Tea Partying: When Protest Movements Defend the Interests of the Ultra-Rich

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Four years ago, the modern tea party seemed to emerge from nowhere, leaving journalists bewildered and the public with few reference points to understand seemingly spontaneous rallies by middle-class people seeking lower tax rates. A search for the phrase “tea party” in connection with “politics” in major newspapers yielded fewer than 100 mentions in 2008 — and when the words did appear linked together, they suggested studied formality and decorum. The next year, they appeared more than 1,500 times, often connected to “protest demonstration.”

But little was spontaneous about the new party. “Social movements that explicitly defend the interests of the rich and the almost-rich have been a recurring feature of American politics,” Isaac William Martin, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego, reminds us in his new book, Rich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent. “Such movements shook the American polity before the Obama era, before the Reagan era and before Barry Goldwater ran for president — before, even, the New Deal.”

With meticulous research, Martin shows how the modern tea party grew from decades of efforts by American oligarchs to de-tax themselves. They relied on cranks, rogues and a few scholars to polish the most effective ideological marketing pitches. Their goal was selling the notion that if the rich bear less of the burden of government, all of us will somehow end up better off. These pitches have worked best when some newly proposed government initiative — like President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act — arrives to pose the threat of major policy change. They have depended on diverting attention from obvious questions, such as just how does a smaller tax bill for the Koch brothers benefit us?

Spanning decades, the residue of relationships, movement-building skills and organizations from past enlistments of the affluent many to agitate for the interests of the super-elite few could be seen merely as an example of what Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab called “cultural baggage” in their 1971 book The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970. Instead, Martin says, these movements bequeathed to us “not just a suitcase we drag along behind us” but “a toolkit” to remake American public policy. Martin also concurs with historian Richard Hofstadter, who pointed out a half-century ago how many practitioners of his famous theory — the paranoid style in American politics — found their roots in the arrival, in 1913, of the 16th Amendment. That amendment, ratified on the eve of World War I, resolved disputes over the meaning of the phrase “direct taxes shall be apportioned,” and in doing so ushered in the modern income tax.

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