart governance in the past (see for example the University of California and state college system) chugged along for decades. Sure the roads crumbled and the poor people got the shaft (always the easiest people to defund). Sure, we proliferated dopey initiatives that created funding schemes for peoples' pet projects rather investing for wide prosperity. But California looked like it had a functioning government.
The recall of the governor in 2003 showed how fragile that appearance was (elect a guy one year and replace him with a cartoon hero the next?) -- but then the present Great Recession pushed the state over the edge as revenues crashed and our local Know-Nothings refuse to vote any remedies.
California today is what Tea Party governance looks like. The rest of the nation has its warning. You don't seek to understand or accommodate this kind of selfish behavior in a kindergarten classroom (an earlier generation of these people would have thought kindergarten was a Communist plot) and you can't in civic life either. The project is not to study but to stigmatize such selfishness -- as Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland actually said on Friday: "Yeah to stigma!"