The natural habitat of the Tea Party is usually seen as the unreconstructed reaches of the Old South. If people want to blame Dixie for the recent government shutdown, we should probably let it go at that. But the fact is that many Tea Party stalwarts spring from the Midwest, for reasons we should heed.
Not that the Tea Party rules the Midwest, in the way it dominates most of Louisiana, say. But all Midwestern states have sent Tea Party Republicans to the House of Representatives. Some, such as Minnesota’s Michelle Bachmann, the founder of the Tea Party Caucus, and Iowa’s Steve King, an immigration hawk, are among the Tea Party leaders who shut down the government in what many Republicans now concede was a misguided attempt to defund and derail Obamacare.
The Tea Party represents a cry of defiance – not only against any national health system but again same-sex marriage, increased immigration, an active government and, on its fringes, the theory of climate change and the separation of church and state. In many ways, it’s a cry of defiance against the 21st century.
We’re used to these sentiments down south, but it’s startling to hear them coming from the calmer climes of Midwestern towns and even some of our cities.
Some recent probing of Tea Party thinking, much of it by Democrats who did it in a know-thine-enemy spirit, reveals some touchstones that should be familiar in the Midwest. Basically, these are people who confront a changed and changing world, and they don’t like it. Things are simply moving too fast in a direction that offends them deeply.
The most recent study was a series of focus groups of tea party members, plus other groups of evangelical voters and moderate Republicans, in Virginia, Colorado and North Carolina, run by Stan Greenberg. Greenberg is a Democratic pollster, so he’s hardly neutral. But he has a solid professional reputation, and argues that “you can’t understand the government shutdown unless you understand the GOP from the inside.” His focus groups took place outside the Midwest, but the sentiments he found ring a bell here.
Focus groups are different from polls, which try to reach a representative mixture of the population. A focus group brings together people chosen because they share certain characteristics and beliefs, and then lets them talk.
Greenberg found, among other things, a common and intense animosity toward President Obama, sprinkled with words like “communist,” “tyrant,” and “Muslim.”
Many Democrats are disappointed in what they see as Obama’s willingness to compromise with the Republicans and are disappointed that he hasn’t achieved a more progressive record. To the Tea Party, this is simply an alternative universe. They see Obama as all-conquering, having already imposed a socialist agenda.
This agenda includes creating a dependent society based on welfare and illegal immigrants. For the Tea Party, the Affordable Care Act was the last straw.
“The race issue is very much alive,” Greenberg wrote. The Tea Party and its allies are very aware of being white an increasingly diverse society. For them, Obama’s appeal to minorities just adds more dependents to a dependency society.
A Bloomberg columnist, Francis Wilkinson, writing about Greenberg’s study, summed it up this way:
“A lot of Americans were not ready for a mixed-race president. They weren’t ready for gay marriage. They weren’t ready for the wave of legal and illegal immigration that redefined American demographics over the past two or three decades, bringing in lots of nonwhites. They weren’t ready – who was? – for the brutal effects of globalization on working- and middle-class Americans or the devastating fallout from the financial crisis.
“Their representatives didn’t stop Obamacare. And their side didn’t ‘take back America’ in 2012 as Fox News and conservative radio personalities led them to believe they would. They feel the culture is running away from them (and they’re mostly right). They lack the power to control their own government. But they still have just enough to shut it down.”
To those of us who travel the Midwest, some of this sounds familiar. But not necessarily the racial aspects. My experience is that racism, and hatred of Obama as an African-American, is indeed vivid among older rural Midwesterners: the morning talk over coffee-and-Danish at small-town cafes can get pretty raw. But baby boomers and others who lived through the civil rights movement may still vote the Tea Party line, but seem free of the racism that taints their elders.
Otherwise, the fear and resentment of a changing world is alive and well. Working-class Midwesterners see their jobs disappearing and their companies moving to Mexico and China. They wonder what happened to an economy in which a lifetime of steady work brought a decent living and a comfortable old age.
Midwestern cities live easily with the gay lifestyle, but not smaller towns where the move toward same-sex marriage has simply come on too fast.
The University of Minnesota sociologist Katherine Fennelly says opposition to immigration stems from this fast-changing world. Too much of the Midwest is defined by loss. Hard-hit towns have lost jobs and their younger people. In the end, Fennelly says, all the people there have is their identity as white, English-speaking Midwesterners who’ve lived together all their lives. Then along come immigrants, often darker of skin and speaking another language, to challenge this very identify.
The Tea Party appeal is not limited to rural areas. Many of its members in Congress represent cities, at least partially. Justin Amash’s Michigan district includes Grand Rapids. Even Bachmann represents some of the northwestern exurbs of Minneapolis, an example of how exurbanites who have fled the city have made common cause with rural residents to form new blocs of conservative voters.
Bachmann’s district, incidentally, also includes Lake Wobegon. Some of her constituents live in Freeport, the town northwest of Minneapolis where Garrison Keillor wrote the first Lake Wobegon stories. The models for some of Keillor’s outposts, such as the Chatterbox Café and the Sidetrack Tap, are still there. So are the descendants of his Norwegian bachelor farmers, many of whom no doubt have voted to send the Queen of the Tea Party to Washington.