Tea Parties and the hunger for meaning, intimacy and social power

I had written off the “Tea Party” as the right-wing equivalent of a sale on anarchy T-Shirts. Corporate sponsored populist rage does not a “movement” make. It’s viral marketing on behalf of the Right Wing directed at conspiracy theorists. However, the Reverend Billy Talen of the Church of Stop Shopping has a different, interesting take. The Reverend Billy was the amusing main character of the wonderful documentary What Would Jesus Buy.

Reverend Billy suggests that the Tea Party is the natural outgrowth of a more fundamental current in American culture. People feel impotent and powerless. To wit, “We are surrounded by a creeping dullness. A lack of traction with the outside world.” The Tea Partiers have an undirected sense of their own lack of freedom and they are expressing this by blaming Washington. Of course, the choice of scapegoat is partially the result of cynical politicians and media personalities capitalizing on the vulnerability of angry people to crass manipulation.

But I think that we all sense a creeping loss of liberty in what Billy describes as “this bizarro ‘built environment’ of Consumerism.” As we accumulate incentives to buy panacea products, the associated feelings of powerlessness inspire a desire to rebel. And that desire is another chink in our psychological armor against marketing science. Buying into this manipulation – literally in many cases – is a way to feel instantly righteous and to couch life in a epic narrative of freedom and tyranny.

But buying into that feeling of instant righteousness does not address the root cause of powerlessness. Concrete, local, effective action addresses that need. Reverand Billy sees hunger riots in our future, but not literal hunger. Rather, he fears “the hunger for meaning, for community intimacy, for the satisfaction of our social souls.”

That is a perspective on the Tea Party that makes sense to me.