It’s hard to imagine how a town like Leitchfield (population: 6,139) in central Kentucky could survive without government. Sitting between Nolin and Rough River Lakes, it’s on the way to nowhere in particular, so no private interest would build a road to it. In surrounding Grayson County more than one in five people and one in three children is on food stamps, so no one would feed it. It does not produce enough wealth to sustain itself. Unemployment, long in double figures, stands at 16 percent. One in five lives below the poverty line; the median income is $35,011. Were it not for the redistributive effects of taxation, its residents would literally go nowhere and many would be incredibly hungry when they got there.
But when Republican Senate primary hopeful Rand Paul arrived in town in December to argue that the spread of government represents America’s greatest threat, he had an eager audience. Paul, the son of Congressman Ron Paul, who attracted a huge libertarian following during the last presidential election, was the insurgent tea party candidate in May’s primary. Now he’s the front-runner. According to a Rasmussen poll he leads both potential Democratic rivals.
He now wears the glass slipper that is Sarah Palin’s endorsement.
Just when you thought the Republican Party could not get more right wing, along came the tea party movement–people who fault George W. Bush for not being conservative enough. The temptation of liberals to deride this tendency has, for some, been irresistible. There are mad hatters here, for sure. According to a recent Daily Kos poll of self-identified Republicans, 36 percent believe Barack Obama was not born in the United States, almost a third think he is a racist who hates white people and almost a third believe contraceptives should be banned.
But for all the derision heaped upon it, the tea party movement that began with people in period costume has become a serious electoral force. Rasmussen polls in December revealed that if the tea party were an actual party it would beat the Republicans; among voters not affiliated with either major party it was the most popular. As Paul’s candidacy shows, these hypotheticals are becoming actuals. A year ago "moderate" Florida Governor Charlie Crist led unknown ultraconservative Marco Rubio 57 to 4. Then Crist embraced Obama and his stimulus package. Now Rubio is leading by 12 points and is favored to trounce his prospective Democratic challenger. A few days before I met Paul, I attended a tea party rally in Little Rock, Arkansas: it was 300-strong and standing room only. All the Senate candidates who plan to challenge Democrat Blanche Lincoln attended to kiss the movement’s ring.
At this stage the tea party’s influence can be exaggerated. A group of people brought together by things they don’t like can easily splinter. The recent Tea Party Convention sparked as much division as unity, and a large share of its attendees were not participants but reporters. Still, it should not be underestimated.
Blasting bank bailouts and NAFTA, the tea partyers espouse a brand of populism that resonates in the absence of coherent analysis of America’s economic decline coming from progressives and the administration. These may be people who voted for Bush twice, but they are not turning out for the same reasons as they did before. This time, their agenda is more economic than social. In more than an hour neither Paul nor any of the thirty-five audience members at Leitchfield’s town hall meeting mentioned abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research, creationism or religion in schools. "Remember when one of Clinton’s aides said, ‘It’s the economy, stupid’?" Paul asked me afterward. "It still is the economy…. I’m not running for preacher. I’m running for office."
The movement is almost exclusively white. The fact that its agenda is informed by issues of race and its ranks infected with racism is undeniable, but the driving force behind it is clearly much more complicated. If Condoleezza Rice were president they would probably love her. And if Obama were half as liberal as his base thinks he is, he would spark opposition regardless of his race.
While some have drawn an equivalence between the tea partyers and Obama voters, the comparison is more asymmetrical. Obama launched a campaign that aspired to become a movement; the tea partyers have created a movement that is trying to gain electoral expression. The former found its focus via a candidate; the latter have no obvious champion. It’s not even clear they’re looking for one. (Most love Palin, but the movement would survive quite well without her.)
This movement’s leadership is in the media. In the absence of Republican leadership it has been stoked by Fox News and talk-radio. Every Tuesday at a nonalcoholic Bar None in Lexington, a 9/12 Project group meets. This is Fox presenter Glenn Beck’s initiative, aimed at returning America to the values it embraced the day after 9/11–not the outpouring of gratitude toward government workers, like firefighters and police but the flag-waving patriotic and religious unity that ostensibly engulfed the nation. Fourteen showed up the night I was there. A straw poll revealed that they blamed the entire establishment, not Obama alone, for leading America in the wrong direction. Half believed Obama is a Muslim, just one thought he’s a Christian and the vast majority thought he was a communist, socialist and Marxist. None believed he was born in America; most said they did not know.
With words that could have come from a liberal in the run-up to the Iraq War, Abigail Billings chided the media for their incompetence: They are "not doing any research. They’re not asking any questions. They’re not reporting any longer. They’re now opinionated talk-shows. They’re no longer offering factual news coverage." Billings watches Fox News. And so does everyone else.