Wednesday’s Book Review: “Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America”

41eDhNtV57LBoiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America. By Kate Zernike. New York: Times Books/Henry Holt and Co., 2010.

I should no longer be surprised by journalistic accounts. They always have the same strengths—and there are some in this book—and weaknesses which are also present here. Kate Zernike’s Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America epitomizes well journalistic strengths and weaknesses. First the strengths; it is a well-written account that humanizes the people associated with the Tea Party. We learn quite a lot about several key organizers at the grass roots level, how they came to focus on this arena, and engage in the political activism engendered in the 2009-2010 time frame.

We also learn that the Tea Party is much more than an Astroturf organization ginned up by well-funded organizations. Those organizations were present, of course, but they were tapping into a broad discontent with the American culture and seeking to channel it to their agenda, which they succeeded in doing only to a certain extent.

Zernike emphasizes people who had usually not been politically active previously but were distressed by what they saw happening around them. Keli Carender, for example, came out of liberal household in Seattle to become a spark plug in the movement. Zernike also profiles Diana Reimer from a suburb of Philadelphia who had a mortgage under water and had been stretched economically to the point where the middle class lifestyle she expected was at risk.

There are many other ordinary Americans mentioned in this book and what we see to the last one is that they are not crazed racists, radicals, or right wing nutcases. They were reacting, and to some extend continue to react to a set of issues that they see crippling them personally and society as a whole. The result was an emotional and almost primal opposition to what they saw as the status quo.

I would add, and this is one of the weaknesses of this work, that the desperation felt by the Tea Party protestors on the American right was also the same desperation felt on the left manifested in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Both groups differed over where to place the blame for the current situation, and offered different remedies for it, but they both tapped into the zeitgeist of anxiety felt by many Americans. Both sides expressed a sense that the game was rigged, that there was no possibility of success for the ordinary citizen, and that the ruling elites was either unwilling or incapable of making any systemic changes to the structure of society. Hence, a revolutionary/populist effort to change from without was in order.

This is a very good book in many ways. I would like greater analysis, more scholarly rigor, and a broader perspective. But this is what it is, and it is a good start at helping to understand the Tea Party protests.

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