Liberal and rationalist Steve Benen asks what do these people want? He can't figure it out, but I don't think it's that difficult. They want the United States to be what it was before the Civil War. I don't think it's primarily driven by racism; racism is a part of it because that's the way people were then--it's part of the ante-bellum social imaginary. Sure this is a story about people being manipulated by the Koch brothers, Rupert Murdoch, and astro-turf organizations like Freedom Works, but what interests me is the underlying sub-rational mythos that makes their manipulations possible in the first place. If you cannot understand the appeal that the Tea Party has for many Americans, it's probably because you have no feel for that underlying mythos, which makes you immune from the rhetorical manipulation.
I'm working on a longer post on this subject drawing on Gordon Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution and Christopher Lasch's Revolt of the Elites. The goal is to understand the persistence of this mindset/mythos that once for good reason had its day. Wood lays out the architecture of that mindset, its strengths and weaknesses with remarkable detail and lucidity, and Lasch is interesting to me for being a former leftist whose positions toward the end of his life resonate with many of the Tea Party themes and concerns, but at a higher level of credibility and seriousness.
Although I think he's wrong, Lasch is always a man to grapple with. I think he's wrong because in the final analysis he makes the mistake that all conservatives do, which is to spend too much time lamenting what what has been irretrievably lost, and because I think he underestimates a certain resiliency decency in the underlying culture that does not depend on conscious knowledge about or respect for the tradition. Yes I agree that secularists and liberals owe the tradition a debt, but the most intelligent liberals understand that. The point is that while there might be a lot of silliness in Liberal attitudes, that silliness is not the whole story. There's a basic decency there as well, and that can't be discounted. It's not one or the other; it's both. But I'll argue that point in the essay I'll be posting later in the week.