Clif Garboden

Tea Party: Woodstock 2?

Today’s New Right looks a lot like the New Left of the ’60s

By Clif Garboden
February 25, 2010

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LIBERALS AND progressives groaned when Sarah Palin took center stage at the Tea Party convention in Nashville earlier this month. Clearly, the GOP establishment was making its expected bid to dominate another ostensibly grassroots initiative by courting it with the neo-cons’ beloved emissary to the gullible. But apparently, that winky-dopy thing didn’t work out as well as mainstream conservatives had hoped. Since then, Tea Party spokespeople have pointedly distanced themselves from the Republicans and denounced GOP attempts to co-opt their organization.

The Tea Party animals even played a little extortion politics during a recent jowl-to-jowl with Republican National Committee ChairmanMichael Steele. It seems that these do-it-yourself conservatives aren’t really Palinites, despite the fact that so many of them tirelessly claim to adore her because “she’s just like them’’ (i.e. unfit to govern).

What the Tea Party actually does represent seems to have a lot of observers baffled. Are its members just a bunch of kooks? Racists? Dittoheads? Survivalists? Libertarian extremists? Gun nuts? Thoughtful conservatives in wolves’ clothing? Can they really be all those things?

Yes they can. It’s a familiar pattern. I’ve seen it before, albeit from the opposite political pole. The Tea Party is an organization in no greater sense than “the Movement’’ was in the 1960s. Sure, between 1964 and ’74, millions of Americans - many young, most educated - coalesced around the shared goals of ending the Vietnam War and fulfilling the promise of the civil rights movement. But if people outside that New Left political flow thought we had a national plan or unified leadership, they were mistaken.

Opposing war and racism was our common ground, but our causes were many - feminism, vegetarianism, socialism, transcendental meditation, abortion rights, gay liberation, communal living, Puerto Rican statehood, macrobiotics, drug-law reform, Krishna Consciousness, ecology, etc. Peer pressure encouraged everyone involved to at least tolerate the full-spectrum ideological menagerie, but nobody on the New Left truly cared about every liberal cause the Movement allegedly embraced. Still, it was nice to have the people wearing tinfoil pyramid hats and the miniscule third-eye contingent chanting “nam myoho renge kyo’’ in your corner when it came to swelling the crowd at an anti-draft demonstration. And the marginal crusaders reveled in the public association with higher-profile activists. It was a jolly big tent of mutual convenience.

The Tea Party is no different, except, of course, its ties that bind are small government, lower taxes, and begrudging vital social services. Just as the ’60s New Left was plagued by all manner of progressive cohorts and lonely neurotics, the Tea Party is an magnetic bandwagon for conservative activist, ranging from pro-lifers to climate-change deniers to prayer-in-schools absolutists to people haven’t quite accepted heliocentrism, never mind evolution. Those factions, along with a giant cluster of conspicuously angry lone wingnuts, are climbing aboard and, in most media reports, overshadowing the group’s core of seemingly moderate sympathetic white, middle-class, suburban voters.

It is possible then, that the Tea Party will suffer the fate of Students for a Democratic Society, a national coalition of like-minded liberal activists that was first rendered impotent from the inside by nattering special-interest fanatics and ultimately jostled into self destruction by an infiltration of intractable extremists. That, and the possibility of the Tea Party people splitting the conservative vote with a third-party candidate in 2012 are liberal Democrats’ fondest hopes.

But erosion takes time, and this band of renegade conservatives - this nascent New Right - is just getting started. Already, the Tea Party’s rickety star-making machine has proven influence among the middle class voters - including some Barack Obama supporters of little faith - who feel left out of either major party’s agenda because they’ve never gotten a six-figure bonus or enjoyed a free lunch. And mid-term Democratic incumbents are wisely taking heed.

Disparate and disorganized as it was, the New Left of the 1960s accomplished a lot of long-term change and reform, so don’t be fooled by the Tea Party’s comical appearance or distracted by its frivolous fellow travelers. The loudmouths comprising the public face of the Tea Party by themselves didn’t catapult Scott Brown to the Senate, but they cheered him on. Whatever the Tea Party’s preaching, somebody’s listening to all the noise.

Clif Garboden is a Boston-area freelance writer.

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