Global Bite

American Anger and the Tea Party

A member of Britain’s House of Lords explores the sources of Tea Party anger.

Credit: spirit of america - Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • The anger of the Tea Party has an explanation: wages have stalled as corporate profits have risen since the 1970s.
  • Instead of directing anger at the true forces at work, the Tea Party has named Big Government and Obama its enemy.
  • While the black and Hispanic working class view government as a friend, the white working class does not.
  • The Tea Party forgets that Republicans were the spenders, who gave tax cuts to the rich and launched wars abroad.

The anger and the vehemence of the Tea Party people have an explanation. Average wages have risen hardly at all in the United States in the last 40 years, since the dawn of the oil shock of 1973. Meanwhile, corporate profits have gone up more than handsomely.

A U.S. worker used to be able to finance a good life style for his family working alone in a manufacturing job. With manufacturing having shrunk and the well-paid jobs – if they can be found – now requiring college degrees, the semiskilled manual worker has lost out. Now, it takes two members of the family to work — and borrow on top of that — to sustain the American Dream.

Lots of Americans have lost out. But in terms of expectations, the white working class has lost out most, relative to previous status and position, and plainly resent it.

Curiously, those who have joined Tea Party groups do not blame the market or the big capitalists. Their ideological roots are in free market capitalism. They blame the government which they “know” is the enemy, despite the high proportion of government services and social spending flowing toward poor whites.

While the black and Hispanic working class expect the government to be their friend in need, the white working class does not believe that.

Hence the anger and the frustration. The Tea Party Congressmen, many of them personally well-to-do individuals (like the rest of the U.S. Congress), demand balanced budgets and a cut in debt.

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They are the front men of this white working class anger, but not really its friends. The lowering of taxes and cutbacks in the welfare state will mostly benefit their own bank accounts – not those of the white working class they pretend to represent.

Amazingly, these blue-collar folks in the movement that elected these front men do not remember (or, if they do, do not blame) the Republican Presidents – Reagan, Bush Senior and Bush Junior — were the ones who were profligate spenders, gave away tax cuts to the rich and pursued adventures abroad.

Republicans piled on the debt that the Tea Party congressmen now seek to pay off by cutbacks to the very services their constituents depend on.

It was President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, who balanced the Budget in the last years of his presidency. Apart from that episode, the U.S. Budget has not been in balance since the days when Eisenhower was President.

Rather than recognize the party that has most recently helped them or the macroeconomic trends that have hurt them, the economic anger of the Tea Party has been displaced. It has been redirected against Obama, more out of a certain amount of racist hatred for a mixed-race President (recall the unending controversy over his birth certificate) than merely against Washington’s Big Government.

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About Meghnad Desai

Meghnad Desai is an emeritus professor of economics at the London School of Economics.

  • disqus_oWZ59fhlXG

    The author is wrong, but being a Brit we can excuse him is ignorance of America. LBJ was the last president before Clinton to leave a balanced budget, both Democrats. It is Republican administrations who have spent the country into debt. So, the author’s thesis remains intact.

  • bluesman101

    Huh? Who said the Tea Party were working class? By all accounts, the TP is comprised mainly of “local notables”, i.e. owners of small to medium-sized businesses, and professionals such as doctors, lawyers, etc. There is a smaller contingent of working class types, but the premise of this article, i.e. that the average TP’er would care that tax cuts didn’t benefit them, is simply false. You really need to do your homework.

  • NormanJohn

    perfectly correct about the mixed race thing. that much is obvious

  • bhumphreyTG

    Not sure about “all accounts.” There seems to be some disagreement in the various polling. Here’s an example with 35% making under $50k/year and 60% making under $75k/year (although on the lower end that’s lower than the average for the general population, which is consistent with your comment): http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/04/14/us/politics/20100414-tea-party-poll-graphic.html?ref=politics#tab=9

    But there are other polls that show even lower income skewing or conversely higher and more in line with what you’re saying. That being said, I think there’s pretty compelling evidence that a lot of the TP-aligned candidates are being propelled into office by white working class voters, who may or may not be particularly active in actual TP events/activities but do vote.

  • slackdammit

    Seems to me, that the teabaggers are united by militarism and theism. Take out those two components, and there’s not much left of their show.

    As to economic circumstances, there is not that much difference between ‘baggers and everyone else. Their economic rant is designed to protect the military budget.

  • Lordhelpus

    This is an interesting article. Believe he correctly describes the American dream and how there are some who still believe our elected representatives have responsibility for our country’s successes or failures. He is not accurate giving Dems or Clinton credit for previous balanced budgets.(see chart below) The republicans clearly controlled the purse strings during the last term of Clinton and beginning of Bush. Believe the Tea Party is trying to restore America, so people can earn a living for their families again and have the freedoms we have fought so hard for. Instead of trying to hold the puppet politicians accountable, they should target the root of this mess, the mega rich people who control the Federal Reserve. http://dshort.com/charts/federal-debt-2011-budget.html?federal-debt-to-gdp-politics-update