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Dissent! Refracted

Histories, Aesthetics and Cultures of Dissent


Edited By Ben Dorfman

This collection of essays addresses the ongoing problem of dissent from a broad range of disciplinary perspectives: political philosophy, intellectual history, literary studies, aesthetics, architectural history and conceptualizations of the political past. Taking a global perspective, the volume examines the history of dissent both inside and outside the West, through events in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries both nearer to our own times as well as more distant, and through a range of styles reflecting how contested and pressing the problem of dissent in fact is. Drawing on a range of authors and international problematics, the contributions discuss the multiple ways in which we refract memories of dissent in cultural, historical and aesthetic context. It also discusses the diverse ideas, images and phenomena we use to do so.
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Hasmet M. Uluorta - The Tea Party: An Ethical All-American Performance

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Hasmet M. Uluorta1

The Tea Party: An Ethical All-American Performance

Abstract Sustained dissent within the United States has come in the form of the Tea Party Movement. Emerging in 2009, this movement demands more neoliberalism, not less. This chapter seeks to understand the persistence of the movement, and more broadly the lack of transformation within the American political economy, by focusing on the constituting role played by fantasy and ethics in politics. Fantasy and ethics speaks directly to an identification, which I refer to as the ethical All-American, that Tea Party members aspire to be. This identification, I argue, gives shape to the politics of dissent. 

Ongoing structural transformations within the American disciplinary neoliberal model of development, and the resultant hyper-contradictions, have not resulted in a widespread sustained demand for, nor radical transformation of, the existing model as might have been expected. Neoliberalism, it appears, has been far more robust, and consent remains forthcoming. Ironically sustained dissent, whether through the legislative process or protests, has come in the form of the Tea Party movement (TPM) that continues to shape political discourse and legislative processes. Emerging in 2009, the TPM demands more neoliberalism, not less. Demanding a more ideologically genuine form of nationalist neoliberalism, the TPM does not adhere to the refrain common to the World Social Forum and, more broadly, the alterglobalization movement, “another world is possible” (Hammond, 2003). Rather, they instead express what they believe should be the “limits of the possible” (Braudel, 1979), with limited government intervention and limiting individual choice. How then should this form of dissent be theorized?

I argue that a political economy that combines fantasy and ethics provides the most effective way to understand the persistence of the TPM and the lack of transformation within the American model of development. Still, fantasy and ethics, as constitutive elements of the framing of political economy, remain largely undertheorized. Understanding fantasy and ethics as triggers for political transformation, or lack thereof, highlights the significance of the dissent emanating ← 95 | 96 → from the TPM. It speaks directly to an identification of what Tea Party activists aspire to be, what they believe every American should become, and how politics and policy should be formulated. Employing a Lacanian and neo-Gramscian framework, I refer to this identification as the ethical All-American.

Identifications are not internal to the individual and instead speak to how an individual finds something to identify with. The term identification introduces an irreducible gap between individuals and the identity they seek to claim as their own. That outside identity is comprised of the dominant ideology; that is, it is structured in this case through nationalist-patriotic, religious-moral, and free market capitalist discourses. Jacques Lacan (2006, 75–81) refers to this structure as the mirror stage. This structure is productive of the politics of dissent (and consent), as the gap, or lack, induces a desire on the part of the individual to overcome it. By asking what is it that the “Other” (that is, the dominant ideology) desires of me (chè vuoi?), the individual attempts to bridge the gap through fantasy: of an image of a complete and ethically ideal individual (Lacan 2006, 690). Dissent (and consent) is shaped by this desire to unify with the identification.

The paper proceeds in four sections. In the first section I provide a background to the TPM. In the second, I establish the manner in which consent, dissent, and ethics are inextricably intertwined in both neo-Gramscian political economy and Lacanian psychoanalysis. This is followed by a discussion of the three discourses that structure the desire of Tea Party activists and animate the movement. The fourth section provides an interpretation of how the three discourses elicit consent and dissent through the structuring of the ideal-type image of the ethical All-American. The paper ends with a brief discussion of the shape the fantasy has taken and how it is an integral means for maintaining neoliberalism within the United States for the foreseeable future.


Emerging in 2009, the Tea Party Movement (TPM) consists of a diverse constellation of groups and worldviews including libertarians, social conservatives, the Evangelical religious-right, nationalists, populists, and wealthy financiers such as FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity. While a number of organizations including the Tea Party Patriots, Tea Party Express, Tea Party, and Tea Party Nation have garnered national and international attention, there are a range of organizations, with different scales, forming and re-forming. With no single overarching organization representing the Tea Party, it is better described as a movement. The TPM, however, coalesces around the idea that dissent is not only patriotic but also a necessary part in restoring the United States to what the TPM views as its core ← 96 | 97 → values of fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and personal responsibility within free market capitalism (Tea Party Patriots, 2013).

Viral videos and messages sent in direct response to the 2008–2009 financial and housing crises formed the immediate triggers for the emergence of the TPM (Brody, 2012). Arguably the most influential of these came in what is often referred to as “Santelli’s Rant,” in February of 2009. Santelli, a reporter on the CNBC business program called Squawk Box, accused the Obama administration of promoting “bad behavior” with the announcement of the expansion of bailouts that President Bush had initiated. Santelli (2009) shouted,

This is America! How many of you people want to pay for your neighbour’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills? Raise their hand. President Obama, are you listening? We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July. All you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I’m gonna start organizing.

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh transmitted the rant to a much larger national audience adding, “this is the pulse of the revolution, starting today! When the pulse of the revolution starts, it just takes an action like this to inspire confidence in others who want to show up” (in Meckler and Martin 2012, 8). With Facebook pages, websites, the Twitter hashtag #TCOT, and growing media coverage, the TPM quickly gained momentum as the primary political force espousing dissent within the United States. These activities culminated in a national day of protests on April 15, 2009. Protests were coordinated in major cities with approximately 500,000 people participating (O’Hara and Malkin, 2010, 19).

The TPM’s dissent would translate into electoral successes as Tea Party candidates such as Marco Rubio and Allan West in Florida, Rand Paul in Kentucky, and Scott Brown in Massachusetts were elected to the Congress in 2010. The electoral successes, along with the momentum generated by the TPM, led to the creation of the Tea Party Caucus within the US congress. While these attest to the vibrancy of the TPM, there have also been failures. Candidates affiliated with the TPM were unable to take control of the Senate in 2012. TPM presidential candidates, such as Representative Michelle Bachmann and Texas Governor Rick Perry, failed to win the Republican Party nomination in 2011. In 2013, the TPM failed in their attempts to stop the raising of the debt ceiling and they failed to defund the Affordable Care Act. These failures have intensified internal divisions within the Republican Party and have spawned a movement to minimize the impact of the TPM.

Attempts to marginalize the TPM’s dissent are not limited to the Republican Party. With strong financial support from groups such as FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, the favorable coverage by news organizations such as Fox News have led some to describe the TPM as an AstroTurf rather than a grassroots ← 97 | 98 → movement (Krugman 2009, Arceneaux and Nicholson 2012). Astroturf is a form of synthetic carpeting that mimics real grass. Social movements that arise from hidden interests and not from community based politics are seen as artificial. Power does not stem from the group themselves but instead is oftentimes hidden or more elusive. Describing the TPM as astroturf has meant that the movement lacks authenticity and therefore is not a reflection of widespread political dissent. In short it can be easily dismissed. While the TPM has been the beneficiary of support from powerful agents such as FreedomWorks, it is an overstatement to categorize it in these terms. Geoffrey Kabaservice (2013) notes that what is surprising is how media outlets and conservative political organizations have tended to view TPM dissent as an unprecedented phenomenon. Isaac Martin (2013) reinforces this research arguing that rich peoples movements masquerading as people’s movements have a long history within the United States. The TPM is not an exception to this but rather a continuation of the tradition.

What is distinct is the timing of the TPM’s emergence in an era intensifying globalization and American crises. The hyper-contradictions, such as financial and environmental crises, geopolitical instability, and intensifying income inequality that are present make the TPM itself a contradictory manifestation. TPM’s positioning cannot be reduced to a single domain such as liberal economics nor to a neatly packaged frame of thought such as conservatism. This ambiguity suggests that their positioning is in part a consequence of pre-conscious knowledge, which is now sedimented knowledge emanating through the leadership of three dominant discourses in the U.S.: the nationalist-patriotic, the religious-moral, and the free market capitalist.

These conform to the TPM’s three principles of fiscal responsibility as a patriotic duty, constitutionally limited government as a moral obligation, and free market capitalism as the only legitimate form of economic organization. They have not only invested their own identity in these discourses but firmly believe that their “…founding principles are the same as America’s. These beliefs are in America’s DNA; they are each American’s birthright” (Meckler and Martin 2012, 23). Contained within this quotation is the basis for TPM’s consent as well as dissent. I would now like to turn to this issue.

Consent, Dissent, and Ethics: Towards a Different Political Economy

Neo-Gramscian scholars have theorized consent, dissent, and ethics extensively through the Gramscian analytic of hegemony. Hegemony forms the basis for legitimizing a particular mode of development. In the case of the contemporary United ← 98 | 99 → States, that model is the disciplinary neoliberal model (Gill 1995). Hegemony expands politics from the realm of seizing state power to the wider context of ethics, leadership, and consent within the economy, the state, and civil society. Furthermore, it includes a temporal dimension due to Gramsci’s (1999) consideration of the role played by pre-existing institutions (e.g., family, schools) and episteme (e.g., Church, knowledge, law, and philosophy). In other words, history is conceptualized as a political process rather than the unfolding of transcendental laws. Likewise, Gramsci conceives of human nature not as fixed, but rather as amenable to change through political processes.

This complex ensemble has compelled neo-Gramscians to insist that neither consent nor dissent be taken for granted. Gramsci’s (1999, 13) description of the “organic intellectual,” for example, makes it clear that leadership and the establishment of a mode of development is made possible only when it is seen as both drawing on and guiding the ethical commitments and worldviews of those being led.

Within this articulation, consent is both constituted and re-constituted by the enveloping acceptance of the individual and subsequent sedimentation of an assortment of values, worldviews, and ethics that are supportive of established power relations described as an historic bloc. For Gramsci, ethics are central to this formation and cannot be parsed out from the political. Ethics form the basis for consent and by extension dissent. Conceptualized as ethico-political, the role of organic intellectuals is to act as a unifying force through ethical and intellectual leadership. This counters the disunity of interests that is generated at the level of the economy, which requires domination to become a unifying force. Brought together this dialectic produces the possibility of hegemony.

The neo-Gramscian approach has built on the notion of hegemony, extending it to a theorization of disciplinary neoliberal globalization. In particular, and for the purposes of this chapter, the work of Stephen Gill (1995; 2008) provides both clarification and alteration to Gramsci’s original text. Gill adapts Gramsci’s text by positing that the formation of an historical bloc is not automatically synonymous with hegemony. Instead, the disciplinary neoliberal model is more readily identifiable with “supremacy” (Gill 2008, 125).

Disciplinary neoliberalism is a particular model of development that requires the political subordination of the state, society, and labor to the utopian vision of a free capitalist market (Gill 1995). In terms of the state, this has meant cutting of public expenditures, deregulation, and focusing on competitiveness. Economically, it has meant the re-introduction of neo-classical economics that prioritizes the capitalist market economy. Gill posits, however, that this model is not hegemonic but supremacist. Supremacy is defined as “…rule by a non-hegemonic bloc of ← 99 | 100 → forces that exercises dominance for a period over apparently fragmented populations until a coherent form of opposition emerges” (Gill 2008, 125). Supremacy has emerged through exposing the weak (e.g., precariously employed) to capitalist market forces while maintaining social protections for the strong (e.g., highly skilled workers in the technology sector and unionized manufacturing workers).

This asymmetrical inclusion, for Gill, is productive of both ongoing consent and dissent. The unequal distribution of life chances produces a disciplinary class who consent to the existing order and a class left to dissent from the order in which they are only precariously integrated anyway. Yet, as I argue here (expanding on Gill’s work), it also produces dissent with those who seek greater adherence to the dominant ideology such as the TPM. As Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin (2011, 32) observe,

Tea Party activists view themselves in relation to other groups in society…Tea Party activists in Massachusetts, as well as nationally, define themselves as workers in opposition to categories of nonworkers they perceive as undeserving of government assistance.

In this way, the neo-Gramscian framework challenges the binary of consent and dissent, revealing that supremacy can be productive of a messy configuration.

This analysis is significant in that it lays bare the way in which the current disciplinary neoliberal model has failed to become a hegemonic formation. It remains highly susceptible to dissent, which can be authoritarian just as much as it can be democratic. In other words, the demand could be to ‘intensify neoliberalism,’ or it could be to ‘change now.’ The two are not mutually exclusive.

The neo-Gramscian approach, however, would be well served to re-examine Gramsci’s distinction between common sense and good sense. Gramsci (1999, 325–6) writes, “[p]hilosophy is criticism and the superseding of religion and ‘common’ sense.” In this way philosophy coincides with ‘good’ sense, a reflexive or conscious form of knowledge. In contrast, insights resulting from common sense are premised upon the sedimentation of an unrevealed knowledge. Oftentimes contradictory, common sense forms the basis for consent and dissent and potentially results in a supremacist or even hegemonic formation.

Supremacist, and would-be hegemonic forces, draw on seemingly transcendental truths that emanate from common sense understandings of the world and the ethical commitments these entail. As Gramsci (1999, 326–327) states, “…the co-existence of two conceptions of the world…is not simply a product of self-deception…it signifies that the social group in question may indeed have its own conception of the world.” On one level, the consent for and dissent from disciplinary neoliberal supremacy seen in the United States is a disordered arrangement that cannot be reduced to a single domain such as economics or a theoretical ← 100 | 101 → “-ism.” On another and more radical level, it suggests that consent and dissent is forthcoming in part due to pre-reflexive knowledge. Within the context of the TPM, I argue that this pre-reflexive knowledge forms a sedimented knowledge and emanates from the hails and subsequent interpellation of three supremacist discourses: the nationalist-patriotic, religious-moral and free market capitalist.

Louis Althusser (1971) posits that an individual is hailed and interpellated by ideological structures (e.g., the state, religious institutions) when one recognizes oneself as the subject of the hailing. Althusser (1971, 163) uses the example of a police officer who hails a passerby by calling out, ‘hey you there!’. By turning and responding one becomes subject to and thus interpellated by the hail. Žižek (2008, 113–114) adds to Althusser’s argument by describing these institutions in less material form as the “big Other”. It is to these three mirroring discourses I turn next.

Nationalist-Patriot Discourses

Tea Party activists combine a unique nationalism-patriotism—a hyphenated convergence of both nationalism (i.e., a strong exclusionary identification with a single political entity such as the United States) and patriotism (i.e., devotion to the nation). This is exemplified by their unwavering belief in American exceptionalism. American exceptionalism, as a concept, is well-documented and includes a rationale of American engagement in the world predicated on the unique planetary position articulated in phrases such as “the shining city upon a hill” used during the Reagan presidency, and more recently, “the indispensable nation” employed during the Clinton and Obama presidencies. What combines these is the notion of the United States as the world’s moral compass. Nevertheless, American morality has been shaken in the twenty-first century. It is in this context that the TPM seeks to restore American exceptionalism. As Meckler and Martin (2012, 13–14) note,

…and we wanted to take the country back from the political class…We felt helpless as we watched our beloved nation—the greatest nation in world history—slip away…But most of all we felt isolated in our belief that America was special, exceptional, a shining city upon a hill.…It was missing from the values of the political class, who had abandoned the principles that allowed America to create more wealth and freedom than any nation the world has ever seen before.

American exceptionalism conveys a sense that the United States is the chosen nation (Schesinger, 1977). Seymour Martin Lipset (1996, 19) identified five terms that define the idea of the United States: freedom, equality, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire. These attributes are said to be unique to the United States and understood to be universally valued and sought after. Developing out of this ← 101 | 102 → is the belief that the U.S. is a redeemer nation with a millennial mission. This has implications for subjectivity, as the individual who looks out at their world sees that they and their nation have been called upon by God to be the lead nation in a world of increasingly stark choices.

The covenant the TPM experiences regarding their mission from God reinforces neoliberal supremacy by producing loyalty as an ethical debt to the nation and God. Changing the world to better suit neoliberal supremacy by making the world more consistent with so-called American ethics is therefore an explicit component of TPM nationalism-patriotism. This belief has serious consequences, in particular, for on-going American military adventurism. It also serves to dampen internal criticism with the simple assertion of being un-American.

While understanding American exceptionalism at an international level is critical to understanding the American identity that is sought after by the TPM, the idea also impacts this identity at the individual level. There is, within the social imaginary, a parallel drawn between the United States as a single autonomous entity and the individual as a single autonomous entity. In other words, there is a conception of the liberal autonomous individual as a desirable universal subjectivity forming the ethical All-American. Parallel to this is the idea of the nation as the embodiment of the ethical All-American as it interacts with other states across the planet.

This understanding of what it means to be American compels Tea Party activists to, for example, posit education as critical to individual and American exceptionalism. Meckler and Martin (2012, 147) write,

Our children should be taught not only that our system is the best, but also that other systems—like socialism or communism—are not the best and, in fact, are not even good. American children should be taught that those systems of government are bad at best and evil at worst. And the fact that that sounds even remotely controversial proves how far American education has drifted from the truth.

The path to exceptionalism is strikingly similar to individual success within the capitalist market system. Rewards and punishments are necessitated in order to incentivize education stakeholders to produce these exceptional individuals—to produce ethical All-Americans and to ensure American exceptionalism.

It is important to note that nationalist-patriotic sentiment is not imposed by the state upon an unwitting public. Rather, the sentiment is embedded within the hailed non-subject. An example of this embeddedness is the extent to which Americans in general, and Tea Party activists specifically, participate in the voluntary sector and other informal civic organizations. The voluntary sector and civic volunteerism are significant for two primary reasons. First, they confer ← 102 | 103 → ethical meaning and a common sense understanding of how to be subject-in-the-world through public work. In this conception, shortcomings, such as poverty for example, should be dealt with at the individual level through the community. The government, they argue, should not be involved—typical neo-conservative perspectives. Second, participation in these spheres elicits a deeply believed and uncoerced sense of patriotism-nationalism. Contrary to liberal views, the TPM characterizes government spending on social programs as at best ineffective and at worst contrary to the U.S. constitution and Biblical teaching. Tea Party activists believe it is the role of religious organizations, nonprofit organizations, corporations, and individuals to provide welfare services. Welfare services are an issue of personal responsibility on the part of the receiver as well as the provider.

This shapes the TPM critique of how the American government and Federal Reserve responded to the 2008 crisis (e.g., quantitative easing, interest rates, deficit financing, infrastructure investments, extension of unemployment benefits). The critique is more than simply economic policy preferences. Instead it is about protecting the border, the constitution, and is meant to send a message for a return to a more stringent and “pure” neoliberal America. As Michelle Malkin (O’Hara and Malkin 2010, XXIII) declares,

There are two Americas. One America is full of moochers, big and small, corporate and individual, trampling over themselves with their hands out demanding endless bailouts. The other America is full of disgusted, hardworking citizens getting sick of being played for chumps and punished for practicing personal responsibility.

The nationalism-patriotism displayed by the TPM is in part reducible to the ideals contained within what Robert Bellah (1967) called the “American civic religion,” which comprises constitutionalism, democracy, and liberty. Sufficiently vague, this religious outlook reinforces the commonsensical view that American leadership in the world is a natural outcome and universal in its appeal. Within this narrative, then, the United States is the lone ethical savior who assists helpless communities and yet remains a constant outsider (Jewett and Lawrence 2003). Threats are always manifestations of evil. Liberty can only be saved through the courage and strength of a democracy that is willing to transgress its own laws so that evil can be destroyed—a duty the United States carries out with an aura of benevolence (Fousek 2000).

It is important to note that exceptionalism is not another word for being distinct. As Daniel Bell (1991) argued, American exceptionalism is predicated on nationalist notions of the superiority of Americans and American institutions. Having embraced this understanding, the TPM have turned inwards, arguing that the United States, since the Obama administration took office, suffers from what ← 103 | 104 → Tea Party strategist Michael Prell (2011) describes as “underdogism.” Prell reinforces a view common within the TPM, that President Obama is not only unwilling to wield American power but also suffers from a form of false consciousness. President Obama, and more broadly the Democrats, identify with the powerless over the powerful by assigning virtue to the former. This false consciousness, by extension, has transformed U.S. foreign policy into apologies for the exercising of American power. For the TPM, the Obama presidency embodies the antithesis of American exceptionalism, affirming the fears of American decline and increased precariousness on an individual and global scale.

In contrast, the Bush administration’s waging of the “War on Terror” provided the American public with the symptom for what ailed the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The Muslim terrorist came to embody the contradictions and economic difficulties that beset the United States after the technology stock market collapse of 2000 as well as its growing socio-economic inequalities. Social cohesion was made possible by the wide consensus that the terrorist attacks of 2001 were the cause of these difficulties. Once the cause was eliminated, America would be healed.

The 2008 election of an African-American president, the shift away from the “War on Terror,” and the deepening of the financial crisis through 2009 quickly transformed the Obama administration into the source of American ailments. Believing that the United States is a coherent, autonomous, and unified national space, any interruption must be the consequence of some un-American agent. It is an interesting scenario; what becomes clear is that nationalism-patriotism is geared not only towards a perceived hostile world (e.g., terrorists), but also inwards towards an administration that is seen as the antithesis of the ethical All-American identification.

Ghassan Hage (1998) makes a significant point that the nationalist-patriotism discussed here cannot be understood without its racial context. There has been substantial public discussion of Barack Obama as the first African-American president and the racist overtures towards his presidency. Hage, however, provides a critical articulation that contextualizes the ethical All-American identification that is sought after by the TPM. It is one of white privilege. Hage (1998, 45) argues, “[t]he (white) nationalist who believes him or herself to ‘belong’ to a nation, in the sense of being part of it, means that he or she expects the right to benefit from the nation’s resources, to ‘fit into it,’ or to ‘feel at home within it’.” Hage goes on to argue that this ability to imagine inhabiting what he refers to as the “state’s will” makes it possible for white nationalists to imagine that they themselves enact the will of the state. The TPM exemplifies this as activists who firmly believe that their “…founding ← 104 | 105 → principles are the same as America’s. These beliefs are in America’s DNA; they are each American’s birthright.” They go on to say, “[w]e know who should be running the country: patriots, just like you” (Meckler and Martin 2012, 24).

Religious-Moral Discourses

The connection between the TPM and Christian conservatives, in particular evangelical Christians, has not gone unnoticed. 75% of Tea Party activists describe themselves as Christian conservatives. Nearly half (47%) are actively involved in a religious-right or Christian conservative organization (Public Religion Research Institute, 2011). David Brody (2012), author of the book Teavangelicals, provides a succinct explanation as to why the two social groupings have considerable overlap. As he indicates, one of the primary reasons is the fiscally conservative message of the TPM resonates with evangelical Christians and other Christian denominations as it is based not only on economic argumentation but also on moral ones. What both assume is a permanent connection between religiosity and morality. In other words, one cannot be moral without being religious and vice versa. Binding the two together is the common sense understanding of religious and moral truths as objectively determined. This is truth with a capital “T” and is beyond the realm of human intervention. Both Tea Party activists and the evangelical Christian-right, maintain that their ethical authority stems from their literal interpretation of the “Truth” that is contained within the American constitution and the Bible.

The Bible’s truths, it is argued, are so clear that there is no need for interpretation by a religious or educated elite. As Scripture is considered to be accessible to all, it therefore lends itself to be employed in a politics that reinforces the idea of commonsensical truths without deviation. With right and wrong so clearly demarcated, there is no need to create laws but only to (re)discover and apply self-evident truths. For Tea Party activists, the origins of the U.S. constitution are found within the Federalist Papers and Declaration of Independence. Ultimately, however, these are informed by Judeo-Christian principles. It was the hand of God and not simply the rule of law, for example, that resulted in the rights spelled out in the Declaration of Independence. This religious-moral understanding finds its expression in the TPMs call for a return to a constitutionally limited form of government. The TPM favors a constitutionally limited government because it is the ethical choice. Government, it is argued, spends money without knowing what is of value to individuals. Welfare programs provide a succinct example, as they are considered to be promoters of unethical behaviors. The TPM maintains that government spending underwrites and validates unethical behaviors such as unbiblical co-habitation, pre-marital sex, abortions, and single parent families (Pease 2010). ← 105 | 106 →

Within this understanding, unwed single parents lead an unethical life. Government welfare programs contribute to this as they provide a seeming “lifestyle subsidy” to those living their lives beyond the bounds of so-called traditional family values (Carlson, 2005). Governments, through taxation, erroneously compel individuals to pay for government programs that financially support and ethically promote what the TPM sees as nontraditional lifestyles. Restricting this through a reduction in government is considered part of ethical policymaking. Furthermore, the TPM argues that government spending encourages further spending, not less. Pointing to the Bible, Tea Party activist Jim DeMint (in Brody 2012, 24) maintains, “you can’t have two masters.” Based on this line of thinking, government, as “master,” is inversely correlated with belief in God and, subsequently, ethics. In other words, the termination of welfare benefits and a reduction in government is not solely an economic calculus but a religious-moral one as well.

In reference to the U.S. constitution, the TPM point to “cowboy ethics” (Meckler and Martin 2012, 5). The cowboy epitomizes ethical behavior, reducing the world to right and wrong. Appearing around 1867 to 1890, during the Texas cattle drives, the cowboy has become an everlasting feature of American mythology and the subject of many Hollywood movies (Kleinfeld and Kleinfeld, 2004). Much of what is understood of the cowboy is a commonsensical understanding. Missing from the narrative is the historical context of a speculative cattle boom that was triggered by the massive influx of industrial workers in the northern United States. Instead, the narrative is of a self-reliant ethical All-American riding the frontier on horseback with a pistol, taking the law into his own hands to ensure it is observed.

It comes as no surprise that the cowboy, the consummate outsider and individual who transgresses the law in order to enforce it, helps formulate the image of the TPM. For the TPM, ethical absolutes ought to regulate both private and public as well as domestic and foreign conduct. To act otherwise has been to invite tragedy; a tragedy that is evidenced, for the TPM, by the passage of the sixteenth and seventeenth amendments (Meckler and Martin 2012, 82–87). The sixteenth amendment introduced the federal income tax, and the seventeenth amendment ended the election of senators through state legislatures and instead provided for their direct election by citizens. Both amendments, the TPM points out, have resulted in excessive power being allocated to the federal government.

The Founding Fathers, Tea Party activists argue, understood human nature and designed a system of government that took it into account. Citizens would need protection from the unchecked power of the sovereign. Citizens would also require protection from majority rule. The majority form the mainstream culture that the TPM understand to be unethical and consequently un-American. Self-identifying ← 106 | 107 → as outsiders, the TPM effectively see themselves as cowboys in defense of a religious-moral worldview that the majority culture has forsaken. The majority culture, they maintain, continues to support an activist welfare state that has not only encroached on political freedoms but also increasingly on economic freedoms.

Free-Market, Capitalist Discourses

Tea Party activists maintain that wealth should be valued not because it serves to overcome inequalities, but because it provides sufficient proof of the virtuous nature of free market capitalism. This understanding is not only applicable to the United States, but is said to be a global truth. The capitalist free market is assumed to be the preeminent means for the allocation of resources and determining impartial and just outcomes. The basis of this understanding for the TPM is to be found in the U.S. constitution as well as the Bible.

Tea Party activists argue that the US constitution provides individuals with personal liberty. Individuals, as sovereign individuals, are capable of making choices within the economic marketplace for goods and services. That is not to say that Tea Party activists believe everyone will succeed and accumulate wealth. Instead, they believe the free market provides the opportunity to both succeed and to fail (Meckler and Martin 2012, 40). Failure, though, does not imply an end per se, but rather is a signal to try something else. In other words, failure is not considered to be the opposite of success. Instead, it is a necessary part of a capitalist system that functions on the assumption of risk. This belief in risk suggests that the capitalist market becomes the primary means for determining success or failure. Governments, in turn, distort the functioning of the market. The TPM therefore delimits the role of government as one of law enforcement, domestically and globally, in order to facilitate the proper allocation of risks and rewards.

Biblical foundations for TPM faith in free market capitalism are found in direct divine intervention. In this understanding, the invisible hand that Adam Smith (1965) identified in the operation of the capitalist market becomes the hand of God. The TPM assumes this connection as they argue that God places within each individual an ethical sensibility. Free then refers to the removal of corrupting forces such as governments from the capitalist market. It also refers to individuals who are considered to be free to make ethical choices. The outcomes are not predetermined but rather are results of the autonomy granted to individuals within the purview of an ethical God. Former aide to Senator Ron Paul and Biblical economist Gary North (quoted in Brody 2012, 38) summarizes it in this way, “the Bible provides the moral foundation of free-market voluntarism. The moral issue is personal responsibility. The Bible places this squarely on the shoulders of the ← 107 | 108 → individual decision-maker.” The hero of this ethical free market capitalism is the self-interested and self-reliant individual. The self-interested butcher discussed by Adam Smith (1965, 14) meets the cowboy and is not simply guided by the invisible hand of the market but by the hand of God.

To restate the argument as I have posed it thus far, I suggest that the ideological commitment of the TPM can be traced, in part, to theorists such as Adam Smith. It is also traceable to the frontier experience and the myth of rugged individualism displayed by the cowboy and settlers making their way westward after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Land claimed through military force and other coercive means made way for individuals who sought to assert their property rights. Provided with an opportunity to become property owners, the Louisiana Purchase afforded would be settlers with a second chance (Moen 2003). The abundance was considered to be a consequence of God favoring of the United States and as such part of its manifest destiny. It translated into an ethical imperative to take possession of the territory and through the application of individual labor transform it into private property. The TPM updates this, arguing that what is good for laboring entrepreneurs, who are challenged by a different type of frontier, is also good for the United States and fulfills its ethical commitment to God.

The crisis of 2008 therefore is not thought to be one of free market capitalist failure, but one of excessive government intervention in the economy (O’Hara, 2010). The excesses point to a shift away from the common sense principles of the American experience, the US constitution, and the Bible. As Meckler and Martin (2012, 7, 8) recount,

On December 16, 2008, Pres. George Bush appeared on CNN and actually said, ‘I’ve abandon free-market principles to save the free-market system.’ A Republican president had openly repudiated the free-market capitalism that had been the engine of liberty and freedom in the world. My heart sank for the first time in my life. I thought the end of American prosperity, ultimately democracy, might be at hand. With the election of President Barack Obama, things only seemed to get worse… It seemed that socialism in America was openly and rapidly on the march in our own time.

The discourse of the TPM finds blame for the crisis not in the global capitalist system or in the longer-term trend of the decline of the West and the rise of the rest. Instead, the blame is filtered through the above-discussed lens that found fault with greedy individuals, an un-American liberal elite, and the policies of a president often referred to as “Dear leader.” For the TPM, the essential trade-off between risk and reward that they believe forms a universal truism has been abandoned. In its place has come massive government intervention to save large corporations in the so-called “too big to fail” bailouts of 2009. By intervening ← 108 | 109 → the government, according to the TPM, has effectively created two classes of Americans—small entrepreneurs and large corporations. They understand this divide to be more readily understood as being between those who accept the discipline of God, market, and nation and those who exceed it. When describing the personal impact of the crisis on Jenny Beth Martin’s household, Meckler and Martin (2012, 1–3) summarize it as follows:

Lee ran a successful temporary staffing business. I work part-time. We bought the house same way our parents bought theirs: with a big down payment, credit checks at the bank, and monthly payments that were within our means…. We didn’t think we deserved a bailout. Like most Americans, we believe in taking responsibility for our own situation in life. When Lee’s business collapsed, we did not look to the government for a bailout. We looked at each other and to our faith in God for strength.

She goes on to write,

Lee and I had been raised to respect the value of hard work and self-reliance. We grew up in a country where, if you applied yourself and work hard, you could live the American dream. We were living that dream before it turned into a nightmare. But we never lost our faith that America is the land of opportunity: the best place in the world to go broke and start over.

Tea Party activists maintain that the persistence and depth of the crisis was a direct result of the lack of discipline shown by many segments of American society, including large businesses and the federal government. The analogy employed by the TPM to make sense of the persistence and depth of the current downturn is the sports car. Activists argue that the economy is set to accelerate but is inhibited from doing so due to the actions of political elites, from both political parties, in Washington. In the case of the Republican Party, the TPM accuses the Republican leadership of being RHINOs— “Republican in Name Only.” The TPM asserts that the Democratic Party, and the Presidency of Barack Obama, is undertaking actions that undermine the very existence of the United States.

It is not difficult to see how Tea Party activists see the government as an enemy of both the individual and the nation. Any form of political compromise falls short of their vision of a capitalist free market system. Compromise is not considered a political necessity. Instead, it is considered to be un-American, as the self-evident truths of the constitution and Bible require strict adherence. It is from within this commonsensical understanding that the TPM consider President Obama to be either inept or a traitor of the United States. President Obama has become the ultimate other, as he signifies one of the primary symptoms of what is wrong within the United States. However, it is also not outside the realm of possibility that Tea Party activists could find other scapegoats as they divide the world into one consisting of ethical All-Americans and their others. ← 109 | 110 →

All Hail the Ethical All-American

The previous sections discussed the three key discourses shaping the TPM. But how is it that these discourses elicit consent and dissent within this ethical All-American non-subject? Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1977, 1–7) defined a moment when individuals recognize themselves as exterior to themselves, as reflected in language and image. In that instance of self-recognition, that is, of epistemological construction in the mirror, the “I” becomes a non-subject. It is instead an entity divided between a physical body and the idealized image (or idealized-I) contained within the mirror. He refers to this moment as the mirror stage. I argue that the process by which the ethical All-American non-subject is hailed by the forces within disciplinary neoliberalism is also a mirror phase. It is a moment when the “I” becomes psychically divided between a physical body and an idealized-I, as depicted in the free market capitalist, religious-moral, and nationalist-patriot mirrors.

Adherence to the free market capitalist mirror, for example, inscribes the individual to one facet of the idealized-I that is the ethical All-American. Choices, including those that bring about personal deprivation, made within the market are seen to be ethical choices, as market discipline forms a higher and more impartial way of dictating outcomes. By giving up on their desire and (instead) adopting the desire of the free market capitalist mirror, Tea Party activists assume their participation in an ethical system. The exteriority of the mirrors, however, introduces both a spatial and temporal indeterminacy that the non-subject is unable to overcome. In other words, the non-subject is unable to truly attain the idealized image reflected in the mirrors. Despite their alienation, the non-subject is fascinated by what they see and acts to shape themselves according to these supremacist discourses. The individual strives to overcome the fissure between the eye that sees and the idealized-I that is seen in the mirrors.

This is the uncanny disciplinary moment when non-subjects see what it means to be a subject-in-the-world and grant their consent. It is also the moment when they recognize the disjunction between the idealized-I and the world they perceive around them. In this moment, dissent may manifest in place of consent. TPM dissent is an attempt to re-affirm identity and to recoup a sense of ontological security that the non-subject feels is threatened by current transformations within the United States and the global political economy. TPM dissent seeks to reaffirm the supremacist discourses that had previously formed the basis of their consent.

In neo-Gramscian terms, the mirrors form the basis for the potential construction of multiple common sense worldviews that enable individuals to believe they are the authors of their own individual lives. Within the dialectical process, the self ← 110 | 111 → can only make sense of itself in relation to the big Other contained within the mirror. The big Other within a Lacanian framework is not the reflection of the subject contained within the mirror. Nor is it the other discussed within post-colonial theory. Instead, it is associated with language that emanates from the mirrors. The big Other forms the law and structures individual desire. In other words, Lacan defines desire not as stemming from an atomized individual but rather as always of the big Other (Homer 2005, 103). Individuals are then compelled to fill the gap between the self and the idealized-I by asking what is it that the big Other desires of me while assuming that this desire as their own.

Combining Gramsci and Lacan, we can see that, within the rubric of the ethical All-American, the idealized-I, as reflected in the three mirrors, incites the hailed to organize themselves around a desirable ethical center. This provides the individual with a sense of ontological security and a means by which to act in the world. By doing so, the individual is implicitly promised a subject position that is both ethical and complete. Again from Gramscian and Lacanian matrices, this subject position is at best a futile proposition and at worst provides for disastrous personal and political outcomes. For Lacan, there is only one subject position that can effectively structure the non-subject within the contingencies of their history and that is the permanence of the divided subject. The individual can never reduce the gap between themselves and the idealized-I. The significance of this for the TPM is that Lacan informs us that the individual can never be ethical or complete. As desire is the desire of the Other, the divided subject is caught within a structure of endlessly shifting signifiers. The relationship between the hailed and the reflected idealized-I within the mirrors is one of fundamental lack and a basic alienation that condemns the hailed to the constancy of being hailed through a politics of fantasy and resentment.

A Different Political Economy?: The Ethical All-American and the Fantasy-Past America

Lack is a necessary foundation of identity and it arises not from within the individual but is more profoundly part of the human condition. While the non-subject assumes the big Other, for example, to be without lack even here we find the opposite. As Slavoj Žižek (1992, 58) points out,

[o]ne can only wonder at the fact that even some Lacanians reduce psychoanalysis to a kind of heroic assumption of a necessary, constitutive sacrifice…Lacan is as far as possible from such an ethic of heroic sacrifice: the lack to be assumed by the subject is not its own but that of the Other, which is something incomparably more unbearable. ← 111 | 112 →

In this chapter I have defined the big Other as the idealized-I, as depicted within the mirrors that hail Tea Party activists. As a means of compensating for the lack, the non-subject activist strives toward the idealized-I and its promise of subjective completion. In seeking this impossibility, of being the ethical All-American, the non-subject employs fantasy as the means of overcoming the gap between what they are and what they seek to be. In Lacanian theory, fantasy implies “some non-sensical, pre-ideological kernel of enjoyment that must be located and worked through” (Žižek 1989, 124–125). In this instance, the enjoyment is the possibility of ethical All-American subjecthood.

Fantasy, though, is not voluntary. It is a demand, as it constitutes the Other as having the capacity to satisfy the individual’s need for subjective completion. Fantasy has a shielding and conservative function. It cloaks the implausibility of attaining subjective wholeness through the elimination of the gap between the hailed non-subject and the idealized-I emanating from the mirrors. At the same time, fantasy is productive of a political economy of supremacy or hegemony as it unites what is and what ought to be. Within the context of the American disciplinary neoliberal model there are two iterations of fantasy. The first refers to a spatial horizon, the second to a historical utopia. Both constitute what I refer to as fantasy-past-America.

The first interpretation of fantasy-past-America is future-oriented and spatially expansive. It makes use of the word “past” as indicating just beyond; fantasy is just beyond reach both temporally and spatially. This iteration of fantasy-past-America includes the reflections of Alexis de Tocqueville (2000), the frontier people’s domestication of the “wild west,” the mythical proportions of the immigrant American story, the ascendancy of the entrepreneurial spirit, and the formation of the United States as the manufacturing “workshop of the world.”

The three mirrors are historically rooted. Dating back to the observations by Tocqueville, to the opening of the Western frontier, and to the mass immigration of peoples to the United States the mirrors signified the perceived birth of a New Canaan, American institutional superiority, and the triumph of “laissez faire” capitalism. Together these would form a new common sense view that individual fulfillment would arrive in the undiscovered terrain of a wide-open future and nation. In other words, this fantasy would form American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny in spatial and temporal terms. This specific manifestation of fantasy-past-America can be more appropriately understood as evolving into a hegemonic formation.

I am not arguing that dissent did not occur. It did. Nor am I positing that the mirrors, themselves, were without lack. They were. Instead, I suggest that dissent was incorporated within the very structuring of the nation as a means of resisting big government, hierarchy, and by extension the concentration of power. The ← 112 | 113 → Puritan emphasis on individual responsibility, for example, was perceived as pleasing God, who in turn provided the new Americans with an abundance of natural resources. By extension, collectivist forms of dissent were actively suppressed, as this future-oriented and spatially expansive fantasy reduced the effectiveness of these sorts of articulations.

Furthermore, this manifestation of fantasy-past-America insisted upon the elimination of alterity through omission, active suppression, or incorporation. In the social imagination, therefore, there existed a vision of a future potential of wealth, of the attainment of property, and more generally of the attainment of the publicly venerated “American Dream” without the intrusion of otherness. This manifestation of fantasy-past-America was ascendant from the early days of the Republic through to the Second World War. Its apex was the Cold War with American cultural, diplomatic, economic, and military global leadership signifying national superiority (Caldwell, 2006).

At the beginning of the new millennium, there is a reworking and re-imagining of the fantasy-past-America. Supremacy, as configured within the rubric of the ethical All-American identification, is indicative of this radical historical break. The shift underway now, in regards to fantasy-past-America, is towards the establishment of a nonexistent former America—a utopian “city upon a hill.” It is a demand to reclaim and reinstate a lost America that can provide the possibility of subjecthood to the disciples of disciplinary neoliberal supremacy. The eventual aim is to establish a past utopian hegemony that can activate a United States without otherness. The Tea Party activists claim, the current administration is “…dimming the lights on the shining city upon a hill that had stood as a beacon of freedom, prosperity, and opportunity to the world since its founding” (Meckler and Martin 2012, 14). This analysis may be partially correct. The United States may have signified the qualities identified but it has also signified other less favorable ones as well. This though is a minor point. A more pressing one is the false assumption that prior administrations were without their own compromises and shortcomings. In Lacanian terms the Tea Party activists assume a previously formed big Other without lack. Fantasy then continues to be the basis for consent and dissent within this historical conjuncture. It does so by conjuring up a mythical past that never was and can never be in anything other than fantasy. Yet, this is a critical transition in the collective imaginary.

The current iteration of fantasy-past-America speaks to disharmony, to the massive contradictions evident in the disciplinary neoliberal model. However, it also introduces harmony (past, future, and spatial) through the fantastic social construction of a United States without otherness. The mirrors are crucial in sustaining this drive. They promise to fulfill the fantasy-past-America and to restore America to ← 113 | 114 → the non-place utopia of a lack of a lack for both the individual and the supremacist social forces reflected in the hailing mirrors.

The TPM demand for a fantasy-past-America is a direct result of the inability of the hailing mirrors to eliminate individual lack and the on-going irruptions of hyper-contradictions into the everyday lives of Americans. This inability, however, as evidenced by the TPM, does not simply point to crisis and dissent that can lead to the potential displacement of the disciplinary neoliberal model. Dissent is not confined to the articulation of and implementation of alternatives in times of crisis. It must be seen that dissent also points to the constitution of the ethical All-American. While inherently unattainable, TPM dissent seeking the achievement of the ethical All-American subjectivity is productive of perpetuating ontological crises yielding a politics of supremacy.


The demand by the TPM activists to see themselves as reflective of the ethical All-American identification necessitates the fantasy-past-America. This is why TPM dissent calls for more disciplinary neoliberalism and not its displacement.

Fantasy-past-America is the central means by which the gap between individuals hailed by the desire emanating from the religious-moral, free market capitalist, and nationalist-patriotic mirrors are seemingly overcome. Enabling the appearance of subjective completion as ethical All-Americans, dissent is enjoyable for TPM activists. Fantasy does the hard work of displacing the hyper-contradictions of disciplinary neoliberalism onto the “other(s),” such as President Obama, liberals, the illegal migrant, foreigners in general, college students, Democrats, gays and lesbians, and climate change activists. By rendering the “other” as the reason for the incursions of contradictions, the ethical All-American, in conjunction with the signifiers presented in the mirrors, reanimates the power of fantasy-past-America in an enduring circuit. Put another way, while it is assumed that the existence of contradictions within a model of development is a catalyst for dissenting transformation, the American disciplinary neoliberal model retains its supremacy because of and not despite its contradictions.


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1 This research was supported by a Trent University SSHRC Travel Grant. The author wishes to thank the organizers of the Dissent! Conference for the invitation to present on this topic and particularly Ben Dorfman, along with an anonymous reviewer, for the constructive comments that greatly improved this chapter.