What Zernike doesn’t grasp is the class dynamics of the Tea Parties—a revolt in the name of self-government against the pretensions and failures of the best and the brightest. The Tea Partiers believe that an out-of-control and incompetent government has time and again ignored the public will in pursuing its own ends. This growing sense of aggrievement is behind the continued intensification of anti-government protests.
Doug Schoen authored an early biography of Moynihan, and he and Scott Rasmussen unsurprisingly build on the insights of the former New York senator. Rasmussen and Schoen hone in on the tensions between ordinary Americans and the political class, a division clearly delineated in polling data showing that while the public is sharply critical of both the stimulus and Obamacare, the political class endorses both. As Rasmussen and Schoen see it, the intersection of declining middle-class incomes and the enormous peace-time growth of government has fundamentally altered the parameters of American political culture.
The weakness of both books is that neither discusses in any depth the unprecedented growth of public-sector unions, one of the primary drivers of ballooning public spending. Forty years ago, Harry Wellington of Yale Law School presciently warned that the power of public-sector unions to elect their own bosses at the ballot box posed a serious threat to democracy. The Tea Parties are a response to that ongoing threat. They may not continue in their current form, but as all levels of government get hit with the coming wave of out-of-control public-pension costs, the Tea Party spirit is likely to become integral to our politics.