Since the 2008 financial collapse, class rhetoric has arisen on both prevalent sides of the U.S. political spectrum. The grassroots “base” in both the Republican and Democratic party has become animated by a new or invigorated perception of class struggle. The politicians in each party have echoed these themes. While both sides see themselves as defending the oppressed or the neglected common person against the establishment, for the most part the two movements have looked upon each other with hostility, seeing more allies in the very halls of power they claim are so irredeemably corrupt than in the crowds agitating for reform on the other side of the political spectrum.
The populist Right has taken to the Tea Party movement, energized by the 2008 TARP bailouts and the election of Barack Obama — a president regarded as out of step with mainstream America and sometimes depicted as a socialist attempting to overthrow the nation’s putative free-enterprise system. That movement, taking its name from the subversive civil disobedience of the American Revolution, can claim some nominal lineage from the largely libertarian Ron Paul presidential campaign of 2007 and 2008. However, it became clear that by the time Obama was sworn in and the Tea Party rallies began to proliferate, the general flavor of the movement was not as “in line” with Paul’s message as the much smaller Tea Party rallies during the tail end of the Bush administration had been.
American conservatism since late 2008 and early 2009 has adopted an anti-government, anti-establishment theme that was not nearly as prevalent on the Right during the George W. Bush administration, when its primary goals were to bolster the administration’s war on terrorism and social conservative policies on marriage and other issues. The economic emphasis, brought on by the financial meltdown, the bipartisan rescue package, the resurgence of Keynesianism, Obama’s flagship health-care law, and other reforms involving expansions of domestic government, refocused much of the conservative movement on its tenets that are most critical of government and Washington, and has to that extent diminished as a priority the question of foreign policy, on which the modern Right has tended toward interventionism.
Along with its new identification as the movement to curb government growth and guard against Washington corruption and power, the Tea Party movement has adopted, if sometimes implicitly, a class analysis that sees the main political struggle as one between big government (especially its taxing and regulating) and everyday Americans. Culturally, the proxy for the hero and victim is seen in bourgeois society, the nuclear family, the working and entrepreneurial classes. Geographically, there is a tendency to see the “red” states — middle America, or as it is sometimes dismissively called, “fly-over country” — as the home of real Americans, pitted against the “blue”-state establishment that is most firmly planted on both U.S. coasts and in the cities. Key figures speaking on behalf of the forgotten Americans are celebrities such as Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, who at his media height enjoyed the highest-rated commentary news show on air.
The country class
Nowhere has the class analysis implicitly embraced by the Tea Party been more explicitly described than in the work of Angelo Codevilla, whose American Spectator article “America’s Ruling Class and the Perils of Revolution” explicitly pits the minority ruling class against the majority “country class.” Conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh wrote the introduction to Codevilla’s book that expanded on this theme, The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do about It (Beaufort Books 2010). In it Limbaugh calls the Tea Party “the modern equivalent of our founding revolutionaries … [who] need a political mechanism in order to revolt against and replace the ruling class.” The introduction is not uncritical of the conservative wing of the political elite, yet it has a clear partisan and ideological bias: “Republicans are the way they are in Washington because Washington is a culture and a place that is run and dominated — not just politically, but socially — by Democrats, by the left.”
Codevilla’s book presents a good example of populist conservative class consciousness. He does not see wealth as the primary determinant of whether someone belongs to the ruling class. While its members are wealthy, they “are no wealthier than many Texas oilmen or California farmers” whom Codevilla does not count as part of the ruling class.
“What really distinguishes these privileged people demographically,” Codevilla explains, “is that, whether in government power directly or as officers in companies, their careers and fortunes depend on government. They vote Democrat more consistently than those who live on any of America’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. streets.” The author goes so far as to argue that “it is possible to be an official or a major corporation or a member of the U.S. Supreme Court (just ask Justice Clarence Thomas), or even president of the nation (Ronald Reagan), and not be taken seriously by the Ruling Class.” While “Republicans salivate for [the] status” of privilege that the ruling class enjoys, they rarely obtain it. To make that point, Codevilla argues that liberal ruling-class members get away with all sorts of malfeasance, such as academic corruption, more easily than conservatives do. For those aware of the vast unpunished corruption among the highest Reagan and Bush administration officials, that might seem like a dubious point.
Codevilla prioritizes the culture war. The ruling class is largely secular and urban, all educated in a similar mold, and united in perceiving the bulk of the American people as “retrograde, racist, and dysfunctional unless properly constrained” and conservatives as “maladjusted, ne’er-do-well ignoramuses.” Repeatedly Codevilla argues that the ruling class is characterized by a hostility to Christianity and traditional Judaism.
The country class, in contrast, “defines itself practically in terms of reflexive reactions against the rulers’ defining ideas and proclivities — e.g., ever-higher taxes and expanding government, subsidizing political favorites, social engineering, approval of abortion, etc.” The inclusion of abortion as a theme ties into the country class’s culture-war identification. While Codevilla calls members of the country class “heterogeneous,” mostly defined by their exploitation by the rulers, he puts a definite conservative cast on them. They support civil society, both the voluntary sector and entrepreneurial sector, believe people are born equal, and include “those who take the side of outsiders against insiders, of small institutions against large ones, of local government against those at the state or federal level. The Country Class is convinced that big business, big government, and big finance are linked as never before, and that ordinary people are more unequal than ever.” Yet they are also defined by their “most distinguishing characteristics … marriage, children, and religious practice.” They are skeptical of Darwinism, opposed to abortion, and seek “the restoration of traditional police powers over behavior in public places.”
One passage highlights the cultural resentment as it dovetails with victimization at the hands of the state:
Americans drive big cars, eat lots of meat and other unhealthy things, and go to the doctor whenever they feel like it. Americans think it is just to spend the money they earn to satisfy their private desires, even though the Ruling Class knows that justice lies in improving the community and the planet. The Ruling Class knows that Americans must learn to live more densely and closer to work, that they must drive smaller cars … that they must accept limits on how much medical care they get.
Among Codevilla’s most astute observations are those concerning the corporate state’s economic exploitation of the masses. “Whatever else government may be, it is inherently a factory of privilege and inequality,” he writes, striking a very libertarian note. “By taxing and parceling out more than a third of what Americans produce, through regulations that reach deep into American life, our Ruling Class is making itself the arbiter of wealth and poverty.” In particular, he condemns crony capitalism, whereby the “regulators and the regulated become indistinguishable, and they prosper together because they have the power to restrict the public’s choices.” He identifies corporatism in the bailouts but also in environmental regulations. Codevilla contends that the ruling class will countenance only economic approaches conducive to “finishing the transformation of America into an administrative state.”
Nationalism and war
The country class’s tension with the ruling class is at its most paradoxical concerning nationalism. Codevilla argues that America’s modern wars are largely harmful to the country. Yet it is the country class that is most supportive of American nationalism and the military as an institution:
The Country Class believes that America’s ways are superior to the rest of the world’s, and regards most of mankind as less free, less prosperous, and less virtuous than Americans. The class also takes part in the U.S. armed forces, body and soul: nearly all the enlisted, non-commissioned officers and officers under flag rank belong to this class in every measurable way. Few vote for the Democratic Party. You do not doubt that you are amid the Country Class rather than the Ruling Class when the American flag passes by or “God Bless America” is sung after seven innings of baseball, and most people show reverence.
This is where the analysis faces the greatest complications. Nothing expands the state like war. Aware of the tension between liberty and frugal government and imperialism, Codevilla argues that the country class favors the military, but not perpetual war:
Because our Ruling Class deems unsophisticated the American people’s perennial preference for decisive military action or none, its default solution to international threats has been to commit blood and treasure to long-term, twilight efforts to reform the world’s Vietnams, Somalias, Iraqs, and Afghanistans, believing that changing hearts and minds is the prerequisite of peace, and that it knows how to change them.
That would appear to be wishful thinking. Most conservative Americans — the people most enamored of God, family, and flag — were enthusiastic supporters of George W. Bush’s endless war policies, and they were the least supportive of ending the wars at any given point over the last decade. Although Codevilla attempts to blame indefinite war on the cultural opponents of the country class, the people he identifies are at least as responsible as anyone else. By encouraging enlistment in their families and voting for the most interventionist of politicians, they are not mere passive participants in empire.
Codevilla is correct that when Obama apologizes on behalf of American society — for supposed environmental sins, nuclear bombs, wars, or slavery in the past — he is “not apologizing for anything he or anyone he respected had done, but rather blaming his fellow Americans for not doing what he thinks they should do.” The country class’s response, however, seems to be that the U.S. government never owes an apology to anyone, which is not at all the right attitude for fostering Jeffersonian government.
In practice Codevilla argues that to liberate the country class means “reducing the taxes that most Americans resent,” which in turn “requires eliminating the network of subsidies to millions of other Americans that these taxes finance.” But how many of those subsidies come in the form of benefits enjoyed by the very Americans Codevilla would put in the country class?
In 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney made waves when, unbeknownst to him, someone recorded his remark that he had no interest in the 47 percent of tax consumers who would predictably vote for Obama. It energized the Tea Party types who favored that form of class division. Romney dismissed those who were “dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.” In doing so, he implied that the poorest recipients of social spending did not consider themselves on balance victims of the state, and were a major parasitic class against which the Republican Party had to contend.
And yet, how many of the poorest Americans would Codevilla put in the country class? How many of them vote Republican? How many of them come from military families or attend conservative churches?
Left-liberal critiques of Tea Party class analysis
Many progressive politicians, commentators, progressive journalists, and celebrities have derided the Tea Party movement, often taking issue with the class consciousness so prevalent among its populist activists. Despite some anomalous pro–Tea Party leftists, the progressives have mostly looked upon the movement with hostility, seeing the rhetoric of class consciousness as an appropriation from the supposed-ly more-genuine leftist concerns about defending the weak against the strong. Left-progressives see the Republican-voting Tea Parties as unwitting shills for the establishment more than opponents of oppression, describing them as an “AstroTurf” movement rather than a genuine grassroots uprising. No less a luminary than Paul Krugman wrote in an April 2009 New York Times column characteristic of the progressive view,
[It] turns out that the tea parties don’t represent a spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment. They’re AstroTurf (fake grass roots) events, manufactured by the usual suspects. In particular, a key role is being played by FreedomWorks, an organization run by Richard Armey, the former House majority leader, and supported by the usual group of right-wing billionaires. And the parties are, of course, being promoted heavily by Fox News.
This view of the Tea Parties as a corporate Trojan Horse led some progressive commentators to view even civil-liberties issues in a different light. Writing for The Nation in November 2010, progressives Mark Ames and Yasha Levine wrote,
As the first reporters to expose the Tea Party as an Astroturf PR campaign funded by FreedomWorks and Koch-related front groups back in February, 2009, we see many of the same elements driving the current “rebellion” against the TSA: Koch-related libertarians, Washington lobbyists and PR operatives posing as “ordinary citizens,” and suspicious fake-grassroots outrage relentlessly promoted in the same old right-wing echo chamber.
The critique that the Tea Party is not truly a people’s movement has been central to the liberal response, along with the somewhat paradoxical disparagement of the movement for being unkempt and unsophisticated. A key theme in left-progressive criticisms of conservative populists has always been that they are unconscious pawns for the establishment who vote against their own economic interests, and that has also continued in light of the Tea Party.
Other criticism has focused on the alleged racism of the Tea Party movement, a point that seems plausible to some because the movement came into its own just when America’s first black president came to power. Actress Janeane Garofalo, a political activist speaking for a wide swath of the progressive Left, has repeatedly made that point:
Let’s be very honest about what this is about. This is not about bashing Democrats. It’s not about taxes. They have no idea what the Boston Tea Party was about. They don’t know their history at all. It’s about hating a black man in the White House. This is racism straight up and is nothing but a bunch of … rednecks. There is no way around that.
So convinced of this narrative, Garofalo made the news two years later with her explanation for the populist Right’s profound admiration for black Republican politician Herman Cain:
Herman Cain is probably well liked by some of the Republicans because it hides the racist elements of the Republican Party. Conservative movement and Tea Party movement, one in [sic] the same. People like Karl Rove liked to keep the racism very covert. And so Herman Cain provides this great opportunity so he can say, “Look, this is not a racist, anti-immigrant, anti-female, anti-gay movement. Look, we have a black man.”
The other major criticism of Tea Party populists is the claim that they are so anti-government that they pose something approaching a terrorist threat to society. That has been the position outlined by such groups as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Homeland Security Department. Taken altogether, the posture of the anti–Tea Party Left boils down essentially to two elements: the defense of the president and his government against a movement accused of bigotry, extremism, and ignorance, and the claim that the movement is not truly anti-establishment at all, but rather a front for corporate interests. There is some validity to some of these critiques that libertarians should appreciate, but before advancing my own evaluation of Tea Party class analysis, I first wish to look at the movement’s left-wing counterpart: the Occupy movement that arose in late 2011.
This article was originally published in the May 2014
edition of Future of Freedom.