"Do you realize," CNN's Susan Roesgen asked a man at the April 15, 2009, tea party in Chicago, "that you're eligible for a $400 credit?" When the man refused to drop his "drop socialism" sign, she went on, "Did you know that the state of Lincoln gets 50 billion out of the stimulus?"
Roesgen is no longer with CNN, and CNN has only about half as many viewers as it did last year. But her questions are revealing. They help us understand that the issue on which our politics has become centered -- the Obama Democrats' vast expansion of the size and scope of government -- is really not just about economics. It is really a battle about culture, a battle between the culture of dependence and the culture of independence.
Probably unknowingly, Roesgen was reflecting the mid-century sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld's dictum that politics is about who gets how much when. If some guy is getting $400, shouldn't he just shut up and collect the money? Shouldn't he be happy that his state government, headed recently by Rod Blagojevich, was getting an extra $50 billion?
But public policy also helps determine the kind of society we are. The Obama Democrats see a society in which ordinary people cannot fend for themselves, where they need to have their incomes supplemented, their health care insurance regulated and guaranteed, their relationships with their employers governed by union leaders. Highly educated mandarins can make better decisions for them than they can make themselves. That is the culture of dependence.
The tea partiers see things differently. They're not looking for lower taxes -- half of tea party supporters, a New York Times survey found, think their taxes are fair. Nor are they financially secure -- half say someone in their household may lose their job in the next year. Two-thirds say the recession has caused some hardship in their lives.
But they recognize, correctly, that the Obama Democrats are trying to permanently enlarge government and increase citizens' dependence on it. And, invoking the language of the Founding Fathers, they believe that this will destroy the culture of independence which has enabled Americans over the past two centuries to make this the most productive and prosperous -- and the most charitably generous -- nation in the world.
Seeing our political divisions as a battle between the culture of dependence and the culture of independence helps to make sense of the divisions seen in the 2008 election. Barack Obama carried voters with incomes under $50,000 and those with incomes over $200,000, and lost those with incomes in between. He won large margins from those who never graduated from high school and from those with graduate school degrees, and barely exceeded 50 percent among those in between.
The top-and-bottom Obama coalition was in effect a coalition of those dependent on government transfers and benefits and those in what David Brooks calls "the educated class," who administer or believe that their kind of people administer those transactions. They are the natural constituency for the culture of dependence.
Interestingly, in the Massachusetts special Senate election, the purported beneficiaries of the culture of dependence -- low-income and low-education voters -- did not turn out in large numbers. In contrast, the administrators of that culture -- affluent secular professionals, public employees, university personnel -- were the one group that turned out in force and voted for the hapless Democratic candidate.
The in-between people on the income and education ladders, it turns out, are a constituency for the culture of independence. Smart conservatives like David Frum, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam argued in 2009 books that modest-income conservative voters have had stagnant incomes over the last decade and that Republicans should offer them compensatory tax breaks.
That seemed to make sense in the wake of the 2008 election. But it's been undercut by developments since. As Susan Roesgen discovered, tea party supporters are not in the mood to be bought off with $400 tax credits. They have a longer time horizon and can see where the Obama Democrats are trying to take us.
Paul Lazarsfeld saw politics as just a matter of dollars and cents. The tea party movement reminds us of what the Founders taught -- that it has a moral dimension, as well. They risked all in the cause of the culture of independence. The polling evidence suggests that most Americans don't want to leave that behind.