Enough Already! I “Get” the Tea Party—I Just Don’t Agree With Them!

The Left supposedly “doesn’t understand” the Tea Party, claims Peter Berkowitz of the Wall Street Journal. But this is patently false. What Berkowitz diagnoses as lack of understanding is rather a simple case of lack of agreement. Thus, in an attempt to show how a “leftist” can both “get” the Tea Party and legitimately disagree with it, here are a few thoughts:

If the Tea Party could be described so simply as voters who “want to reduce the massively ballooning national debt, cut runaway federal spending, keep taxes in check, reinvigorate the economy, and block the expansion of the state into citizens’ lives” then I would be a Teabagger. But this seemingly pure and innocuous ideological statement is not a complete picture of the Tea Party’s public persona. Firstly there’s the issue of ideological consistency, for which the Tea Party does not get high marks, and then there’s the added socially conservative, nationalistic aspect of the Tea Party which is completely incongruous with the fiscally conservative, libertarian side of the movement.

About the ideological consistency, It’s important to recognize that two-thirds of our federal budget is spent on entitlements; if the Tea Party is against ballooning federal deficits and runaway spending, do they plan to trim these programs? According to A recent New York Times/CBS poll “91% of Tea Partiers want a smaller government with fewer services.  Despite this hostility to big government, 62% of Tea Partiers believe that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are worth the cost”.

As I said in an earlier post, the Tea Party has some ‘splainin’ to do; where were they when George W. Bush passed the Medicare Prescription Drug Plan and launched two massively expensive, unfunded wars? Yes there may have been anger and grassroots stirrings, as some Tea Party pundits have claimed, but only in the last two years has the Tea Party become a prominent force in American politics.

Furthermore, if the Tea Party is truly committed to “block[ing] the expansion of the state into citizens’ lives,” where were they when W passed the USA Patriot Act or initiated a covert operation of warrantless wiretapping of US citizens? These are actual, bon-a-fide infringements of our civil liberties, but instead, the Tea Party decries government death panels and Bolshevik revolutions at the prospect of healthcare reform. Or What about Arizona’s new border security law, in which state law enforcement officials are required to check legal residence status upon circumstantial suspicion—this isn’t an egregious “expansion of the state in the citizen’s lives?”

The list of inconsistencies is virtually endless—prominent members of the Tea Party, such as Sarah Palin continually stress the idea that “real” America is the every-day people you find in small towns, with conservative, common sense values—not the fat cat Wall Street bankers or the big city Liberal Elites. But how is it possible that the Tea Party can paint itself as a populist, everyday, working man’s grassroots movement while at the same time opposing Wall Street reform, which attempts to establish some of the strongest consumer protections since the 1930’s and which curbs the reckless activity of the very fat cats they vilify? The same is the case for health-care reform. They don’t want Uncle Sam in the examining room, preferring instead that insurance companies tell your doctor what services you are and aren’t allowed.

The ideological rigidity of the Tea Party is so intense that any government service or exercise of power, no matter how basic or necessary seems to be in question. Everything is a “government takeover” despite ample evidence that US Auto makers are mostly solvent again and the Federal Govenrnment is planning to sell off it’s majority position in the near future. Despite the fact that most economists agree that the economic situation would have been far more dire without the stimulus, and that the “$700 billion lifeline to banks, insurance and auto companies — will expire after Sunday at a fraction of that cost, and could conceivably earn taxpayers a profit.” The stimulus may end up costing more money that the war in Iraq (which is itself debatable), but we cannot ignore that one was conducted under false pretenses and misinformation and cost thousands of lives despite no hard evidence of a direct threat, while the other represented a clear and present danger to the US and global economy. Isn’t one a slightly more worthwhile expenditure than the other?

But the Tea Party wants to get rid of even some of the most basic government functions despite the fact that they were enacted after a bitter history of abuse and exploitation which called for a federal response. Do they forget that the EPA was created in response to rising concerns over environmental protection and conservation? Do they forget that the minimum wage was first proposed as a way to control the proliferation of sweat shops in manufacturing industries? It seems that the Tea Party has a romantic view of history and a mind state that is far removed from the abuses of the past. Do we like having weekends? Do we like not having toxic waste dumped into our rivers? Then maybe the Tea Party ought to recognize that there is a balance between government overreach and basic government functions.

But all of these inconsistencies pale in comparison the most bewildering aspect of the Tea Party. If the Tea Party is supposed to be the party of fiscal conservatism, where does the socially conservative, tribalist, and xenophobic tendency come from? For a party that seems to emphasize individual freedom so greatly, why the general opposition to gay rights? Why such hatred toward illegal immigrants, Muslims, non-integrated residents who don’t speak English (disagree? Just watch some of this year’s GOP campaign ads)? Why the insistence that America needs to reassert it’s foundations as a Christian nation? Such corporatist, socially divisive, “real” America vs. everyone else, traditional values vs. godless secularism are exactly the kind of stances we find in the ugliest movements of history, be they the Italian Fascists or Al Qaeda, and it’s certainly not appropriate for a pluralist, democratic society.

Proposition 8: Conservatism coming loose at the seams


As proponents of Proposition 8 are poised to present their defense in the San Francisco federal courtroom on Monday, I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the matter. 

A central tenet of classical liberalism (or in today’s veritable cornucopia of political labels and identifications—conservatism) holds that the individual should be free from external intrusion. 

“Negative Liberty”; the freedom from—from the demands of government or of society, as long as these demands fall outside of the individuals direct purview. In fact, a charge oft leveled against modern day liberals is that they are attempting a sort of “social engineering” in which a supposed “authority” dictates what is best for society and imposes its will upon others.  This imposition, according to the classical liberal camp is inherently unjust, for the individual, be it through inalienable rights or intrinsic human dignity should be free of other’s coerced conformity. 

Thus negative freedom acts as a platform for the autonomous individual to choose his own path in life. In fact, the core of liberalism rests entirely on the ideal of individual autonomy, for without this most basic assumption, how can the individual be taken as the primary unit of concern in liberal theory? How else can people make self-interested economic choices or exercise their right to vote? 

Given that this value of liberalism, which provides the intellectual framework behind conservative ideology, how can modern day conservatives justify the position that government can dictate who marries and who doesn’t? Even beyond the simple argument that there should be a separation of church and state, what ammunition do gay marriage opponents have to argue that society or government has the authority to impose such regulations on one’s life choices? Even more so, how can gay marriage opponents, operating within the ideological framework of classic conservatism level such claims without rendering themselves irreconcilably inconsistent? 

Either the individual by right is autonomous and as such the government hasn’t the ethical authority to lay such restrictions, or the individual has only those rights which government grants him. Interestingly, the only way that modern conservatives can argue for banning gay marriage is by renouncing their classic liberal ancestry. 

As of now, opponents of gay marriage make their case on utilitarian grounds; since no strong argument can be made that such an institution actually harms anyone, they argue that it is detrimental to society, leading to “incest, polygamy and sex with children” (http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-prop8-trial24-2010jan24,0,3480322.story) However, classical liberalism singularly renounces such utilitarian calculations on the issue of individual choice. True Liberal society cannot simply vote away my freedom of speech, no matter how harmful my words are. 

Thus anti-gay marriage proponents have an unseen quandary to grapple with. They can win the battle against gay marriage. But the cost is their identity.