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Sunday, April 04, 2010

Tea Baggers' Politics of Resentment, Self-Destruction

Tea Baggers' Politics of Resentment, Self-Destruction.
Image © Austin Cline
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One of the more curious developments to come out of right-wing opposition to health insurance reform and the overall Tea Bagger movement are the many examples of people vociferously opposing government programs they will or already do benefit greatly from. There has already been lots of commentary about working and middle class citizens "voting against their interests," which is to say voting against liberal politicians who would represent their economic interests and voting for conservative politicians who promote "culture war" issues. I think, though, that this is now going a step further.

Even the mainstream media has been paying more attention to this phenomenon. The New York Times had a lengthy article pointing out how during the Great Depression working and middle class Americans mobilized for populist movements that demanded greater government action and assistance. Today, in contrast, those same sorts of people are mobilizing to demand less government action and assistance — even as they are relying more and more on whatever government assistance they can get.

What Tea Baggers Believe

Tom Grimes lives on Social Security but denounces government assistance as "false philanthropy." Grimes insists that people would figure out how make do on their own if the government didn't give them stuff, but he doesn't turn down government assistance to figure out how to make do on his own. Diana Reimer insists that it's not the job of the government to help insure the people, but she relies on Medicare which is government-run insurance — because she "deserves" it.

Jeff McQueen, like other Tea Baggers, wants government to be smaller but also wants the government to be more involved with regulating free trade — then votes for Republicans who want to cut back on government regulations. Amy Townsend, according to the Dallas Morning News, says that no government programs work well because they are inefficient and fears the "death panels" she thinks will be created by health insurance reform. However, she and her family are surviving because of government programs: unemployment and COBRA. She'll apply for government-subsidized health insurance when the time comes.

Tea Bagger Beliefs & Actions

Usually, concern with people "voting against their interests" involves interests that are arguably distant and even theoretical. It's easy to lose sight of the connection between liberal politicians promoting strong environmental regulations and having clean water or clean air. Even with issues like minimum wage and other job protections, it's private employers the average person is dealing with, not the government. It's not smart to miss the fact that your job is safer, better, and pays more because of liberal politicians, then vote for politicians who will repeal all those protections, but it's not difficult to see how people do miss it after all.

It's a bit harder to comprehend how people can oppose government benefits while living off of government benefits, can oppose the government strengthening publicly-funded health insurance while relying on publicly-funded Medicare, and so forth. The contradictions here appear to be far stronger and more obvious than the contradictions in cases like those mentioned above. These aren't professional pundits and politicians doing this, so they aren't just lying because it's part of their jobs. These are regular people who must be presumed to be expressing genuine beliefs — especially since they are acting on those beliefs.

You can tell what people genuinely believe by observing their actions, so if their actions contradict professed beliefs you can reasonably conclude that their genuine beliefs aren't exactly what they are saying. But what if people are acting on beliefs which are contradictory? People can be incredibly irrational, incredibly stupid, and sometimes even both, but it seems to me that something quite abnormal must be going on for people to take action on behalf of such explicitly contradictory positions.

Tea Bagger Resentments

I wonder if what we're seeing might be an extreme form of resentment. For decades, white working and middle class citizens have been taught by Republicans to equate all forms of social welfare with blacks and other racial minorities, with laziness, with communists, and with generally un-American or even anti-American principles. Those who bought most into this, desperate to self-identify as distinct from minorities while somehow belonging with the ruling class, have become a foundation of the conservative movement.

Granted, they will never become part of the ruling class, but they can imagine that they might, and what's more they are encouraged to imagine themselves superior to a host of other groups: black, Latinos, immigrants, Arabs, Muslims, atheists, gays, etc. They are given people to hate now and a dream of even greater power in the future; in exchange, they serve as foot soldiers for those who are in charge and for whose interests they will literally sacrifice their health, security, and even their lives.

Their caricature of government programs has never been consistent with reality — more poor whites receive welfare than poor blacks, for example — but direct government assistance has been distant enough from white working and middle class voters that they have been able to live in denial. Government reform of health care and health insurance threatens to overturn this carefully constructed wall between social reality and the social resentments used to construct their self-image.

Tea Bagger Cognitive Dissonance

If you stop to think about it, you'll notice that the more thoroughly health care and health insurance are reformed, the greater contact people will have with direct forms of government assistance. The most modest reform ideas leave the health insurance industry largely intact, so most people will continue to deal with private insurers and few will benefit from government subsidies. The most radical reform would virtually eliminate for-profit health insurance and everyone would pay into a single, public insurance system, putting everyone into regular contact with direct government assistance.

If people have constructed a self-image which is based, at least in part, on resentment against those who receive direct government assistance, then any attempt to provide them with direct government assistance threatens that self-image and will therefore be treated quite naturally as a threat. The fact that they receive other forms of assistance is irrelevant so long as they can keep up the charade that it's not really from the government or that they "earned" it somehow (unlike those lazy X who don't deserve it).

A situation like this might make it possible for a person to both fight to preserve the government assistance they receive as "just" while fighting even harder to not receive any more government assistance because that would be "socialism." Two contradictory beliefs may thus be genuinely held and acted upon, and it comes back at least in some ways to things like the Republican "Southern Strategy" of gaining more white votes by promoting resentment, fear, suspicion, and outright hatred of non-whites.

In a sense, this "white" identity which Republicans have worked hard to construct is helping shorten the lives and destroy the economic security of their white supporters. But neither good health nor economic security is actually necessary to secure votes and maintain power for the privileged elites, is it? Indeed, a bit of insecurity and ill health may actually help because it will increase their fears — fear that they won't "make it" into the big leagues and/or that members of other groups might surpass them. Such fears can make people desperate, inducing ever more extreme behavior.


  1. Anonymous11:15 AM

    This phenomenon of getting the GOP base to vote against their interest still baffles me, even with the (tragic) reasoning spelled out in front of me.

    I have long had an image of the GOP politicians behind this as a group of men standing behind a curtain and peeking out at the Teabagger crowds. Behind the curtain, they stand at once both ecstatic and stupefied. On the one hand, I can hear them mulling their success.
    "Who cares if the bill actually helps? Look out the window -- they certainly don't."
    On the other hand, they are still humans, so their success in something so counter-intuitive to human nature must seem slightly improbable.
    "I mean, I was there the whole time, I know, but could someone tell me how in the f*** we pulled THAT off?"

  2. No matter how much actual government assistance in the form of health care reform these people receive, they will NEVER consider themselves recipients of government assistance.

    Remember "Keep the government out of Medicare!" ?

    They do not and will never consider any government not run by repugs to be legitimate. It has always been thus.

    It's far worse since November 2008 for one reason and one reason only.

    When they scream "I want my country back!" what they really mean is:

    "Get that nigger out of the White House!"

  3. Excellent Article!

  4. I cannot recommend Frank's, "What's the Matter With Kansas" strongly enough. Why do people vote against their own interests? Frank explores the phenomena personally and in depth (and some breadth) and to my mind comes away with as many answers as there are individuals. "There's a million stories in the naked city..."

    Cognative dissonance indeed. To a certain degree, I blame television. Half hour or one hour answers to problems that, given that human nature is at least partly irrational, actually have no real world solutions.

  5. You've hit the nail on the head. I'd take it a step further: It's not only their identity as being independent of government that's being challenged, they're in danger of being lumped in with the "host of other groups" that you mention.

  6. Good article indeed. if anyone has any doubts as to the power corporations and their lobbyists wield, look no further than the angry protests against Health Insurance reform; they have people rioting in the streets against their own best interests, like access to health care without interference from 'the man'. Journey back three years… before health insurance reform was even close to being reality and ask a teabagger if they think mega corps like aetna should have more or less say on their family’s health care. wanna bet on what their response would be?

  7. This cognitive dissonance issue may be a remnant from an earlier age of humanity...after we left the trees but before we stopped tripping over rocks.


  8. The poster brought back a childhood memory of a train trip from Caliornia to Seattle WA. When passing through Oregon I looked out the window and saw a one armed woman plowing behind two horses. Yikes!

  9. One of my best friends fits this profile to a tee. He drives a concrete truck, which means downtime during Wisconsin winters. When he works less than 40 hours (or no hours), he draws unemployment compensation. Since the 2008 campaign, we've sporadically traded emails regarding political issues, the latest being health care. In his latest email, he recounts how he has driven his concrete truck into inner cities near Milwaukee and has seen "ghetto rodents" sitting on their porches drinking beer at 9:30 in the morning. He doesn't want any of his tax dollars to go to these obviously undeserving people who are "sucking" off him. I asked him how he squared this belief with his annual drawing of unemployment benefits, which is certainly "getting something for nothing." Regarding health care reform, which he is stridently against, I asked how government assistance for health care differs from government assistance for mortgage and utility payments through unemployment benefits. Not a peep from him explaining this contradiction. I'm certain that he sees unemployment benefits as something he deserves. He does plan for winter downtime and saves his summer overtime. He may even mistakenly believe that an unemployment tax is withheld from his paycheck. Bottom line, he's dependent on the government for the same financial assistance that he decries.

  10. Comrade Clinenswineski:

    You know what 100% disabled is? It's you, whenever I get my fifteen minutes of "up close and personal" with you, Posterboyboy. I'm gonna kick your ass so hard that your milkwhales will be swimmin' in circles, knowi'msayin? And I'm gonna commence on your "trail of tears" just as soon as the VA does the surgery to replace my artificial hip with a real one. Your time is comin', boyo, your time is comin!

  11. Anonymous3:20 PM

    On one hand you say "it's not difficult to see how people do miss it after all." But then you insult "the other tribe" by using the term "tea bagger."
    Perhaps if we understood that the messaging that the GOP has been employing for at least the past fifty years, which has been filled with distortions and lies, has had a powerful impact on the common man. Perhaps if we employed a little more empathy, and tried to understand their motives and beliefs, we might then try to educate them through engagement and discussion. Because I am pretty sure that insult and derision isn't going to sway anybody.

  12. Actually, insults and derision are staples for Coulter/Beck/Limbaugh. They do seem to be swaying people.

  13. I like this post but as a lapsed Lutheran I have to point out two extensions of your point:

    1) Of course Hegel and "the economic philosopher whose name can't be mentioned" observed that modern humans tend to be comfortable with an astonishing degree of inner conflict and self-contradiction. This is never more apparent than in Christianity where the concepts of original sin (Natural Born Killa'), and the death of Jesus ("Whokilledhim?" "Wealldid!") not only encourage self-hatred, but institutionalize it.

    2) A liberal capitalist socioeconomic system ala Adam Smith, a philosopher God to both right and left, pretty much relies on everyone NOT voting their economic interests. Otherwise elections would be very short and bloody affairs with the wealthy ending up in a shallow fire pit. Which begs the reverse of your question, "Why do so many filthy rich people vote for Liberal Dems?" Are they as self-hating as the tea partiers? Or do they just feel really fortunate and guilty enough to share? Ultimately politics and religion go so well together because for the vast majority, rich and otherwise, they are primarily emotional, not rational, pursuits. That is why it's no accident that most tea partiers are money-lacking fundamentalist Christians and most liberals are materially comfortable and passionate (if true liberals can be said to be passionate) about something other than religion (hunger, climate change, Molly Cyrus, etc.)

    So let's get Jesus back into the discussion, because Christian or not, we can all agree that the answer to "Who created the tea partiers?" is, you guessed it, "Jesus General".
    Happy Easter.

  14. hoser:

    Uh, fuck no? What the progressives definitely do not need is to empathize with a bunch of idiotic fucktards who are poster children for denial.


    You can be a Lutheran or not, lapsed Lutheran is not, btw.

    Don't get too comfortable with the notion that folks who don't screech and foam at the mouth about the BlackdevilobamandingostealingourmoneymakingustehGAYandfuckingourwimmen aren't passionate. It's just that they have forebrains as well as hindbrains.

  15. Cline, I realize I'm coming late to this party. But considering it's a party YOU gave, you're lucky I'm crashing it at all.

    I will present my own mother as an example of the cognitively dissonant Teabagger-types you describe. (Only don't describe her as a Teabagger! Aside from what she had to do to pop out me and my two sisters, I doubt the woman had sex at all. And if she did, she didn't enjoy it.)

    Mum grizzles a lot about how much her taxes are going up. She says it's unfair for the government to take so much of her money, and suspects that illegitimoPresident Obama is going to take away one of her pensions. She has no specific information to back this suspicion, but she just KNOWS he will.

    That's because good ol' tax-hating Mater ekes out a subsistence living (all alone) in her four-bedroom, three-bath, $750,000 fully-paid-for home on 10 acres with nothing else but the two pension cheques she gets each month from my late father's 25-year military career and his subsequent 15 years working for the federal government in Washington, D.C. And her pension cheque from the decade she worked for a government hospital in Maryland. Plus her Social Security and Tri-Care, the military's version of Medicare. She's pulling in about $75 G's a year from the government.

    Can you imagine the horror a government-hating conservative must feel to know that the eeeeeeeevil government is giving them about twice as much as the average American earns each year? It's enough to make them thoroughly disgusted with themselves. But instead of hating herself, Mumsy fnds it easier to hate on the .gov.

    Sometimes when I talk to her on the phone, I pretend to be a liberal. It's cruel of me, but that's how I get back at her for how she was when I was a teenager. I remind her that pretty much every penny she ever got in her life came from the government, and that she's got more money than she knows what to do with, so why should she be concerned if the government wants to get a little bit back?

    "But it's MY money" is all she can come up with. Then she starts calling me a traitor because I abandoned my own country. Phone calls back home are not much fun, but as a Godly conservative, I must do my filial duty. No matter how much I hate it.

  16. I still think that this internal conflict of the Republican base is due to a massive distrust of the American government.

    To have an exceptionally rational government try to introduce intelligent health care reform would be seen as altruistic pandering, which will have seemingly enabled new and even greater graft opportunities than before the 'reform.' ... or so these people believe.

    How far off can they be? The U.S. government is too often seen swaying whichever way Big Money blows; having 'black book' operations that are by nature, unseen by the public; a massive military complex that siphons huge amounts of cash... a complete lack of transparency in general. Trust Big Daddy; Daddy knows best. Does it come as a surprise that these people are running at the sight of any 'nanny state?'

    How can you ask them to put their shoulder behind such a seemingly inept organization? Have I presented enough of a case to support my claim that the fundamental structure of the government needs to be looked at? Would it be so fantastic to imagine that the present structure isn't working because it suffers from a fundamental lack of credibility?

    I've been suggesting that this has been the case since America's inception, and consequently will need to be revisited at that same point in time, which in America's case, was at the Philadelphia Convention (of 1787).

    Sorry I keep coming back to this, but a tune-up doesn't fix your car when the main bearing is rumbling.

  17. Joe Visionary:

    No. The problem is not a fundamental lack of credibility. The problem is an overabundance of people who suffer from congenital cognitive dissonance.

  18. Thank you demo.

    Two weeks ago, Comrade Clinenswineski as you've referred to him, posted about Reinforcing, Reforming, or Restructuring the System. In it, he seemed to have suggested that blaming people for America's woes (The problem is an overabundance of people who suffer from congenital cognitive dissonance) ignores the systemic problems that I refer to.

    I'll accept that I may have got this wrong, but everything I know tells me that there's a point where we need to stop blaming human weaknesses and consider what the social environment is that motivates them to act as they do. And the American situation readily motivates as I see it.

    Are you so sure that if a massive government overhaul created a system that:

    demands accountability to the public FIRST;

    that big money/lobbyists are strictly controlled, primarily by their knowing that there are a raft of internal and external agencies (aside from a voracious media) that will out them at the drop of a hat, and the elected rep so caught WILL NEED TO RESIGN;

    that elected members were left alone long enough to actually focus on informed voting and/or considering their conscience and not the knee-jerk partisan monkeyshines that are too common;

    that the second house was mandated to seriously investigate proposed legislation instead of dismissing it 'just because they can';

    that legal precedence is only part of the feedback that makes good quality lasting laws,

    are you so sure that this wouldn't profoundly affect even the reddest redneck, and instead of distrust and derision, s/he'd abide by a deep respect for the government?

    Please don't assume I'm a starry eyed dreamer. Effective government doesn't NEED to be an oxymoron.

  19. JoeViz, the thing about America is that it's a land of grifters and con men. You see that everywhere from Wall Street bankers who make billions by bilking retirees and city governments, to politicians who pass laws that let corporations pollute and shirk taxes so those same politicians can get a sweet job with the corpos after they're booted from office, to average folks who lie to get welfare payments. The United States is crooked to the core, so of course the people in its government will steal whatever they can and destroy any worthwhile government program.


    The country is a churning cesspool of new ideas on how to make lots of money with minimum effort. That's called EFFICIENCY, son! Making more money with less work is what advances PROGRESS! It also means that American con men are the envy of the world, although Nigerian bank fraud e-mailers and Russian AK-47 murdermafias are close behind.

    But really, if you expect America to somehow reform and become relatively honest, it's going to turn into someplace like Canada or Western Europe. (Not like Iceland or Ireland, though -- their banksters caught the American spirit pretty good in recent years, and look how far that's got them.) Are you sure you want THAT?!? (shudders...)

  20. Bukko,

    As one who has been directly engaged in more than one economy and witnessed how they operate, you have a terrific perspective that frankly, I envy.

    You probably think I'm nuts. Your perspective just makes the cultural lunacies stand out, and chances are they drive you crazy. At very least, you probably have a rough time taking them seriously.


We'll try dumping haloscan and see how it works.