Help me talk to Mamma Grizzly and Joe the Plumber.
November 15, 2010 6:18 AM   Subscribe

What, if anything, is suddenly missing from the daily lives of rural, conservative Americans? How can I better understand the Tea Partier's point of view?

I live in the insulated world inside the Washington, DC Beltway, but grew up in the rural South. While I did manage to accumulate a certain amount of good manners, folksy charm, and ease of communication with rural Americans that keeps me out of trouble, recently I still seem to be at a loss and I need the hive's help.

Through work I'm often out in middle America, "fly-over country," and I encounter a great deal of rural conservatives. While, as I said, I grew up in the rural South and I have a plenty of understanding of what daily life is like in a small, conservative, agricultural, working-class town, and I've heard every conspiracy theory there is, I still seem to be missing something. Previous posts about the conservative and/or Tea Party movements in America have not given me the gist of what it is these people feel is suddenly missing from their lives.

Though I generally try to steer away from political conversations while out working (or playing for that matter), it comes up often in regular interactions, particularly once people know where I live or work. Throughout America, when talking to conservatives, everywhere I go there seems to be a profound sense that something has suddenly been taken away and that we desperately need to get it back. I can't for the life of me figure out what IT is though? What has suddenly changed (perceived or real) for these people in the last couple of years?

My insulated life in DC has changed very little that I can perceive as a result of Federal government intervention. So what is it I’m missing in these conversations that everyone else seems to understand without being able to provide examples? I’ve asked friends and relatives on all sides of the political spectrum from all around the country and their answers seem to always fall into one of two camps: a) "'Tea Baggers' are nuts/bigots/idiots and nothing is actually missing" (dismissing the question); or b) "If you don’t already see the problem, you’ll never understand" (no concrete example provided).

Please, before you answer, I really do NOT intend this to be in any way construed as a “LOLTEABAGGERS” post, rather, quite the opposite. I have a real need to communicate better with the folks I meet and I need to be able to understand their perspective. Please be kind and helpful. I am NOT looking to try and change these people's minds, I simply need to be able to better navigate conversations with them and be respectful of their point of view. Thanks!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot to Human Relations (49 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Could you provide more context or provide a couple of examples of conversations where you think you're feeling or not communicating well? Other than sympathizing with people who feel hurt or taken advantage of (never mind whether that is factually true), I'm not sure what you're looking for here.
posted by nomadicink at 6:26 AM on November 15, 2010

By looking for what is missing you are missing the point. Have you heard the phrase, "You are what you eat."? For media consumption this is the truth. Many of the people who have been inundated with this point of view tend to believe that point of view.
posted by JJ86 at 6:28 AM on November 15, 2010 [8 favorites]

I can highly recommend Methland for this. It's about meth, yes, which is ravaging rural Middle America, but it's also about the social and economic problems that fostered and maintained the meth epidemic.

It's much criticized and far from perfect, but What's the Matter with Kansas? asked a similar question a few years back. It's worth a look.

Beyond that, I'd pay attention closely to the Republican caucuses in Iowa, which are a little over a year away. A lot of Republicans are going to stump in the smallest of small towns in Iowa, and you might learn a lot not only from the candidates, but from the questions they get asked.
posted by j1950 at 6:28 AM on November 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

Could you ask them?
posted by dozo at 6:31 AM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

JJ86 is on the right track. Real journalism has disappeared from most of the US. Newspapers have gone under, local TV is on the ropes and running vacuous crime stories, and national TV is now completely under corporate control. We've got the most NON-corrupt president since Jimmy Carter, and the best chance for actual reform, and they think he's a fascist.

They literally aren't even aware that someone would want to take advantage of them, much less that they've succeeded.
posted by intermod at 6:33 AM on November 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

Ever see Kids in the Hall's "Brain Candy"? Remember how the new drug Gleemonex captures a person's happiest memory and embeds them in it?

Well... it took me a loooong time to come to this conclusion, but from what I can tell, it seems like the Tea Party movement takes every person's TOTALLY IMAGINARY happiest moment in contemporary American history (back when things were "good" and/or "right") and promises to bring it back.

What that particular moment of "good" or "right" represents varies from person to person... that's why Tea Party promises are never terribly specific ("restore honor"? Huuuh?).
posted by julthumbscrew at 6:45 AM on November 15, 2010 [8 favorites]

It's hard to pinpoint any single cause, other than dissatisfaction, or "distrust" of government in general. This allows for a wide range of views that are sort of tacked together. Many are single-issue voters, who feel that there is strength in numbers, despite the strange bedfellows that result. Some have a personal stake involved ( like someone who works for the military complex). Others are Theocrats, and feel the need to " Spread the word !" Still others are at constant odds with authority,...remember how many militias there were before 911?
posted by lobstah at 6:45 AM on November 15, 2010

A lot of what the Tea Partiers are suggesting has long roots in the United States. From basically the revolution forward, there was a great deal of debate over the role of the executive and the potential for it to interfere in citizens' lives; the Federalist Papers, for instance, were written to convince the people of New York that the Federal Government was, in fact, a good thing for them. There's also the originary fear of "tyranny" and the equivalency that even some of the Founding Fathers tried to establish between slavery and being subject to taxation and other social obligations. (It's obviously completely apples and oranges, but it's there in some of their rhetoric.) You can also see some of the Tea Party's rhetoric if you look back to writers like Thoreau, who refused to pay his taxes to support a war that he felt was unjust. The Tea Party's paranoia, meanwhile, has similarly long roots that predate the nation but can be identified in movements as diverse as the Salem witch hunts, the "Bavarian Illuminati" scares of the late eighteenth century, the anti-Communist fervor of the 1950s, and so on. See, for example, Richard Hofstdater's essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." It's not a perfect mapping but you can trace the genealogy of the ideas.

Now, obviously this is something different; but I think there's a lot more to it than "Fox Media is telling them what to think." Sure, they are, but they're tapping into some longstanding cultural traditions and that's in part why the message is gaining so much traction. It's perverting some of these ideas, yes—critics like Thoreau and even William Lloyd Garrison would be shocked, I think, at how their notion of radical withdrawal from political culture as a form of protest has become "going Galt." But this isn't something that just sprung up out of nowhere, nor is it completely the product of NewsCorp.

I'm not saying this is a defense of the Tea Party. I think they're doing horrible things to the political culture in the United States. But I think that the quicker people get past the "lolteabaggers" stuff and the "lolfoxnews" stuff and start really thinking about the movement and why it has been successful, the better.
posted by synecdoche at 6:47 AM on November 15, 2010 [17 favorites]

While I applaud your attempts at trying to understand other folks' perspective to find the root of the Tea Party phenomenon, I would also caution you from assuming that, in fact, anything has really been "taken away" in recent times.

I am not dismissing your question - just suggesting that you may want to check out whether or not its the appropriate question.

There is myriad evidence that the "Tea Party" phenomenon is not so much some nascent grassroots reaction to changing material conditions for a part of American society, but a cynical Astroturfing of the deep seated and real racism that underlies white America's understanding of itself and its expectation for privelege in the leadership and economy of this country. It happens every political "generation", in reaction to advances (or perceived advances) of people of color, whether it be the end of slavery, suffrage, the labor movement, civil rights, court successes, or the election of a black President.

Historically, there's nothing particularly notable about the Tea Partiers. I do not say this to dismiss what is a unique manifestation of white conservatism, just to suggest that the Rosetta Stone to "understand" today's white conservatism might not be that hard to find.
posted by RajahKing at 6:49 AM on November 15, 2010 [12 favorites]

I found this article in the New Yorker gave me some historical context for the Tea Party movement. As a Canadian stuff like the John Birch society was news to me. You may find it helps. I second the idea of asking Tea Party people what they perceive has changed...
posted by radiocontrolled at 6:55 AM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

What, if anything, is suddenly missing

It seems to me that what they think is missing is having somebody in government who agrees with their point of view. They're mad about governmental spending, and they don't feel like the Republicans in Washington are doing enough to keep that in check. In the past people have been more willing to sit around hoping that a new candidate from the same political party will fix things, but now conservatives are starting to feel like the two-party system doesn't have a party for them. Democrats have been feeling this way for years, so it was interesting to watch the pendulum swing the other way this year with calls of "Don't vote for the independent candidate, you'll steal votes from the Republican!"

Whether it's reasonable to think that government should spend less during an economic crisis, is an exercise left to the reader. I will definitely agree with earlier posters that the conservative media has been fanning the flames of dissatisfaction.
posted by vytae at 6:59 AM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

A conservative writer on tv the other day noted that the Tea Party was the only populist movement in American history that wanted the govt to do less rather than more. Conventionally populist movements want more govt involvement for whatever the cause is they represent.
That said, the TP I know of seem odd in wanting less govt but remaining unwilling to name exactly what it is they want to give up from the govt. I get the feeling that there is anger and emotion but little in the way of specifics. Example: Cut the deficit but at the same time cut taxes.
posted by Postroad at 7:00 AM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

The most recent Planet Money podcast is actually quite germane to this question - In Search of the Social Security Trust Funds. What it boils down to is that the baby boomer generation paid a lot of money into the Social Security system. Since there were a lot of them, this led to a situation where there was more cash going into the system than being taken out by retirees. This created a surplus, which was placed into so-called Social Security Trust Funds. The issue comes when that 'trust fund' money was used to invest in US Treasuries, which was essentially the US government lending money to itself. The 'income' from those treasuries basically paid for everything that's happened in the last 30 years or so, including lower tax rates.

Now, the boomers are retiring en masse and want to take the money they've paid into the system out of it. Only problem is, that money has been replaced by a load of US government IOUs (the treasuries), there are far fewer people paying into Social Security (Gens X & Y are a lot smaller) and people are living a lot longer. All of which is a recipe for real deprivation and risk to lifestyle for Baby Boomers who are retiring now.

That incredible uncertainty, quite apart from the generations-worth of identity politics and straight-up rancour of the culture wars, is leading to cognitive dissonance on an epic scale. All of which is not helped at all by opportunistic politicians and hucksters like Glenn Beck turning a dime off telling older white Americans that they're way of life is being taken from them by secretive cabals of communist Kenyans. Add in a lot of barely-coded nonsense about 'restoring honour' and season with defence of the Constitution (that last is an Onion link, but it's a pretty apt summary IMHO) and you have a recipe for the kind of vague mutterings you are probably encountering when you leave DC.
posted by Happy Dave at 7:00 AM on November 15, 2010 [6 favorites]

There's also some interesting info about what Tea Partiers claim as their values on the Wikipedia page. For all its faults, wikipedia seems like a decent place to research a group with no central leadership and frequent disagreements about what their real priorities are.
posted by vytae at 7:03 AM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

synecdoche, thanks for being the first useful and thoughtful post. As someone who grew up in a rural area and in high school held right-wing small-government beliefs, I'll comment on this:

a profound sense that something has suddenly been taken away and that we desperately need to get it back.

I think this sentiment comes from a combination of two things. First, there's the usual "we're losing the country" sentiment expressed by the party of out power, which seems to have intensified in the past decade. That's one source of the sense that they are "missing" something or have lost something - their representatives have lost control, and like anyone that's energizing and possibly angering.

Second, Republican voters across the country are somewhat aware (even if they won't say it aloud) that the GW Bush administration and many of the congresspeople in office during that time were expected to be at least a little small-government, but they did not really deliver small government. The reason that the voters needed a new movement within the Republican Party is they kept electing Republicans, and yet the government never shrank. So in the past decade the small government types also lost control of their own party in the sense that they were promised small government and less deficit spending and never received it. Hence the willingness to throw out established Republicans. I don't think most Tea Party voters could verbalize this, because it would require admitting that they chose poorly in the past - which is unpleasant for people on both sides of the aisle.

The Tea Party movement can't be boiled down to the two points above. But you asked specifically what's "missing," and I think those are key factors in that feeling.

On preview, vytae's point seems to be similar to mine.
posted by Tehhund at 7:09 AM on November 15, 2010

Since you seem respectful of rural conservatives' right to opinions that differ from yours, and sincerely interested in learning more about what makes them tick, I'd urge you to take with a grain of salt the inevitable LOLRIGHTIES responses suggesting that they just believe whatever they're told by the corrupt conservative media. Mainstream media outlets spent the past ten years pretty much unanimously bashing Bush, but you seldom heard anyone in those days voice concern that opposition to Bush's policies must therefore be a mere accident of propagandism and gullibility on the part of the left.

I live in an only semi-rural area on the East Coast-- so, not precisely the demographic you're looking for. Nonetheless, I have definitely felt the sense of loss you're describing. I don't know to what extent my impressions are generalizeable to the rest of the conservative population. But for me, some of the loss I feel boils down to:

--dismay over the state of the economy, and concern because neither of the mainstream polical parties seems to have a coherent, promising plan for extracting us from this predicament

--Worries over the U.S.'s fall from economic and political preeminence worldwide, and (probably more so) the sense that the wider nation is resigned to, or even pleased by, that fall

--concern over the coarsening of popular culture over the past decade, and the disappearance of the stable, monogamous nuclear family as a widely-accepted model for private life

I think this may partly be a demographic thing; many of the conservatives I know are younger, and so we probably idealize the 80s, 90s and early '00s partly because we were teenagers and college students then, not really exposed to the harsh realities of life. I'm sure the US wasn't really so warm, prosperous, safe, powerful and wholesome as we remember it having been back then. But it's certainly not so now, and yes, it does feel a bit like something's missing.
posted by yersinia at 7:10 AM on November 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

I saw Michael Moore speak at UW about 15 years ago and he said something like this (it was a long time ago so consider it paraphrasing):

How many of you listen to NPR? (Crowd cheers wildly.) OK. How many of you listen to country music? (Crowd snickers, laughs.) We'll you all should know something. I'm not welcome on NPR again because they don't like what I have to say. (Details an incident which I can't recall, I think it was with Teri Gross editing out something about an NPR sponsor or similar and not returning his calls about it.) So that's your great Liberal intellectual progressive NPR. Meanwhile, let's talk about this country music you laughed at. (Reads list of top 10 songs. Topical events include: spousal abuse, poverty, job loss etc.). Do you recognize these topics? These issues and these people buying the songs used to be the core of the Democratic Party. But now you laugh at them. This is why you so-called liberal progressives will lose: it's because you abandoned the people who constituted your core.

Now, I'm not necessarily a big fan of Mr. Moore, but he sure can boil down a broad point (perhaps a variation on the full quote is in one of his books). But this point, simplistic as it may be, has resonated with me and I think it's an astute observation of the divide between the rust belt/bible belt and coastal progressives. They share the same core concerns and are natural allies, but they piss on each others cultures. The Tea Party makes a lot of sense in this way: lots of anger, uncertainty at what their actual agenda is, the reaction of horror and comedy from the Dems (as if they are making fun of hillbillies), discomfort but acceptance by the Republicans (these folks are not their natural core, but hell, a vote is a vote).

So in short (to get back to your question): Just listen. Let them get their anger out. Maybe you abandoned them, or laughed at them, or isolated them at some point. You may find out that you have more in common than you think, but different ways of saying things.
posted by quarterframer at 7:11 AM on November 15, 2010 [19 favorites]

Not a conservative, but parts of my family are and I am from a small town in Ohio, so. My take:

What's missing is the outside world matching their inside world. The town itself changed little over the years. Some shopping moved out of downtown. A Walmart moved in on the outskirts. Most folks still go to church, go to work, have their families, daily life is not very different at all. Gas is more expensive than it used to be. Beef is cheaper. It's not much net change.

But people like that--some of them people I love, mind--remember the outside world being what was portrayed on television in the 1950s and even 1960s as the way the world was. This was the context in which they placed themselves. Women were one way and men were another. There were standards of dress and behavior that people like my mother were comfortable with. America was the best. It was okay to be a little bit racist so long as you weren't lighting crosses on anybody's lawn. The outside world upheld their internal biases: That if you were a good, hard-working (white) Christian, the world was your oyster. You were safe. You were going to be okay.

What happened was change. Not any one change. I bring up race but it wasn't just race. Entertainment changed. The media changed. The economy changed. These are not, by and large, people who travel much. The news on the television was suddenly increasingly full of stories of crime in poor, black neighborhoods in their closest urban center. Manufacturing jobs, which were regarded as safe, respectable work, went overseas. Maybe they kept their jobs, but their generation's kids grew up and went to college and didn't come back home to the small town. Things like unwed pregnancy and homosexuality, which used to be shameful things to whisper about, were suddenly things that movie stars were doing and proud of. Their kids stopped going to church, or at least maybe went to a different church. The idea of family and cultural continuity was disrupted.

So their daily lives are not really different now. But they don't place their daily lives in a context of "most of the world is like me" anymore, and that's frightening. My stepfather goes on at length about how awful the world is now, but it never has anything to do with his life personally, except occasionally that the housing market is bad. They have work, plenty to eat, a church they like going to. He complains about crime because the news says there is crime. He complains about the economy because the news talks about the economy. He complains about welfare because he heard that once there was someone who defrauded the system. These are not my theories; the conversation usually goes something like, "Did you hear on the news about..." Or, "I heard from someone at church that..."

And yes, it's Fox that he watches, but even without Fox, I think it would be the same. The world he sees looking out his TV or internet "window" is not the vision of a solid, conservative, white, Christian America that he thought used to exist. He feels like a minority now in the world, and he never used to feel like that, and he doesn't like it. He worries about the Muslims taking over, or the blacks, or the Mexicans, but really it's the Other, the world that isn't his. It's the media trumpeting the death of his way of life and everybody acting like that's a good thing. The thing that's changed is perception more than anything, which leaves many people feeling powerless. The ones who offer them the hope of going back to the familiar... are the Tea Party.
posted by gracedissolved at 7:22 AM on November 15, 2010 [113 favorites]

Public relations is what Edward Bernays renamed propaganda after Goebbels turned it into something Bernays didn't like. This link gives a cite from Bernays' autobiography in which he talks about learning that Goebbels used his book "Propaganda" (linked in the previous use of the word).

Why do I bring it up — one of Bernays' key ideas was to give people the sensation that something important is missing, and that his client (politicians, companies, both) could fill that need. It didn't need to be specific, because as human beings we all feel that something's missing; that something could be better. What Bernays then did, was to literally create stereotypes to better direct that nebulous lack, and then use those stereotypes to steer people with them, whether towards voting a certain way, buying a certain brand, or... voting the way a certain brand wanted.

The Koch brothers, Rove's funding groups — look at who's paying for what and why. There is truth on both sides: corporate interests are engaging in classic Bernays-created techniques to coldly manipulate stereotypes in order to influence voters. On the other side, it is true that certain areas, via history and other factors, are more prone to holding and believing certain stereotypes than others. What's missing? Questioning those stereotypes... all that money would be for nothing if people could look past their fears and ask why scarecrows are changing the political landscape. The Century of the Self is an excellent four-part BBC documentary on Bernays and his still-felt influence; it was done in 2002.

How to talk to Mama Grizzly and Joe the Plumber? Ask them, compassionately. The sad thing is that "public relations" types — talking heads — are doing a good job of making "compassion" into a loaded stereotype too. It's not. It's human.
posted by fraula at 7:26 AM on November 15, 2010 [7 favorites]

I think there's a lot of different things going on, but my general rule of thumb is that people get angry when they're scared and vulnerable. There's a class war going on with dramatically rising inequality and an evisceration of the middle and working class. News media are extremely conservative (small and big "c") and are ignoring the elephant in the room. Politicians of multiple hues are beholden to corporate interests and the Democratic party is not willing or able to engage with the underlying issues.
posted by idb at 7:26 AM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Treat them as people who think that their beliefs, values and ways of life are about to be steamrollered by some alien juggernaut.

If they are afraid--economically insecure--confused--on fire with the beliefs of Beck--paranoid--be empathetic. It's easy to dismiss someone as "Beltway" but harder to dehumanize him or her when they have shown him- or herself to be a nonjudgmental listener who can hear (if not agree with) the fear.

Now *how* to be more empathetic to your political opposites is tougher. I would suggest tackling a project together, if the situation permits ("Hey, can I help you carry that?" "Would it be OK if I dropped by the creek-cleaning to help out?"). *Show* that you are not the enemy. Idea stolen from Richard Altemeyer's The Authoritarians, which I recommend as a primer on understanding right-wing attitudes.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:28 AM on November 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

I live in Kansas. The wealthiest part, Johnson County. When I worked for the community college, there was a Tea Party rally on our grounds, within shouting distance (not a productive day). The rally skewed retiree; which shouldn't be a surprise given it started during working hours and the cash incentive for Most Outrageous Sign. I don't know any Tea Partiers my age, but my mom does.

Here's a profile of the three Tea Partiers I know through her. They've known each other since their days in private high school. They're small businessmen; entrepreneurs of the kind you won't hear about in Silicon Valley. They're all enamored with recreational firearms and explosives, and believe Obama would like take away their 4th of July fun. One is basically just a well armed, self-employed (I'm not quite sure what he does) racist. All but one of them moved out of suburbia for lower taxes, and both of the ones with children had some attending my publicly funded community college. They lived in higher tax, high quality public schools and the minute their children graduated, adios.

So, what's suddenly missing? Their profits. One left his position as a regional director of Blue Cross years ago to sell insurances of various kinds on his own, including health insurance, and offer financial planning (no conflict of interest there!). Another sells cleaning products to local hospitals and is married to a director of a medical clinical research call center. It would be accurate to say what America saves on "Obamacare" comes out of their pocket, and 2008 wasn't exactly a banner year for these guys. Capitalism has failed them, and the Tea Party offers them Obama as a convenient scapegoat. One owes like 50k in CC debt (that none of the others knows about) and can't declare bankruptcy without losing his license. Another has a wife who had a 250k tax bill from what I think is an inheritance.

From what I can tell, one of them would benefit from Tea Party policies, the second is just plain racist, and the third keeps appearances up and attends such rallies. The rise in Tea Party candidates is mainly a reaction to Democratic wins in 2008. Young people sat 2010 out (as normal), and people faced with a choice of scaling back their lifestyle or cutting benefits they don't qualify for and would never be seen taking came out in a record "oh shit, voting matters" moment.
posted by pwnguin at 7:49 AM on November 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

To give you some background, I am a libertarian and therefore I support a lot of what the Tea Party claims to support: lower taxes, minimal government involvement, etc. I was raised in the religious area of southern Ohio, and now live in the more progressive Columbus, Ohio. I think the root of the issue, for most people, is the fiscal health of the country. This post might get long, but I just want to try to explain a point of view not shared by most people on metafilter. I hope this is helpful.

It really bothers me that some people think the Tea Party exists because of racism. The vast majority of people I know who consider themselves to be Tea Party supporters are not racist, whatsoever. They are critical of the president because of his spending. (Not that Bush was any better!) Many true fiscal conservatives aren't happy with President Obama, but they weren't happy with GW either.

My personal opinion is that the country is ready for a fiscally conservative but socially liberal candidate. Unfortunately we seem to be stuck choosing between religious Republican nuts who claim to want to balance the books (but don't), and Democrats who have their heart in the right place, but are willing to damage our already fragile economy to do so.

For now, I am more concerned fiscal issues than social issues only because it is a matter of triage. If we lose our standard of living due to our international debt, we will lose the luxury of focusing on social issues.

NOW, with that being said, I have met some uneducated Tea Party supporters that just want to be mad at the current leadership. They don't really get what they are upset about. It turns into a mob anger, with crazy-sounding forwarded email chains, full of unsubstantiated claims. These people are in the minority, but they are a vocal minority. Every political group is full of uneducated voters. I don't really support "get out the vote" groups because I don't encourage uneducated voting. The resources are available to those who want them, but I would bet that at least 75% of voters (alleged Tea Party supporters included) just tick boxes based on party affiliation and never bother learning about the candidates. This is why I believe a true Tea Party independent will never be able to beat the Republicans, and why the Tea Party is stuck co-promoting with Republicans even though it is supposedly non-partisan and many of their beliefs are at odds.

Many people criticize the Tea Party as promoting fear. As much as I loved the "keep fear alive" rally, occasionally fear is necessary and justified. The fear of government involvement in their daily lives doesn't stem from anger at having something already "taken away". It is a preventative measure. These people feel that once you give up part of your freedom to government oversight, you will very likely never get it back. Short term gains (for example, free healthcare for everyone) may not offset what they perceive as a very long-term risk (for example, the right to manage their own care). Though similar programs may be successful in other countries, many people believe that the United States was meant to be different. We are the last stronghold for individual liberty, and some people are willing to forgo the benefit of government programs and oversight for the less tangible benefit of freedom.
posted by halseyaa at 8:09 AM on November 15, 2010 [8 favorites]

Your repeated use of "suddenly" is what's throwing you, I think. It's true that not much has "suddenly" changed, other than the economy back in 2008. If you feel like the Tea Party phenomenon happened too fast for gradual forces to be behind it, well, I do think it's fair to say that most of these people put their hopes in Bush/the Republican party for a long time, long after they should have realized that the Republicans were not addressing their concerns.

It's not that things have suddenly changed. It's that things are changing slowly, culturally, in ways that politics cannot or will not address. Middle-class manufacturing jobs are going away. Expectations and taboos about marriage and childbearing are disappearing or changing radically. Globalization and urbanization are changing the country in ways that do indeed make life different for a lot of Americans. Technology and television are giving their kids sensibilities that they do not recognize or agree with, that does not come from them.

I don't mean to argue that these changes are bad (or good), just to point out that there are many people who regard them as bad. I think liberals look at, say, the 1960s, and see what are (to them) the good results: homophobia challenged, sexism questioned, and of course the civil rights movement; conservatives (or Tea Partiers) focus more on, and are more worried about, the bad (to them) results: skyrocketing divorce rates, more single-parent families, absentee fathers, etc. You may believe they're wrong, that the good things outweigh the bad, or even that the bad aren't really problems at all, but these people (or the more thoughtful among them) have decided differently.

Lastly, remember that people who are willing to spout off about politics to people they don't know tend to be people who aren't particularly thoughtful in the first place, people who are the most dogmatic and aggressive, rather than the most enlightening. I've found this to be true of liberals and conservatives. In both rural and urban areas, there are probably lots of smart people who think about these issues, and who come to all kinds of conclusions about them, but they keep their opinions to themselves unless speaking to someone they know well.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 8:18 AM on November 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

You might find this article and the associated polls interesting. Quote:
A New York Times/CBS News poll of backers of the emerging Tea Party movement shows that its supporters are more affluent and better educated than the general public. They tend to be white, male, and married. They are loyal Republicans, with conservative opinions on a variety of issues.
posted by oneirodynia at 8:32 AM on November 15, 2010

I turn out to have a massive sect of these folks in my family. While I can't say whether it's a unilateral thing, they all have a couple things in common:

- they've all been laborers, contractors, auto-workers and such their entire lives, which is the only work they're qualified for education-wise. Their incomes and employment statuses have always been unstable as a result... so none of them are ever doing much better than treading water.

- every interaction they've ever had with government has been negative somehow... in good times it just took their money and made things more difficult (particularly tax-wise with the contractors, where IRS issues are an annual ritual), and in bad times it never helped enough (and required ridiculous bureaucracy-navigation to even do that much).

- they all consider themselves devoutly religious, even if they rarely attend a church, and even if their behavior bears no resemblance to such.

When these family members have hit hurdles over the years, government and moral decline was always what they blamed first. It was practically instinct, an ingrained excuse that everyone was allowed to use, and everyone else would just nod their head and agree... easier than admitting mistakes or bad choices, no matter how obvious they were. Likewise, when good things happened to them, the credit was given to God... and again, everyone would nod and agree because it was just what everyone said. Four decades I've been alive, and every interaction with these folks is remarkably consistent: if anything bad happens, it's government's fault; if anything good happens, it's God's blessing. Any attempt to assign blame/credit to anyone/thing else (especially yourself) would only get you shouted down by everyone else assigning it where it obviously belonged.

What changed between those decades and now is that before, there might be one or two family members suffering at a time... few enough for the family to work together and help them out without overburdening anyone, and so their voices were easily dismissed as simple complaints saying "what you say." But now, with most of them in dire straits, there's not merely insufficient help available, but far too many voices complaining to ignore... and all of them are saying the same things they've always said.

And that's what the tea party is to me: the voices that were always there are now a chorus, simply because there are now enough of them singing at once.
posted by Pufferish at 8:38 AM on November 15, 2010 [10 favorites]

There are a lot of answers here, and many of them are plausible, but I fear that this is essentially armchair theorizing at its height. Everyone seems to have a theory as to where the Tea Party "came from" and if it is distinct from prior forms of American political populism. The fact of the matter is that there are a number of sociologists, political scientists, historians, and other social scientists who are trying to answer this very question. Until we have lots of good attitudinal data, some time behind us (remember, this is an ongoing phenomenon that looks already very differently than it did when it was mainly Ron Paul-ites), we are going to be in the dark as to the ultimate and proximate causes for this movement. I applaud your curiosity and am by no means attempting to stifle conversation about the topic (please, proceed!) but am merely cautioning against the idea that you will find your definitive answer on Ask MeFi.
posted by proj at 8:47 AM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think it's two main impulses. The first is to perceive and ongoing decline in humanity, an impulse roughly as old as humanity itself. In reading classical drama, I was struck how even then there was this recurring theme that today's man (2000+ years ago) was puny and weak compared to the preceding generations. So that's nothing new.

The other impulse is racial anxiety. White people see their unearned privilege being eroded, and it scares the crap out of many of them. Non-Hispanic whites are 65% of the US, but by 2050 they will be 46% of the US. To the degree that power in America flows from the people, that's bad news if you're used to thinking of the interests of the country as your white interests writ large. But it's worth remembering that this anxiety isn't necessarily selfish, it could just as easily be a concern that your children are going to have a harder time now that they face competing as minorities.

The Tea Partiers are core Republicans, and the Republican Party is becoming a regional and racial party. (Keep in mind that ninety percent of McCain/Palin voters were white.) That's enough to hold on to a lot of power for now, but they can see that the demographics are steadily grinding away at the foundation of that power. Anxiety is a predictable response in this context, but expecting anyone experiencing it to enunciate in these terms is asking a lot.
posted by NortonDC at 8:48 AM on November 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Read Nixonland, Rick Perlstein's tale of the rise and fall of Nixon and his establishment of a rhetorical divide in America that's with us today and very much in evidence in the Tea Party rhetoric to "return" the country to one based on old-fashioned American values, law and order and respect for the traditional hierarchy.
posted by donovan at 8:48 AM on November 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

the rise and fall of Nixon and his establishment of a rhetorical divide in America that's with us today and very much in evidence in the Tea Party rhetoric to "return" the country to one based on old-fashioned American values, law and order and respect for the traditional hierarchy

I'm not refuting this, but I want to point out that the notion that the US needs to "return" to some halcyon time of the Revolutionary Generation has existed since at least the day Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died. Probably before. I'd be extremely surprised if it didn't start up on July 5, 1776.
posted by synecdoche at 10:03 AM on November 15, 2010

In addition to my previous post, I just wanted to add one other thing I meant to say but didn't. It makes no sense for true Tea Partiers to be racist. The Tea Party seeks to protect the rights of individual Americans over the rights of the federal government. By advocating for the rights of ethnic minorities, GLBT rights and others, they protect the rights of all Americans, including their own. Either individual freedom applies to everyone or no one. Of course, some people will continue to hold their own negative biases, but in theory, the basic tenants of the Tea Party are meant to apply to everyone. Even if they have somewhat selfish reasons for doing so.
posted by halseyaa at 10:24 AM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

"but you seldom heard anyone in those days voice concern that opposition to Bush's policies must therefore be a mere accident of propagandism and gullibility on the part of the left."

Actually, you heard that all the time, generally from Fox, but also from talk radio and a lot of conservative newspapers. It was the "mainstream media" that had a "liberal bias."
posted by klangklangston at 10:39 AM on November 15, 2010

Mainstream media outlets spent the past ten years pretty much unanimously bashing Bush

News to me? Was this the same mainstream media that bought the illegal case for invading Iraq, tax cuts, Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay etc. wholesale up until about 2005-6?

I think the media climate is a contributing factor but not the primary reason. The "suddenly" thing is misleading as a lot of these rural conservative folks are the ones who have had their jobs shipped overseas and have seen their income plateau or decline over the past 30 odd years while top 1% of income earners have seen theirs rise by 6 x in the same period.

Furthermore, many of these folks have been convinced by the same big business Republicans who are actively working against their economic interests that big government is the real evil. This strange, unholy alliance between Wall Street/Beltway Republicans and the small town conservatives in the red states is described very effectively in the book "What's the Matter with Kansas?" by Thomas Frank.
posted by the foreground at 11:14 AM on November 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Previous posts about the conservative and/or Tea Party movements in America have not given me the gist of what it is these people feel is suddenly missing from their lives.

The President is black.

It's a little more complex than that, building on a long tradition of culture war mentality where well-off white males and those who have been duped into identifying with them feel that "their" culture is being hijacked by others. But as for why now? The President is black.

An intense lack of media savvy is a factor as well, in my experience of having to deal with the Tea Party types in my family. A lot of people simply do not understand that Glenn Beck is saying this stuff so that you'll tune in and buy the products his advertisers are selling. They think that because it was heard emanating from a television, therefore it is God's honest truth.
posted by Sara C. at 12:03 PM on November 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

In an article in Mother Jones earlier this year, Kevin Drum draws parallels between the Tea Party and earlier incarnations of conservative upswells like the Liberty League and the John Birch Society. Perhaps worth a look?
posted by mhum at 12:17 PM on November 15, 2010

Mod note: few comments removed - please addrss answers towards the OPs slightly chatty question and don't argue with other commenters, thanks
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 12:53 PM on November 15, 2010

"but you seldom heard anyone in those days voice concern that opposition to Bush's policies must therefore be a mere accident of propagandism and gullibility on the part of the left."

Actually, you heard that all the time, generally from Fox, but also from talk radio and a lot of conservative newspapers. It was the "mainstream media" that had a "liberal bias."

I think the point, klangklangston, was that people who agreed with the "liberal media" weren't criticized as being gullible and unable to think for themselves, as tea partiers are now.

Sure, the mainstream media were criticized by conservative outlets. But commentators didn't so much suggest that progressives must hold their views only because they were brainless consumers of propaganda.

As to the question--don't have much to add to what gracedissolved said. I think that what tea partiers feel is missing is consensus--about any number of things that they value. That pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is the American way, and possible for anyone. That the nuclear hetero-two-parented family is a critical building block for society. That the free market system is simply the most efficient method for getting any job done, and that government work will always involve bureaucracy and waste (and possible abuse of power). It definitely is (I think) a rose-colored view of the past, and a blinkered vision of the future.

At least, that's how I read my tea-party-sympathetic friends and family.
posted by torticat at 1:06 PM on November 15, 2010

Deer Hunting with Jesus by Joe Bageant

This book is the book you want. It is asking exactly your question, and it answers it. Like you, the author grew up in the rural south, moved north into a professional career, and later found himself politically estranged from his friends and family down south. He was curious as to what had happened, what the difference was, and headed down to investigate by interviewing all his old friends and the folks at the bar. I found the book a great deal more insightful and down to earth than Thomas Frank's book on Kansas. If all that isn't enough of a pitch, the book predicted the tea party movement before it even started.
posted by TwelveTwo at 1:08 PM on November 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

A commenter upthread mentioned Bernays, and I don't think you can underestimate the power of public relations. Armies of psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, etc. have been refining and perfecting PR techniques for 90 years now.

Remember, Republicans were extremely unpopular after Obama's election, even less popular than Democrats IIRC. The Tea Party was a brilliant tactic for getting people to get out and vote for GOP candidates (the incumbent re-election rate was about 85%) all the while claiming to be a grassroots, non-partisan, conservative movement. Listen closely to what Tea Partiers believe in - it's basically bog-standard Republican talking points, the same ones they've been using for 40 years now.

This isn't to say that Tea Party types don't honestly hold their views. The point is that they were going to stay home if the Republicans just came and out said "vote Republican again." But by creating the Tea Party movement, Dick Armey et al. provided a 'safety valve' so that people could get out and vote for establishment Republicans, all the while telling themselves and others that they were anti-establishment.
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 1:17 PM on November 15, 2010

"What, if anything, is suddenly missing from the daily lives of rural, conservative Americans?"

Seeing a white President on TV and in the newspapers.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:23 PM on November 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

What's missing is their soul, and a sense of purpose. It's been sucked out through television advertising. America is on the decline particularly due to rapacious corporate policies and shocking political corruption, so the middle class is declining, and they don't like it.
posted by wilful at 5:15 PM on November 15, 2010

"I think the point, klangklangston, was that people who agreed with the "liberal media" weren't criticized as being gullible and unable to think for themselves, as tea partiers are now. "

Not to belabor the point, but as someone getting a journalism degree who was concerned with bias, media criticism and politics, yes, they very much were and still are. This was most notable on social issues, where the mainstream media and the concept of Political Correctness were frequently linked. And the characterization from the right goes back at least as far as the Silent Majority.
posted by klangklangston at 5:21 PM on November 15, 2010

You know, something occured to me.

Do you want to know how to talk to a Tea Partier, or understand why they feel the way they feel? Or do you want to know how to talk to the average person living in The Heartland?

Because OK, I have experience with the former. There's that one subset of the family who are total right wing partisans. Now they're spouting the Tea Party's talking points, but they're the same subset of family members who were still faithfully standing by the Bush Administration even after the facade started to crack. Same ones who call Cubans Mexicans and disparage Vietnamese immigrants in mixed company, to the dismay of my aunt whose best friend is Vietnamese. These people have been around forever. In the 60's or 70's they'd have been John Birchers. In the 50's they'd have sucked McCarthy's dick.

Those people aren't worth talking to at all, unless absolutely necessary. And they really don't need to be stroked, I promise.

But most people in the South and the Midwest, as I'm sure you know, aren't like that. They're just people. They might be political, or not. They might care about Tea Party type issues, but they probably don't. I mean, they'll join in a chorus of The Government Sucks, or Back In My Day, or What's With All These Unwed Mothers And Whatnot. But it's not their bread and butter. For those people, the best thing is to just change the subject to something you can both agree on, like the local sports team, or how cute their grandkids are.

In my experience, The Heartland is not really synonymous with Right Wing Partisans. No matter how much the Beltway might think that's the case.
posted by Sara C. at 5:28 PM on November 15, 2010

My experience is similar to what Pufferish describes:

"they all consider themselves devoutly religious, even if they rarely attend a church, and even if their behavior bears no resemblance to such."

Although this is about politics and not religion, there is a lot of overlap. I like what Fryman said in a recent post on humanism and think it applies here as well:

"Fundamentalists have an extreme persecution complex, and generally wall themselves off from what they perceive as opposite to their beliefs, without any investigation as to whether or not it is actually true. Because, again, belief is truth. They don't need proof.

The simple fact is that fundamentalists love to be attacked. They love to be told they're wrong. It simply reinforces their conviction that they're right. The only way to change fundamentalists' minds is through exposure. Exposing them to different beliefs, yet showing how those different beliefs generally contain the same core set of values.

So, if they think homosexuality is an abomination, they will wall themselves off from any contact with homosexuals. If you want to convince them they are wrong, expose them to a gay married couple. Show them that a gay marriage has the same values - love, support, etc. - as any "traditional" marriage."

In summary, I think it's a combination of a persecution complex that needs feeding and limited exposure to different lifestyles except in horrible news stories about moral depravity.

I've had firsthand experience with a lot of people like this, and some of their very favorite phrases are things like, "I can say what I want" and "You can't make me do anything." In other words, highly defensive stances. The best way to reach them, I have found, is not to argue, not even to make friendly suggestions or ask questions (they take this as arguing) but to teach by example and expose them to things that contradict their worldviews that they can see and believe for themselves, no words necessary.
posted by Nixy at 5:38 PM on November 15, 2010

I think organizing is the sudden difference. For a decade or two, maybe forever, this grumbling has been there. And the tea party movement did not erupt all at once. I walked by the spring Tea Party rally in Sacramento. It looked very small. This interviewer notes that many of these rallies were small. So, the difference is not that the masses spontaneously rose up. The difference is that (a) someone paid an organizer who called a rally, did the paperwork to get space for a demonstration, and reached out to other organizations who could help find people to attend, (b) that organizer or a colleague put out a press advisory to get the local media there, (c) both a. and b. were easier because organizers were doing the same thing in many locations at once, and (d) b. was easier because nationwide media like Glenn Beck and Fox News were already making it into a story.

I'm not dismissing anyone's feelings, those feelings' cultural roots, nor the suffering caused by current events. I'm sure there were many clusters of homegrown discontent. But what has changed is that an organizer began connecting those clusters and giving people an outlet for expressing whatever that original discontent was (be it gay marriage, unemployment, whatever), while unifying it under a single banner. They wanted the tea party to appear to be happening "all over the country ... a genuine grassroots fire," and so they constructed that impression. In the linked article, Tim Phillips actually described it that way in response to a question about how small the turnout was. So the goal has been to create the perception of a spontaneous nationwide movement, and meanwhile organizers are doing the slower work, step by step, of creating one. It's as simple as that. These things don't happen because of beliefs or feelings. They happen when people do work.

So to your question -- how do you relate to rural residents? Point well taken by Nixy above, that this isn't homogenous. But I'd say, relate to people pretty much the same as always, except while realizing that there's this new perception that people like them are tired of putting up with the things that bother them and are rising up. What changed is not a new discontent, but a new engagement and awareness that together they have political power.
posted by slidell at 8:19 PM on November 15, 2010

Sorry, it was Sara C. who made the point that this isn't homogeneous.
posted by slidell at 8:19 PM on November 15, 2010

I can't help you relate to "Mamma Grizzly or Joe the Plumber". I grew up right outside NYC and now live in Austin, Texas and I do not relate to these folks in terms of common, shared experience. Nor do I share a common, shared experience with other commenters' crazy right wing, Glenn Beck watching, religious fanatic family members/acquaintances who are probably racist to boot.

But I am **gasp** a sympathizer to what I believe is the cohesive glue the holds seemingly different people together within the Tea Party.... less government and accompanying lower taxation. But those are just the talking points...I think Halseyaa explains it best above:

The fear of government involvement in their daily lives doesn't stem from anger at having something already "taken away". It is a preventative measure. These people feel that once you give up part of your freedom to government oversight, you will very likely never get it back. Short term gains (for example, free healthcare for everyone) may not offset what they perceive as a very long-term risk (for example, the right to manage their own care). Though similar programs may be successful in other countries, many people believe that the United States was meant to be different. We are the last stronghold for individual liberty, and some people are willing to forgo the benefit of government programs and oversight for the less tangible benefit of freedom.

I think understanding this theory will allow you relate better to Tea Partiers or their sympathizers and I applaud your desire to do so and to be respectful. Start from the perspective that that they are regular, decent people (unless they prove otherwise) who may or may not share your theory on the proper role of government. Ask questions and listen. Recognize, however, that many may not be able to articulate their opinions and theories as clearly as halseyaa and will just stick to the talking points. Many people of every political persuasion find it difficult to clearly and fully explain the basis for their political beliefs and do not spend their days cultivating philosophical discussion points. This does not necessarily make them stupid, uninformed, hayseed racists.

But I don't think you will have any problems since your question was respectful and not laden with the undercurrent of vitroilic assumptions that "teabaggers" are all a bunch of fanantically religious, small-minded, Fox News-brainwashed rubes who don't know how wonderful it is that our country has progressed to the point where a black person was elected president.
posted by murrey at 1:53 AM on November 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

I also wanted to highlight the quote in italics above. Government control of any kind will lead us to directly to socialism where everything great about America will be lost.
posted by xammerboy at 5:30 PM on November 16, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you all for the thoughtful answers. There were many great responses that gave me a better insight into my problem. It is difficult to say which answer is "best" or "correct" but I have certainly gained from reading them.

I'd like to recommend Deer Hunting with Jesus as suggested by TwelveTwo. Also, I'd like to thank murrey for her candor as I know it is not often very easy to come out on MeFi as an outsider to the MeFite norm. Thanks again all.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:34 PM on December 15, 2010

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