When the Existing Ceased to be Real: Alienation and the Tea Party's Conspiratorial Mode of Interpretation

Monday, 11 July 2016: 11:30
Location: Seminar 34 (Juridicum)
Oral Presentation
Nils C. KUMKAR, University of Bremen, Germany
Observers have pointed at (and mocked) the apparent inconsistencies in the worldview of Tea Party activists, often presenting them as a sign of a lack of knowledge or of political cynicism. However, during my field research on the Tea Party in interviews, group-discussions, and Tea Party meetings, I got the impression that the Tea Party activists are often perfectly aware of these inconsistencies without being cynical about them.

This presentation argues that alienation might be a lens through which this tension can be fruitfully understood: The Tea Party activists' relation to the world around them is determined by a strong affective investment into the socio-symbolic universe or everyday-religion (Claussen) of the free market capitalism of small producers. This everyday-religion, however, proves to be less and less compatible with the development of their empirical environment, a development that escalated in the Great Recession. However, while the affective (and material) investment of the Tea Party’s core-constituency into this everyday-religion is too strong to be given up or even substantially adjusted, their relative powerlessness and social isolation also prevents its members from formulating a coherent critique of the social developments. Instead, the everyday-religion is stabilized by decoupling it from the empirical environment. The integrity of this symbolic universe is guaranteed by identification with a symbolic authority with which one can align in condemning the whole of the existing as more or less devoid of true meaning. In this world of the conformist rebellion (Adorno), especially an empirically obviously false statement can become, paradoxically, a sign of one’s dedication to the truth.

The presentation illustrates this theoretical perspective with the results of the hermeneutic analysis of a short passage of a discussion conducted with Tea Party activists, and of an image used on a propaganda-pamphlet distributed by the group.