Historians weigh in on the Tea Party in the NYT

Historians in the News

It makes sense that people would take to the streets to protest government spending and enormous deficits during the Great Recession, when they are feeling economic pain most acutely.

What accounts for this gap between how they are faring and how they feel the country is faring? History offers some lessons. The poll reveals a deep conviction among Tea Party supporters that the country is being run by people who do not share their values, for the benefit of people who are not like them. That is a recurring theme of the previous half-century — conservatives in liberal eras declaring the imperative to “Take America Back.”

“The story they’re telling is that somehow the authentic, real America is being polluted,” said Rick Perlstein, the author of books about the Goldwater and Nixon years.

Liberal regimes tend to bring out these resentments, Mr. Perlstein said, because conservatives have equated liberalism in the popular mind with the expansion of government power, something that has always stirred distrust among Americans.

The Tea Party supporters recycle their language from the conservative movements of the early 1960s in response to the Kennedy presidency, the resistance to busing, gay rights and the Carter administration in the mid 1970s, and the opposition to the Clinton health care plan in the early 1990s.

“It is entirely predictable,” Mr. Perlstein said. In the poll, Tea Party supporters said they want to focus on economic issues. But the widest gulfs between Tea Party supporters and others — Republicans and the public in general — are in their responses to questions about social issues, from gay marriage to abortion to immigration to global warming....

Rick Shenkman, a history professor at George Mason University, said in some respects, he is inclined to take the Tea Party supporters at their word, that they are like the founding fathers in fighting an ideological battle — this one against what they believe is socialism.

“They are concerned that the federal government is too big, and these numbers are incomprehensible in terms of deficits and budgets,” he said. “They are so large that nobody can grasp them. It’s no wonder that people are baffled by what’s going on.”

Still, he and others argue that race and age are the biggest factors in shaping the mindset of Tea Party supporters. They tend to be white and male, with a disproportionate number above 45, and above 65. Their memories are of a different time, when the country was less diverse....

Read entire article at NYT

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