Point The Tea Party Identity Crisis
by Benjamin Reed Zakarin
Counterpoint America Benefits from the Tea Party
by Michael Brendan Dougherty
As the stock market crashed and the fate of the American capitalist system hung in the balance, a simmering anger began to boil over: we were a nation fed up with the excesses of Wall Street, the smug trickery of its banks, the wild income inequality that had become a chasm as America's pensions and life savings turned to thin air. The Troubled Asset Relief Program, popularly known as the “Wall Street Bailout,” embodied the idea that not only had our financial institutions turned against us — so had our government.
When President Obama was elected, he ran on a platform of change: changing Wall Street, changing our economy. Which makes it kind of funny that a supposed “populist” movement is fighting any and all attempts to reform long-standing corrupt business practices and give some semblance of power back to the middle class.
Starting right after the President's inauguration, The Tea Party, as it seemingly spontaneously called itself, began rumbling about the socialist takeover of a popularly elected, moderate Democrat. Looking beyond the protests of a few angry white people with horrible decorum, though, you'll find that this is far from a “Main Street,” grassroots movement. Instead, under the muck is a well-funded political arm of America’s wealthiest citizens designed to implement self-serving policies at the expense of average Americans.
At the center of this joyless Party is FreedomWorks, the organization run by that everyman Dick Armey. One of its first notable demonstrations was the April 15, 2009 Tax Day mobilization. One of the finest examples to date of political astroturfing, these so-called “organic” protests were closely coordinated by FreedomWorks and Americans For Prosperity. The theater extended as far as to suggesting sign ideas and the creation of intentionally amateur web domains to suggest “authenticity.”
In fact, these conservative juggernauts, representing the interests of the billionaire Koch brothers (of the John Birch Society — yes, them) and the business community, were giving the President too much credit. No matter how “radical” his agenda, he hadn't accomplished much of it in such short order. By April 15, 2009, the only major legislation impacting tax policy that had passed was the maligned Stimulus Bill; the same Stimulus that saved millions of jobs and, in a generous nod to conservative protests, provided $288 billion in tax savings, or over 35% of the entire cost and the single largest categorical allocation.
Granted, maybe they jumped the gun. However, now nearly two years into Obama’s presidency, with financial reform and moderate healthcare reform passed, surely most of America has seen the red light, right? Ahem.
According to The New York Times, the average self-identified Tea Partier is male, white, Republican, married, middle-aged, and believes that President Obama is moving America to the far left of the political spectrum.
Regardless of their disgust with “Obama the Socialist,” they still firmly defend Medicare and Social Security—the largest government expenditures besides defense—as vital.
Despite their concern that their households could fall victim to unemployment in the next year—some 55 percent of Tea Partiers expressed this fear— championed Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle believes the unemployed simply aren’t trying to find work. Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul suggested, and actually defended, a $2,000 deductible for Medicare. Tea Party sweetheart and congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN) suggested America simply “wean everybody off” Social Security. All statements positively in the voice of their supporters, not so much.
But what of their more sensible standard bearers? “Moderate” counterparts, such as “Young Gun” and 1990’s movie villain congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) have released a recycled, Bush-era plan to privatize Social Security that would’ve cost many seniors their retirement savings during the 2008-2009 market collapse. Foremost on their agenda, though, is renewing the Bush tax cut for the top 2% of income earners—a move that would require the government to borrow an additional $700 billion to pad the pockets of the wealthy. Talk about fiscal restraint. Nevertheless, the Tea Party platform has proved popular for Americans frustrated by the slow economic recovery.
What, then, is at the heart of this anti-government uprising? “Income redistribution,” as they call it. Tax dollars supposedly going to the poor. Yet provocatively, 25 percent of the Tea Party believes Mr. Obama’s policies favor blacks over whites, and 90 percent believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. To call them a pack of racists would be extrapolating too far; this data does reflect, however, that this formerly powerful demographic is perhaps experiencing an identity crisis as the nation shifts towards an increasingly multi-cultural, gender equal identity. Better, then, to keep the money in the hands of “real Americans.”
Seizing on this profound cocktail of fear combined with economic uncertainty, the pro-business Chamber of Commerce has raised over $75 million this election cycle to spend on ads targeting Democrats. Karl Rove’s American Crossroads—a group whose $2.639 million August fundraising effort was 91 percent accounted for by three billionaires—spent $4.2 million in a single week on similar ads. These fundraising figures, but a small percentage of right-wing spending this election cycle, underline who really stands to benefit from the groundswell of “Tea Party patriotism”: America’s ultra-wealthy. Just don’t expect them to pay back the favor when you’re unemployed: those benefits are for the lazy, and they’ll be gone too.
There are lots of reasons for a conservative to dislike the Tea Party. The Tea Party is obnoxiously loud. Its political style and much of its rhetoric is borrowed from the left, which is one reason why liberals dislike it so much. Traditional conservatives have denounced “identity politics” for three decades, and the Tea Party is very much interested in politics that emanate almost mystically from their own identity as “real Americans.”
Occasionally some Tea Partiers display their ignorance with a pride that can only be described as creepy. Delaware Senate candidate and Tea Party favorite Christine O’Donnell let out that she had no clue that the First Amendment forbade Congress from writings laws respecting the establishment of religion.
The Tea Party is motivated by two convictions: that America cannot spend its way out of debt, and that Barack Obama is, in some way or another, illegitimate. The latter can take the form of an obsession with our President’s birth documents or it can be intellectualized. Conservative scribbler Dinesh D’Souza makes Obama’s alleged “Kenyan-ness” into an ideological question. For him, Obama is possessed by the anti-colonial politics of his father.
The Tea Party, in many instances, doesn’t seem particularly principled about the spending either. Damn the public service unions, but no cuts to my Medicaid. Some want to trim the welfare state, but let the military-industrial complex eat all the public dollars it can. Lockheed Martin reports record profits last quarter. I don’t see anyone holding “Taxed Enough Already” signs in front of their offices.
And for all the tri-corn hats, invocations of Thomas Jefferson, Gadsen Flags , and heady talk of revolution, the Tea Party seems poised to do something rather below the intensity of their rhetoric: they will vote for Republicans this November. Is there anything more establishmentarian than voting for a party that is barely in the minority?
But there are reasons to admire the Tea Party. In some cases the Tea Party has refused to accept the K-Street and Dick Cheney -approved Republicans. I’m thinking of Rand Paul in Kentucky, Marco Rubio in Florida, and yes, O’Donnell in Delaware. In each of these races the Tea Party candidate was more likely than the establishment Republican to buck special interests or even rethink our aggressive foreign policy. We need less yes-men.
The Tea Party has also brought up the issue of class in a useful way. With the notable exception of either President Bush, our political class is convinced that it deserves to rule by right of its meritocratic assent. The elder Bush knew his blue-blood was arbitrary and had a sense of noblesse oblige. Our current high-level bureaucrats believe they earned their powers through high test-scores, academic achievements skillful networking, and perfectly calibrated social views. The elite has lost its capacity for self-doubt or gratitude towards its inferiors. The Tea Party vocalizes the truth that these supposed “meritocrats” benefited from immense and often invisible privileges.
Tea Partiers have demonstrated their courage to ask simple questions. In the summer of Town Hall meetings, they asked, “Did you read the bill?” What a quaint notion! How presumptuous, to ask legislators to be familiar with legislation. Of course our representatives hadn’t read the bill. Nor had they written it. That task was left to drug and insurance industry lawyers. The Tea Party drove Nancy Pelosi to give the game away when she said, “But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy.” This is a democracy, so shut up and eat what we feed you.
Even when it doesn’t know the answer Tea Partiers dares to ask. “Where’s that in the Constitution?” And if that whole document can fit in my breast pocket, why does the health reform need to be longer than the Bible?
The answer is simple. Documents like the Bill of Rights were written to be understood. A protestor will shout about their First Amendment rights. Or if they are a Tea Party protestor they might shout about their Second Amendment Rights. If a Bush or Obama suspects them of being an “enemy combatant,” they can shout about their Fifth Amendment rights. If the tongs come out, they know to protest “cruel and unusual punishment.” But under our current form of government, laws are to be understood by lawyers and lobbyists only.
The Tea Party is like every great reforming movement in American history – left or right. Loud, silly, anarchic, spittle-flecked, uneducated, self-interested, and naive. Sure there are nuts in the Tea Party. Nuts give a dish its savor. If you want crazy, look at what our federal government has done over the last ten years. I’ll gladly put up with a few people obsessed with Obama’s birth-certificate, if we can have the mass of people interested in our nation’s birth documents. That sounds real American to me.
About the Issue
Point author: Ben Reed Zakarin is a Senior at the University of Michigan and the Editor-in-Chief of the Michigan Journal of History.
Counterpoint author: Michael Brendan Dougherty is a contributing editor for The American Conservative and was a 2009-2010 Philips Journalism Fellow. He blogs at The Unreal.
Edited by: Daniel Strauss
Cover by: Matt Hallock