Monday, September 20, 2010

easy to be hard

Tea Partiers are driven by Status Anxiety; unless we provide an alternative status, their fear and anger will continue to escalate, until it bubbles over into real violence. The traditional markers of status in the USA--wealth and white skin--are changing. We cannot (and would not choose to) stop that evolution, but we can respond to the anxiety it causes. We can present a wider, more universal status (the inherent worth dignity of every person!) to soothe the fear and defuse the anger. Not only would this address the current crises (e.g. immigration reform and Islamophobia), it would provide a basis for a more just society going forward.

Writing at, Jacob Weisberg calls the Tea Party "the Right's version of the 1960s New Left. It's an unorganized and unorganizable community of people coming together to assert their individualism and subvert the established order."

Weisberg says the "strongest note in its tannic brew is nostalgia [and the second] strongest emotion at Tea Parties is resentment, defined as placing blame for one's woes on those either above or below you in the social hierarchy."

His main point is that "Nostalgia, resentment, and reality-denial are all expressions of the same underlying anxiety about losing one's place in the country or of losing control of it to someone else. When you look at the surveys, the Tea Partiers are not primarily the victims of economic transformation, but rather people whose position is threatened by social change...Of no previous movement has Richard Hofstadter's depiction of populism as driven by 'status anxiety' been so apt."

I think Weisberg is slightly wrong here--I think that many Tea Partiers *are* victims of economic transformation--but that doesn't detract from his main point. There is a great deal of status anxiety. The Tea Partiers fear losing their position, as a result of both economic distress and social change. Like many humans, their fear can translate into rage.

It is easy to say "the world is changing, the world is getting more diverse, get over it." That only increases the anxiety, and makes violence more likely. If, however, we on the left demonstrate that we understand the values that the Tea Partiers feel are threatened; if we present a compelling alternative, that sincerely addresses both "liberal" and "conservative" values; if we show them that they do have inherent worth and dignity (at least in part by refraining from mocking them), then we may create an alternative status that will soothe fear and anger, thus freeing up all that energy, to be used in more productive pursuits.


At 12:11 PM, Blogger Joel Monka said...

As long as you continue to believe this analysis, you will never be able to find common ground with them.

At 1:39 PM, Blogger Chip said...

Joel, please say more. If I take as a starting point that we are all humans with fears and hopes and inherent worth, how does that prevent us from establishing common ground?

At 4:09 PM, Blogger Joel Monka said...

Your stated starting point was that Tea Partiers are driven by Status Anxiety; that was the mistaken analysis I was referring to. Trying to soothe and defuse people based on this presumption would fail at best, and make even more people angry at the condescension at worst.

Many tea Partiers actually voted for Obama, and turned against him only when he out-spent Bush, and I have evidence for this beyond having talked to and listened to them. 55% of Tea Partiers are women, and as 56% of women supported Obama, there must be some overlap unless the country is 111% female! In fact much of the leadership of Tea Parties is women- notice how many women candidates they put up in the primaries. (And isn't male one of the status things normally included in the "Status Anxiety"?)

And while the Tea Parties are whiter than average- 80% as opposed to 65% for the nation as a whole- that's a small difference to base a pseudo psychological syndrome on, especially coming from an organization that's 89% white, and whose leadership is 97.5% white. In fact, if you compare the Tea Parties to UUA internal poling, you'll find the Tea Parties have twice the Black membership of UU, and more than triple the Hispanic membership.

The status that they fear losing is not the privileged status of being white and/or rich; they fear losing the status of having a roof over their heads and something to feed their children when the economy implodes. You may think their fears silly, and believe there's nothing wrong with the country that another round of stimulus spending won't cure, but their believing otherwise is not based on "Status Anxiety".

At 6:12 PM, Blogger Chip said...

I apologize for not being more clear. The status of being a homeowner is what I was talking about. According to the CNN poll to which you linked (at the "80%" figure), only 8% of those who identify with the Tea Party make less than $30,000 per year, whereas 28% of the populace in general does. Conversely, that poll shows that 66% of TP'ers earn more than $55,000 per year, compared to only 42$ of the populace.

It seems that TP'ers are not so much in danger of not having food on the table, but they are very much in danger of losing their homes. Thus, I think their legitimate financial concerns also fit into the "status anxiety" category.

At 7:34 PM, Blogger Joel Monka said...

I see. Well, I can think of other reasons to despair at losing your home, retirement savings, and the ability to send your kids to college than just the loss of status. And I think people who don't have white skin would be upset as well. And I don't think saying, "Buck up- you have inherent dignity" is much of an answer.

At 6:55 AM, Blogger Chip said...

Ideally (not that I am great at this), we can feel true compassion for the TPers' fears, communicate that compassion effectively, speak about some shared values to build common ground, and emphasize "inherent worth" as a better basis for identity than "in control of our own future" (which is always an illusory identity anyway).


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