Putting the Tea Party on the Shelf 

What makes these people so crazy anyway?

One sign of a healthy, vital democracy is a constant movement along the classes, as groups and individuals replace other groups and individuals in economic and social status. It has always been that way in America and let us hope that it always will be.

But this churning is not without pain. For every group that rises in the social hierarchy, another must decline. This constant displacement leads to friction, anger, and resentment. These emotions are as American as apple pie, and fortunately we have a resilient society and Constitution capable of absorbing most of the shock and anger of social change.

The American story is the story of change — of great movements and reforms, of migration and industrialization, of urban growth and rural decline. That change has been well documented by one of the most literate and self-conscious societies in history. Modern scholarship — sociology, psychology, demographics, statistics — has given us the tools to drill down through the layers of recorded history to reach a deeper understanding of past events, an understanding that many of the people participating in those great and turbulent times did not fully comprehend.

That's what Joseph R. Gusfield did in his classic 1963 study, Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement. As Gusfield explains, America is not riven with the deep class divisions that have fractured the old European societies. But America does have many internal rivalries, based largely on ethnicity, religion, and length of time in the country. Americans tend to identify with their religious and ethnic groups, support them in political and cultural conflict, and feel their self-esteem rise and fall with the status of their respective groups. Gusfield builds his thesis around the Temperance Movement and the way dominant groups used the movement as a bludgeon against their upstart rivals.

At the turn of the last century, the country was in upheaval as immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe poured into the cities of the Northeast and Upper Midwest just as America was changing from a rural-agrarian society to an urban-industrial one. To many heartland Americans — people of the old Protestant, Northern European stock — these changes were more than a demographic shift. They were a battle for the future and identity of America. They wondered if the U.S. would remain the land of the Pilgrims and the Founding Fathers or would it become a strange and terrifying mongrelization of Poles, Jews, Greeks, Armenians, and the other swarthy, unintelligible hoards which swarmed off the boats at Ellis Island?

In the great sorting out of cultural symbols, the battle between immigrants and natives evolved into the Temperance Movement. The Protestant old guard had a tradition of abstinence, stemming from their Puritan antecedents and the Great Awakening. The immigrants, by contrast, used alcohol freely in social and religious settings. For many White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, the Temperance Movement became a means of imposing their will on the newcomers and their identity on the country.

"The champion of coercive reform ... sees the object of reform as someone who rejects the social dominance of the reformer and denies the legitimacy of his lifestyle," Gusfield wrote. "Since the dominance of his culture and the social status of his group are denied, the coercive reformer turns to law and force as ways to affirm it ... He had to shore up his waning self-esteem by inflicting his morality on everybody."

The temperance forces marched with all the fury of moral crusaders, waving flags, speaking of God and salvation, professing to save their wayward brothers from the demon rum. Through Gusfield we can see that it was actually far more complex; the rage of the reformers had more to do with status insecurity than with philanthropy or patriotism. The result of their fury, of course, was the 14-year-long disastrous social experiment called Prohibition.

Today, America is still in transition, as it has always been. As always, there are winners and losers — and the losers are angry. Nothing better represents the changing face of America than our first black president, Barack Obama. Some white people are frightened. Their pride and identity are wrapped up in their skin color, and that skin seems to be worth less every day. They talk incoherently about freedom and taxes and deficit spending.

You may wonder where these "patriots" were when George W. Bush was doubling the national debt in eight years, tapping phones without warrants, and invading Iraq illegally. But then you remember: These so-called issues are merely symbols, something for white people to scream about rather than express what really frightens them. And what frightens them is that when they look in the mirror, they see a dinosaur, a cultural and ethnic relic destined for the museum.

Next time you see a Tea Party rally, take some pictures. They won't be here for long.

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