Even as the movement’s grip tightens on the GOP, its influence is melting away across vast swaths of America, thanks to centuries-old regional traditions that few of us understand.
Our cultural balkanization ensures that the Tea Party movement—and radical political movements generally— will never achieve lasting success on the national stage: they simply won’t be able to build a lasting coalition. It’s also the reason U.S. elections have become such nail-biters, decided by the shifting allegiances of a relatively small number of voters from a small and recurring cohort of (mostly Midlander) battleground counties in a handful of swing states. It can also inform winning strategies to defeat the destructive and ultimately undemocratic Deep Southern program, whether it travels in Confederate gray, Dixiecrat suits, or leggings and tricorn hats.
There are two ways to hasten the Tea Party agenda’s demise. One is to draw one or more weakly aligned regions away from their coalition. The other is for progressives to cultivate a lasting partnership with El Norte or the Midlands, the two great “swing regions” on today’s political map. The smartest strategy would be to do both simultaneously, in each case focusing on the lowest-hanging fruit. If the Democratic Party is to be the vehicle to accomplish this, it will need to retune its message accordingly.
The Dixie bloc is far from solid. Of the Deep South’s partners, Greater Appalachia is the most reliable after Tidewater, sharing a dominant Protestant religious culture that focuses on individual salvation in the next world and discourages efforts to perfect the current one, condoning slavery in the nineteenth century, the racial caste system in the twentieth, and laissez-faire capitalism throughout. But this culture also prizes personal freedom and resents domination by outsiders, be they mining companies or federal regulators. Significantly, Appalachia has had a near monopoly on the production of “southern” populists (LBJ, Ross Perot, Sam Rayburn, Mike Huckabee) and progressives (Cordell Hull, Bill Clinton, Al Gore). Meanwhile, the Far West, once a bastion of progressive politics, has parallel strains of colonial grievance and libertarian individualism, and its most powerful religious force—Mormonism—has Yankee roots and is firmly committed to the notion of improving the present world (just as the early Puritans were). Neither culture supports “regulation” or “taxation” in the abstract, as these are seen as encumbrances on individual liberty. However, both are eager to strike back at forces—particularly outside forces—that seek to exploit them.
If progressives were to campaign in these regions on promises to bring rogue bankers, mortgage lenders, mining interests, health insurers, seed companies, and monopolistic food processors to heel, they would have far wider appeal; here, regulation can be sold as a matter of justice, the closing of tax loopholes a matter of fairness. Calls for new government programs are unlikely to win many hearts and minds in these two regions, but improving the efficiency and fairness of both the government and the marketplace can. The potential dividends will likely be modest in Greater Appalachia, but small gains at the margins in places like southcentral Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, or western Virginia might tip the balance of an entire state in a presidential or Senate race. In the Far West, the gains could be dramatic, potentially tipping many mountain states out of the Dixie camp. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse, an outsider who spent nearly his entire adult life in Yankeedom (Obama) was able to defeat a Far Western native son who chose to run on the Dixie-bloc platform (John McCain) in Colorado and Nevada, and almost captured Montana as well. The Far West is ready to leave the Dixie coalition—and the Tea Party—if someone offers them a palatable alternative.
Simultaneously, the northern alliance stands to benefit from the increasing political power and consciousness of El Norte. Hispanics have reasserted political control of the borderlands after more than a century of imperial subjugation. The Dixie agenda has always been unpopular there, while the Tea Party in the aforementioned states has been a vehicle for white fears that they are losing “their” country to Hispanic Americans and Mexican and Latin American immigration. (“Immigration attitudes are an important predictor of Tea Party movement support in the West,” a recent study of polling data by two Sam Houston State University political scientists found, as were “economic issues related to minority relations.”) So long as northern-alliance political leaders continue to champion cultural inclusiveness—and the Dixie bloc does not—they can count on political and electoral support from this fast-growing region. The Hispanic population is expected to triple by 2050— accounting for most of the nation’s overall growth—and most of that will take place in El Norte. This will result in a commensurate decrease in Tea Party influence in the legislatures and congressional delegations of Texas, California, Arizona, and New Mexico. (Currently, the House Tea Party caucus has just two members from El Norte—both anti-immigration whites from Orange County.)
The people of the Midlands generally want their communities left alone to get on with their lives, but in the midst of a crisis they can be counted on to defend the federal union from authoritarianism, bigotry, or dismemberment. The region has been generally apathetic about the Tea Party movement, providing just two members of its House caucus. But were the Tea Party to actually implement its agenda—slashing Social Security, Medicare, and federal spending on public education—Midlanders would rally to their northern neighbors, just as they did after—and only after—Deep Southerners opened fire on Fort Sumter.
In short, the Tea Party and the Deep South may do the country serious harm, but they will not take it over. They may hobble the workings of Congress, inject flat-earth thinking into Senate debates, or even capture the presidency next year. But their policy program will never win the hearts and minds of a clear majority of Americans, and it carries the seeds of its own destruction. The political pendulum will indeed swing back. How far it goes—and how long it stays there—will depend on how many of America’s cultural regions the Deep South’s opponents can attract to their cause.
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