Cargo Cults formed among South Sea Islanders when the Americans withdrew from the South Pacific after defeating Japan, taking their vast wealth with them. Islanders in response formed Cargo Cults, in which they prayed to model airplanes like those the Americans flew as totems to bring back their lost paradise. Tea Partiers are likewise Americans who are irrationally pursuing a bygone era of prosperity, simplicity, and world dominance. And, when Cargo Cults crash, the human wreckage is awful.


The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, September 18, 2010. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at

The Tea Party as a Cargo Cult

Cargo CultLet's take a psychic journey back to the not-too-distant past - Polynesia during World War II. (And what better time to do so than now, with a hit revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacificgoing strong in New York!)

When the Americans arrived in the Southwest Pacific in order to conduct the war against Japan, they brought previously unimaginable wealth to the islands, as well as cigarettes, booze, and prostitution. While we might think that South Pacific islanders loved their beautiful isolated lives, they were quickly seduced by the Americans' largesse.

So much so, that, when the Americans packed up and left following V-J Day, the islanders were desolate. Where had all the fun and money gone? Since they had no real way to reproduce what they had lost, South Sea Islanders developed Cargo Cults, involving rituals, incantations, and totems - like bamboo models of the planes the Americans flew - to bring back their lost paradise.

The Tea Party has the Cargo Cult mentality. Tea Partiers want to relive the glory years when the United States was awash in goods, services, rising housing prices, and a previously unmatched standard of living for the average American.

That era is gone, its death officially announced by the recent U.S. census report showing a record level of poverty in America, record numbers of foreclosures, a record number of Americans without health insurance, and - for the first time in American history - a decline in real income over the prior decade. Life is getting worse, and there's no returning to the past!

The single unifying theme for the Tea Party is the elimination of government involvement in our lives and the economy. This, Tea Party members imagine, will bring back the halcyon 1980s. But it won't. For one thing, much of that wealth was created due to government expenditures. Looking at state governments alone, as they one by one go broke, real estate taxes are rising exponentially to make up the short falls.

Moreover, Tea Partiers - like all Americans - have gotten used to the government taking care of them. (One irony people often point out about Tea Partiers is that they are disproportionately seniors - and thus many are on Medicare.) Turning again to the states and municipalities, they are shucking local services for residents at a scary rate - one that would have been even scarier without the stimulus package.

The Republican Party has seemingly sold many middle Americans on the idea that financial deregulation, lowering taxes on the wealthy, and laissez faire economics will benefit them. It won't. One of the Party's biggest goals is the repeal of Obama's health care legislation - as though that will somehow bring back the days when most Americans had private health insurance they could afford.

The free market is the talisman that the Tea Party is praying will re-establish the good times. When a Cargo Cult is created, people display an ardent, irrational attachment to symbols of wealth and irrelevant markers of former times. Tea Partiers have associated in their minds the ideas of a simple, rural America with the prosperity and world dominance they and the country previously enjoyed.

But no amount of bowing to images of Sarah Palin in wader boots supposedly fishing for her family's dinner is going to bring those days back. And, when Cargo Cults crash, the resulting human debris - in terms of addiction, suicide, and violence - isn't nearly so pretty as the airplanes Cargo Culters built out of flotsam.