One of the interesting questions is why the Tea party appears to have so compelling a message. Clotaire Rapaille the psychoanalyst turned brand consultant suggests that objects, ideas, settings and groups can be understood through what he calls a “culture code.” In a deliciously funny example he suggests that the culture code for cheese in France is something that is “alive,” while the culture code for cheese in the U.S. is something that is “dead.” Hence French exporters of cheese to the U.S. had to recalibrate their advertising to match an alien culture code. More seriously, he suggests that one reason U.S. manufacturers had such a difficult time improving the quality of their products, is that in the U.S. the culture code for “quality” is, “whatever works,” while in Japan is it is closer to the ideas of precision and balance.
I find the idea of the “culture code” helpful even if at first blush it appears to be overly simple. So one question we can ask is, what is the culture code for the Tea Party? Let me suggest that it is the “frontier.” The frontier in the American imagination has several features. It is a place of opportunity but also lawlessness. It is a setting for the exercise of self-reliance but also a place of confrontation, and conflict. Authority is suspect, and self-organization- the deputized posse- is valued. The Tea Party represents these cultural ideas and this may be a source of its strength. Hating government is a way of valuing self-reliance. Resisting compromise is way to confront necessary conflicts. Interestingly, one does not look for safety on the frontier. The idea that government may provide a safety net is in this sense unappealing.
The idea of the frontier in the U.S. is without a doubt a source of strength; think of Kennedy’s “New frontier,” and Clinton’s emphasis on entrepreneurialism. But in its comfort with lawlessness it may also present danger, particularly as the frontier becomes a psychological rather than a physical space. Psychodynamically, we could say that the frontier represents the paternal principle and the idea of force and agency. But force, if untethered to thinking and compassion, can result in violence.
Marxists used to wonder why America was never the site of class struggle. What accounted for “American exceptionalism?” One answer was that the physical frontier, provided an outlet for restlessness and a place of opportunity for the would-be proletariat. We may be re-experiencing this same dynamic right now. However rational are Keynesian ideas for government spending and income redistribution, what some on the right in fact label as signals of class conflict, the siren song of the frontier may be stronger