SEEMINGLY OUT of nowhere, the newly founded conservative tea party delivered a stunning blow to Democrats in the November 2010 election, causing them to lose control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Just two years earlier, the 2008 election had severely weakened Republican forces with the election of the country’s first African-American president, Barack Obama, who won by promising change after eight years of the Bush administration.
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Two recently published, fascinating books, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, by Harvard social policy experts Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, and Ayn Rand Nation, by award-winning financial journalist Gary Weiss, provide a treasure trove of careful research, new material, and balanced reporting that throws much-needed light on how the tea party was born and how it became a lightning rod for many frustrated Americans.
Who are the tea party members? They are, for the most part, middle-class white people over the age of 45, as the general media have already reported. But as one tea partier told the Harvard researchers, “We are not a bunch of uneducated, racist rednecks.” Her view is, in part, corroborated in the book. Skocpol and Williamson found through hundreds of interviews that the movement is indeed made up of many college-educated people (some graduates, some not) who live throughout the U.S. They are engineers, IT managers, small businesspeople, home contractors, and teachers. Although as a group they lost jobs, businesses, and retirement money in the recent recession, they were not hit nearly as hard, report the Harvard researchers, as those with lower incomes.
What brought out tea party rage? One source was an unlikely populist crusader, CNBC financial broadcaster Rick Santelli, who suddenly began ranting on the air on Feb. 19, 2009, that “the government is rewarding bad behavior” by subsidizing those about to lose their homes through President Obama’s home foreclosure relief plan. His rant was picked up by the Drudge Report and then rebroadcast through the major media.
Santelli hit a nerve among the public, and the effect was electric. Discussions and organizing followed around the country and over the internet. People were deeply concerned about the country’s debt, illegal immigrants they saw as “sopping up” a broad variety of federal and state entitlements, big banks propped up despite profligate risk-taking, and eventually the Affordable Care Act of 2010—all stoked the ire of what eventually came to be tens of thousands of tea party voters irate at financially supporting those they felt “didn’t earn it.” (New York Times economic columnist David Leonhardt characterized the Obama health-care plan as “one of the most redistributive and equality-promoting major pieces of legislation in decades,” according to Weiss.)
A potent influence on the tea party movement has been the renewed popularity of Russian-born author Ayn Rand, who died in 1982. Rand has been called the godmother of the tea party because of her blockbuster 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged. The 55-year-old novel has re-emerged near the top of the country’s bestseller lists over the last few years. Paul Ryan, chair of the powerful House Budget Committee, recently commented, “the reason I got involved in public service, by and large ... would be Ayn Rand.” Ryan’s signature plan has been to abolish Medicare as we know it and replace it with a totally market-driven insurance program, erasing the government’s role.
“What’s indisputable,” writes Weiss, “is that Ayn Rand was a novelist, playwright, essayist, and screenwriter. All those roles were secondary to her objective in life, which was to advance the cause of the most radical form of free-market, laissez-faire capitalism.” Yet Rand accepted Social Security benefits and relied heavily on Medicare for many years. Her extremely ill, dementia-ridden husband, Frank O’Connor, could not have existed without it, Weiss notes.
Weiss also discovers that a lot of avid Atlas Shrugged devotees in the tea party, in fact, know little about Ayn Rand and her personal history. Born Alissa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1905, Rand witnessed the Bolshevik revolution firsthand. Her father’s pharmacy, along with factories, offices, and other shops, was raided and shut down by the Bolsheviks. Seeing her father frightened and terrorized left a deep mark on the 12-year-old future emigré to the U.S. American literary critics would later bristle against Rand’s all-out attacks on any government intervention—particularly the New Deal programs of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which Rand loudly claimed would turn into a totalitarian dictatorship, similar to those in Germany and Russia. As Weiss sums up, “It seemed that everything she said about government was aimed not at the reality of America, but the Russia that she left in 1926 ... the totalitarian, half-starved, brutal Russia she knew.” The tea partiers, most likely, would disagree.
Anne Colamosca is a former staff writer at Business Week and has written for many national magazines and newspapers.