And, there they were. Almost out of nowhere — but not really — waving flags and brandishing signs, warning of socialism and fascism and other isms and more often than not degenerating into a sort of unfocused, disaffected rage that seemed to boil at everything and nothing. They didn't like President Obama. They didn't like Nancy Pelosi. They sure as shit hated health-care reform.
And, just as quickly, the left was there to ridicule them as uneducated, as bigoted, as hateful, blithering idiots. Some of this derision was warranted — much of this movement was undeniably racist, insipid and anti-intellectual; other parts, hyperbolic. But over the last year, the Tea Party became a zeitgeist. The oft-derided tea baggers became the angry face of an obstinate Republican Party, all the while wrapping themselves in the flag and the founders and the principles of liberty herself, and casting those in opposition, especially those who thought that universal health care was an idea whose time had come, as the very antithesis of freedom.
Much ink has been spilled trying to make sense of how this movement became the flavor of the month (answer: an attention-deficient media that prefers heat to light), and for how long the fury can sustain itself (answer: the clock is ticking). In this week's cover story, Holly Otterbein does an admirable job going beyond the caricature and reporting on the avowedly not-racist people who are trying to make the Tea Party influential in this urban environ.
But before you get there, let's look at the bigger picture. First, at what the Tea Party isn't: destined for longevity. The history of third-party movements in this country, a political science principle known as Duverger's Law — single-member district, plurality-wins systems like ours will render third parties impotent — and the demographic tendencies of the Tea Partiers (white, old, conservative) all indicate that this largely leaderless faction will, sooner rather than later, be reabsorbed into the GOP borg. Its success or failure won't be measured on its merits as a freestanding entity, but how it changes the political debate during its existence.
That brings us to something else the Tea Party isn't: irrelevant.
Almost certainly, a few years hence, the Tea Party will amount to little more than a paragraph in a history textbook. If it succeeds in moving the Republican Party sharply to the right, the Tea Party will set up the GOP for a colossal defeat in 2012, a la Barry Goldwater.
It is a minority movement, true, but a voracious, outspoken one. And yet, to a significant subset of the American body politic, it resonates. Understanding why requires going beyond both the Tea Party rhetoric and the left's blithe dismissals to the reality that there is a fundamental fear both buttressing and drawing people to this movement: They see the world changing, and it scares them.
Though not about the Tea Party movement itself, the insightful book Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics by political scientists Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler, is instructive. Released last year, it argues that authoritarianism — and an accompanying need to maintain social order and black-and-white mores — is the central driver of public opinion on "culture war" issues: When some people feel threatened by a new social evolution, be it the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the gay rights advances of the early 2000s, the agitation against the Iraq war or perhaps — just perhaps — the election of a black, Ivy League-educated president today, they react viscerally.
It's not a stretch to view the Tea Party as the vanguard of authoritarianism; the degree to which President Obama embodies that amorphous term "change" is debatable, but the generation that propelled him to the White House is certainly less religious, less traditionally oriented, and, importantly, better educated and more tolerant than their elders — and many in the Tea Party.
Authoritarians are losing the war, no matter the battles they win in the short term. The rest of this hue and cry about the dissimilation of freedom is but a proxy for those fears.
Meanwhile, actual affronts to liberty go largely unnoticed: Last week, a federal court ruled in favor of local telecom Comcast, which wants the ability to decide what you can see on the Internet and how easily you can see it, because net neutrality is insufficiently profitable.
In the Information Age, such a proposition should be terrifying. There were no Tea Party protests marking the occasion.