Who’s Afraid of the Tea Party, or, What Are Those Silly People Talking About?

October 26, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More

At a Rand Paul rally, a woman who intended to present Paul with an ironic award (Employee of the Month from RepubliCorps) was assaulted by Paul supporters, shoved to the ground, and then stepped on.  Police had nothing to do with this, it was all the supporters of one of the Tea Party leading lights.  What they thought she intended to do may never be known, but they kept their candidate safe from the possibility of enduring satire and questions not drawn from the current playbook of independent American politics.

Another Tea Party candidate, Steve Broden of Texas, has allowed that armed rebellion is not “off the table” should the mid-term elections not go their way.  Sharron Angle of Nevada alluded to “second amendment remedies” in a number of interviews in the past six months.  “Our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason, and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government,” Angle told conservative talk show host Lars Larson in January. “In fact, Thomas Jefferson said it’s good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years. I hope that’s not where we’re going, but you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies.”

Next to this kind of rhetoric, the vapidity of Christine O’Donnell in Delaware is more or less harmless and amusing.  In a recent debate with her opponent she appeared not to know that the much-debated Separation Clause is in the First Amendment.  Of course, a close hearing of that exchange suggests that what she was looking for was the exact phrase “separation of Church and State” which is not in the First Amendment.  She thought she had won that exchange, as, apparently, did her staff, and they expressed dismay later when they were portrayed as having lost.  The best you could give her is points for trying to make a point through disingenuous literalism.  Not understanding the case law that has been built on the phrase that is in the First Amendment does not argue well for her qualifications to even have an opinion on the matter.

Leading this apparently unself-critical menagerie is Sarah Palin, who despite having a dismal record in office and a clear problem with stringing sentences together has become the head cheerleader for a movement that seems poised to upset elements of both parties in the midterms.

It’s one thing to throw darts and poke fun at the candidates, many of whom sound as if they have drawn their history from the John Wayne school of Hollywood hagiography and propaganda.  But the real question is why so many people seem to support them.

A perusal of the Tea Party website shows a list of issues over which supposedly grass roots concern is fueling the angry election season.  Allegations that Democrats intend to bring in illegal immigrants to vote side by side with suggestions that the House will bring an impeachment vote to the floor should Obama win a second term.  Warnings that we are nearing the “tipping point” past which we will inexorably plunge into socialism unless current policies are stopped or reversed along with a screed suggesting that Harry Reid voted to supply Viagra to child molesters.  It is a dizzying array of serious-minded complaints cheek by jowl with some of the most egregiously exaggerated nonsense.

It all has one thing in common—the fundamental conviction that government is doing nothing the people want.

Arguing against this kind of splenetic insanity is a Sisyphean exercise in pointlessness.  Tea Party accusations that TARP has added over seven hundred billion to the deficit will not yield to the fact that most of that money has been paid back and at most maybe fifty billion will remain when the figures are all in.  (Not that fifty billion isn’t a great deal to be angry about, but it’s not seven hundred billion.)  The fact that in his first eight months in office, Obama oversaw the addition of more private sector jobs to the economy than in the entirety of the Bush presidency matters not at all in the face of a 9.6 % unemployment rate.

Which is where the anger truly resides.  You can tell someone that this or that politician or program has done X amount of good, but if that individual doesn’t see it in his or her own life it means nothing.  That it will take a long time to correct the problems created by eight years of mismanagement on top of 30 years of continual abuse to the economy is not persuasive to someone who is out of work with no prospects.  Perhaps that is irrational and unfair, but it is reality.

What underlies the Tea Party movement is a sentiment that is Jeffersonian to the core.  That the federal government is automatically corrupt and needs to be reduced or destroyed if we are to be free.  That the arguments about this would sound like sheerest insanity to the Founders (who are held up like saints or apostles in some absurd sanctification of the early Republic) is missed by most Tea Partiers, mainly because they have virtually no sense of real history and even less of national realities.  Nevertheless, it is not a foolish idea nor un-American.

Progressives have traditionally viewed government as the best—often the only—tool with which to control corporate abuse.  It is necessary to have a powerful entity on the side of The People when confronting the vested interests of the moneyed powers.  Without that, communities get chopped up and dealt with piecemeal by the functional equivalent of robber barons.  So it is particularly frustrating when so many people seem to side with corporations against the federal government, usually voting against their own self interest.  It makes no sense.

Unless you take the view—very Jeffersonian—that the federal government is always the hand-puppet of corporate interests and through the government corporations control the people.

This has been the reality through a great deal of our history.  It is not a groundless fear.  Especially today when it appears that the government is giving corporations everything they want.  Obama comes to office pledging to correct that situation—but in order to do so he must expand the powers of the federal government, something those represented by the Tea Party will not tolerate.  Because to them expanding the federal government automatically means expanding corruption.  Obama can’t win.

Reducing the federal government would seem, to progressives, the very way to yield more ground to the corporations, yet the Tea Party wants exactly that.  Smaller federal government.  In their view, smaller government gives corporations less ability to screw the people.

While there may have been a time when that might have worked, it is simply naive today.

But that’s the sentiment.

Secondarily, there is a strain of political sentiment present in all this that suggests that the government should have no powers not held by the individual.  On its face, this may seem ridiculous, but it all comes into focus around this obsession over the Second Amendment.  The last bastion of the free citizen is his or her ability to shoot those who threaten.  That includes federal agents.

Now, while this has happened in our history, the principle has never been supported in case law except in the most particular circumstances.  But it is nevertheless attractive.  This country has seen warrantless searches, police abuse, and corruption in law enforcement, and occasionally violent reactions have occurred and it is difficult at times to argue that such reaction was unjustified.  Somehow, though, improving the system has never been as attractive as the idea of home self defense.  It is a myth of the self-empowered individual that has deep roots and powerful quasi-historical bonds on the American psyche.  It goes to arguments against everything from requests to see ID to eminent domain.  If you cannot defend your property it can be taken away from you on a whim.  So the argument goes and it cannot be blithely dismissed out of hand because it happens and has happened.

In so-called normal times, when the economy is humming along with less the 5 % unemployment and eviction rates are rare things, very little of this sentiment rises to the surface, and one may be excused for assuming perhaps we’ve grown out of it.  But these are not normal times.  The stress under which people feel themselves today, real or imagined, is as high as it’s been since the height of the Vietnam War, when last we heard this sort of rhetoric.  It is unwise to treat the Tea Party—at least the sentiments driving it—as clownish or absurd.

We now have something of a perfect storm developing around all this, because the last major issue fueling this resentment has reared its historically ugly head—taxes.  Whatever else may be in the Obama health care legislation, there is one thing that will make people insane—the mandatory policy provision.  This is seen as nothing less than a new tax.  Making people buy policies, although it may make fiscal sense, is the match above the dried grass that is the rest of Tea Party animosity.

Through a series of what at any other time might have been seen as little more than grumbling matters, Obama has inadvertently poured gasoline on a smoldering fire.  How much of the American political landscape it burns up is questionable.  We may well get through this just fine.  But instead of laughing at the Tea Party, attention ought to be paid to what is really making people angry and recognizing how, as inarticulate as it sometimes may be, it all feeds into what may be the most absurd election season we’ve seen in memory.



Category: American Culture, Corruption, Culture, Current Events, Economy, Education, History, Law, Media, Noteworthy, Politics, populism, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

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  1. Another Tea Party example of the kind of utter fecklessness in perception and approach.


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