Outsiders often focus on the Tea Party’s ideological arguments, which are doctrinaire, contradictory, and often turn squishy when poked with facts. Yet “believers” join the Tea Party, just as they convert to Christianity, primarily behind strong personal experience rather than firm persuasion. If we postpone philosophical debate and focus on that “Road to Damascus” moment, we can understand the Tea Party’s remarkable appeal.
Imagine you, or someone you know, owns a local business. A diner, say. And you bring an old boombox from home to dig some tunes in the kitchen. So you and your assistant cook are getting down to some Top-40 grindage, when, SURPRISE, an OSHA inspector arrives. Turns out, a cracked stereo case is considered a workplace hazard, a risk of electrical shock. And OSHA, under Federal regulation, fines you $7000.
Really. A cracked stereo case nets a $7000 fine. Ford Motors probably spends $7000 daily on TP, so that fine is a nuisance. But Mom-n-Pop businesses cannot absorb such expenses. That’s $7000 that can’t go to rent, or payroll, or Junior’s college fund. Most likely, as an independent owner, that money won’t go to paying yourself. Such indiscriminate application of nickel-and-dime regulation naturally makes people resent government influence.
Such experiences linger in people’s memory. If someone you trust got pushed out of business, submarining the local economy, you’d resent the bureaucratic goat who tarnished your community. This especially explains anti-regulation sentiment in rural areas and small towns, more dependent on local businesses and vulnerable to indiscriminate regulation, versus cities, which rely on large corporations that can eat “petty” fines.
Tea Partiers, however, didn’t acquire their beliefs by reading Ayn Rand or Milton Friedman. Adaptive ethics, to them, smacks of backsliding and apostasy. Especially for new converts, fervent in their faith but inexperienced in relating it to the larger world, absolute devotion to key principles becomes paramount. They experience a crisis of faith when (and if) they realize their rules have become an idolatrous substitute for God.
Sadly, for any new convert, personal experiences color their view of outside forces. The former drunk, saved by Christ, sees alcohol abuse everywhere, and becomes another Carrie Nation. The redeemed adulterer becomes so averse to sex that, like Brother Jed, he condemns perfect strangers for expressing ordinary sexuality. The convert forgets what Thomas Aquinas noted, that no created thing is sinful itself, but only our relationship to it.
Likewise, for the Tea Partier discouraged when his local diner folded under excessive regulation, the response becomes dogma. All regulations, taxes, and government influence become equally odious. The regulations that might have prevented the Deepwater Horizon blowout, or might stem global warming, or might have prevented the 2008 financial collapse, are all equally odious. Because doctrinal deviations are not intellectual decisions, they’re sin.
Responses that might prevent massive fallout defy discussion. Scaling fines according to transgressors’ ability to pay might make situations more just: our hypothetical diner owner might get, say, $500 or a warning, while BP’s systemic disregard for safety would merit fines in the billions. But if any fine, any regulation, is by definition sinful, then discussing amending the process admits to creating a permissible level of wickedness.
Unfortunately, like new religious converts, Tea Partiers are vulnerable to chicanery. Message manipulators like the Koch Brothers or Eric Erickson use money and repetition to warp the movement to self-serving ends. The demand for payoff creates an Inquisition against the insufficiently devout. Thus the Tea Party has moved from revelation to ecumenicalism to purgation of heretics with Life of Brian-like tragicomic haste.
The Tea Party may lack its former internal coherence, but like the John Birch Society or the Wobblies, it will survive for years beyond its peak influence for one reason: its key precepts make sense. Like Scientology or the Westboro Baptist Church, it applies its precepts outside their legitimate domain, and will eventually alienate its former base. But it won’t die as long as circumstances conspire to make it seem reasonable.