Ten days ago, I posted a comment about the Tea Partiers in which I attempted to get some sense of what motivates them. Today, NY TIMES columnist Frank Rich, far and away the best op ed columnist in newspapers, had a long piece on this subject, which I strongly recommend to you. Later this morning, as I was channel surfing, I stumbled on a TCM screening of Frank Capra's great Depression era screwball comedy, You Can't Take it With You, starring Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold, a very young Ann Miller, Spring Byington, Eddie Anderson, and a host of other wonderful old movie actors. In order not to bore you all, I am going to assume that you have seen the movie, and can recall at least its feel and outlines. [If this is not true, then by all means get it from NetFlix or wherever, and watch it.]
All us Roosevelt era lefties have a soft spot in our hearts for the Capra movies -- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and all -- and when we see the common people rise up against the rich nabobs [always dressed, at any time of day or night, in tuxes and tails], we cheer, and then sob a bit for the good old days when these populist sentiments flourished, and the rich and powerful were immediately recognizable as the villains.
As I watched the movie, tears threatening to cloud my glasses, it occurred to me that its sensibility is really not so different from that of the Tea Partiers. Not the same bitterness and anger, to be sure. In Capra's movies, the common people seem always to be having a better time, for all their poverty. Nor is there the strong streak of sheer craziness that afflicts the Tea Partiers. Capra's common folk are not in the grip of Birther style paranoia. Furthermore, the Partiers' thinly veiled, or even openly proclaimed, violence, of which Rich so rightly makes much, is missing from the Depression movies. It is the rich and powerful who deploy violence to crush the folk. But the same suspicion of government infuses Capra's movies. When Lionel Barrymore explains to a befuddled IRS representative why he has not paid taxes for twenty years, he does it with such wit and charm that all of us in the audience laugh and cheer him on. But substantively, if not cinematically, it could be Michelle Bachman or Glen Beck talking.
Here is my problem. I am absolutely convinced that I am right to side with the Sycamore family and their wacky hangers-on in the movie, and I am equally sure that I am right to side with Frank Rich in his excoriation of the Tea Partiers. Since I have a deep lifetime commitment to sanity, which at a minimum means sheer consistency, I need to explain to myself just how the Sycamores differ from the Tea Partiers, so that I can cling to my seemingly contradictory gut instincts.
I have already mentioned two differences -- the Sycamores are sane [wacky, but sane], and they are not violent [even though one of them sets off fireworks in the basement.] They do not think black helicopters are about to arrive carrying League of Nations storm troopers [were there helicopters then?] They just think Edward Arnold should not be permitted to evict an entire street full of decent hard-working poor people so that he can make a killing in a development deal. If the Tea Partiers were committed to stopping banks from foreclosing on homes with under water mortgages, I would be with them one hundred percent. Even more important, Capra's common folk have no inclination toward mindless, random violence.
All of this is not nothing, but it is also, in a way, beside the point. Let us recall that the Tea Party movement had its origin in opposition to health care reform. And that reform, in all its messy complexity, is aimed at prottecting ordinary folk like them from an insurance industry and a health care delivery system that is rapacious and out of control. As Thomas Frank so tellingly argued in his 2004 book, What's The Matter With Kansas?, this is a populist movement in the service of the rich and powerful, not the poor and downtrodden.
I return to the observation I made on this blog some time ago. At the root of the anger and paranoia of the Tea Party Movement is an all-consuming resentment of the scorn and condescension which they feel is directed at them by the jeunesse d'oree in our society, those with access to the elite colleges, the gilded career paths, and the dominant media. It is not even so much the economic disadvantage some of them have suffered as the fact that they feel looked down on, WHICH THEY ARE
Let us be honest. They are right to think themselves scorned and condescended to. They get plenty of media coverage, to be sure, and they are wooed in openly self-interested and dishonest ways by Republican office holders -- a fact of which they are perfectly well aware. But anyone with even the most rudimentary capacity for textual interpretation can see that what is written about the Tea Partiers is culturally and intellectually condescending and dismissive, if not openly scornful. This is as true of elite rightwing commentators like George Will as it is of leftwing commentators like me. Because, if I am being honest with myself, I must admit that I am condescending and scornful toward the Tea Partiers, in a way that I am definitely not toward Frank Capra's characters. I will fight to the death for their right to decent health care and good wages and a clean environment. But do I want to spend an hour or two talking with them? Would I like to have a glass of wine with them? Hardly.
Now, to some extent I may be a special case. For all my good cheer and optimistic outlook, I am pretty much of a loner. There aren't that many people on the left with whom I really want to have a glass of wine or an hour's chat, after all. Still and all, there are real class divisions in our society, and education, cultural preferences, the decorum of speech and self-presentation, are the markers of those divisions as surely as they are in England or France [or, for all I know, in China and Japan].
One of the real oddities of contemporary American society is that a very sizeable portion of the cultural upper class -- maybe even a majority -- is politically liberal rather than conservative. Michael Moore is the exception, not the rule. Hence people like me find ourselves fighting for the interests of people with whom we have very little in common. My social and cultural attitudes are not aligned in any rational fashion with my politics. Those who are affronted by the attitudes of people like me naturally end up opposing our politics, even though our politics are designed to advance their interests.
I welcome comments. This is puzzling to me, and troubling, and I suspect I shall return to it on a number of occasions in the future.