In this blog entry, Kenneth Tucker, author of Workers of the World, Enjoy! Aesthetic Politics from Revolutionary Syndicalism to the Global Justice Movement writes about Aesthetic Politics and the Tea Party.
Social media seem to be everywhere today. For example, while careful observers have discussed the particular historical, economic, and social contexts that influenced the recent democratic struggles in the Middle East, there is no doubt that social media have played an important role in facilitating the Arab Spring. From Facebook to cell phone photos, social media not only conveyed information about protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere, but portrayed powerful images of protest that helped spark struggles throughout the region.
The rise of social media is but one instance of the power of images to influence politics and social movements in our mass-mediated world. The widespread availability of televised and digital images has promoted the emergence of a distinctive aesthetic politics in contemporary societies. Aesthetic politics refers to the role of images, drama, and emotions in shaping politics and public discourse and action. It promotes a more fluid, theatrical, and less centralized understanding of politics at odds with conventional understandings of politics as rational debate or the delineation of clear public policy proposals.
Aesthetic politics can help make sense of the contemporary political scene in the United States. We are all aware of the role of constructed images in electoral politics today, for politicians have to convey sincerity, authenticity, and the like. But this notion of aesthetic politics can also aid us in understanding the Tea Party. Critics from Sean Wilentz to Richard Bernstein tie the rise of the Tea Party to social changes and long-standing movements in American history. They note that in recent years ideas associated with radically conservative groups marginal in the 1950s and 1960s, such as the John Birch Society, have become more acceptable to mainstream audiences. Broad social changes from globalization to the shrinking power of nation-states to control their borders and local economies have played a role in the increase of conservative politics worldwide. Distinctively American factors include the rise of conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the emergence of conservative media from radio talk shows to Fox News. Further, wealthy financiers such as David Koch have provided the resources that allowed the Tea Party movement to become an important player in American politics. Yet these analysts tend to dismiss the Tea Party as ideologically incoherent political know-nothings, as libertarian and religious themes intermingle and many participants decry government spending while advocating increases in Social Security and Medicare. They also have difficulty explaining why Tea Partiers are so angry, and why the movement resonates with many in the public.
Aesthetic politics can illuminate these issues. Early meetings of Tea Party groups were publicized and coordinated through blogs and Facebook. More significantly, the election of Barack Obama, the great recession of 2008, and the continuing economic turmoil created not only confusion about the proper policies necessary to combat these problems, but also promoted a crisis among many (primarily white, older) Americans about a key identity term, i.e. what it means to be an American. Tea party members seized upon an iconic American symbol, the Boston Tea Party, to define their “Americanness” and anger at the federal government. Demonstrators often dress in tri-colored hats and other colonial costumes, and draw on Revolutionary era imagery, creating flags with slogans such as “Don’t tread on me.” They express their opposition to government spending and taxes through long-standing cultural codes in American life, such as the heroic Founding Fathers, the centrality of the constitution in political life, Horatio Alger stories of rags to riches, and categories of the deserving versus the undeserving. Obama became a symbol of everything they detested, painted as a big-spending liberal who wanted to illegitimately redistribute wealth to the poor, and who most likely was not a real American (up to 30% of Tea Partyers do not believe that Obama was born in the U.S.). But this political debate was also about tone and emotion, fears and fantasies. As politics becomes theater, dramatic criteria such as emotional identification, dramatic performance, and visual effects become ever more important. The election of the first African-American president played on the complex emotions surrounding race and privilege that have long been a part of American life. The Tea Party tapped into an intense anger fed by cultural and economic insecurity, given voice and image by the emotional outbursts of media figures such as Rick Santelli, Glenn Beck, Michelle Bachman, and Sarah Palin. The Tea Party is as much about rage, vehemence, and authenticity as it is about policy or even facts. As one Tea-Partyer put it, mind-set and values always trump the facts. Such a politics is volatile and not coherent, as fluid as the images on which it is based. It is no surprise that the U.S. has had three “wave” elections in a row. The consequences of aesthetic politics are not inherently left or right—but we dismiss aesthetic politics as superficial or silly at our political peril.