(Note: This column was cross-posted on The Berkeley Blog on May 28, 2010.)
The April, 2010, New York Times survey of Tea Party supporters found that they skew toward male, white, and old. Journalists’ reports on Tea Party events suggest that TPA activists skew even more those ways. The reports also suggest that TPA activists hold a wide set of grievances far beyond their objections to taxes and to Obama. They demand to have their “country back.”
It is understandable that old white men (confession: I am one) would demand their country back, because much of America’s social history is about the dispossession of old white men, about how patriarchs lost command of American life.
Dispossessed in the Household
18th-Century America was a society of households each ruled by a property-owning white man. Just about everyone else – wives, children (including older boys awaiting their own households), servants, slaves, apprentices, farm hands, spinsters, widows, orphans of relatives, and the destitute whom the town officers had “bound out” – lived or were supposed to live under the legal, political, and moral authority of a patriarch.
Such men were the only ones thought to have “competency,” the economic independence to be real citizens in the emerging American democracy. Everyone else was a dependent and a subject; they lacked “competency.” Occasionally, town officials would remind lax men to rule their households with a tighter fist, if, for example, their servants misbehaved or their wives were too proud.
Over the course of American history, these dependents – perhaps most importantly, the women – became increasingly independent. Generation after generation, the patriarchs lost more and more power over those dependents. (Historian Carole Shammas wrote a particularly nifty, short book on this topic.) Wives, for example, gained some control over their own property and a greater right to divorce; young men – and young women – grasped independence by leaving farms for emerging industrial jobs; journeymen moved out of the masters’ houses to their own homes; and so on.
As with most social changes, the dispossession appeared first among the more affluent and educated classes. In the 19th century, couples in these groups “re-negotiated” the terms of households. Wives took on greater authority in the home by, for example, displacing fathers in the role of premier moral instructor to children. In the latter part of the century, observers applauded a new trend: More middle-class men were going straight home to their families after work, bypassing the bar or men’s club, and there participating in the emerging sentimental, “feminized” family. (Margaret Marsh tells the homecoming story here and here.) Many historians describe this as the era when middle-class men were “domesticated.” We could also say dispossessed.
Such trends spread slowly and for much of working-class, immigrant, and rural America, it took much longer. But by the end of the 20th century, women and youths were independent everywhere. Older men no longer could simply command and be obeyed.
Dispossessed in the Community
Roughly in parallel, the power of older, property-holding, white men over the wider community also waned: Propertyless men gained the right to vote, grassroots religious movements (fueled if not led by women) challenged established church leadership, slaves were freed, immigrants flooded into politics, employees organized against their bosses, women voted, courts discovered more and more individual rights – including the rights of children against their parents, an emerging welfare state gave workers new options (when the New Deal started up work programs, Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge complained to President Roosevelt on behalf of southern landowners: “I wouldn’t plow nobody’s mule for fifty cents a day when I could get $1.30 for pretending to work on a DITCH”), and minorities of all sorts who had once known “their place” stepped out, organized, spoke up, and successfully pressed their claims. Old white guys, especially affluent, Protestant ones, had to give ground. No wonder they’re ticked.
It is a delicious irony that currently the lead spokesperson for angry old white men is a bodacious, young, entrepreneurial woman. But when Sarah Palin energizes claims to “take back” the country, she is pressing to give the country back to the angry old white men.