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.

The Ground Zero “Mosque,” Double Standards and the Limits of Strict Constitutionalism

The Ground Zero mosque controversy has highlighted a fundamental question relating to the nature and shortcomings of our constitutional system–is that which is constitutional always ethical as well?

Consider the following remarks made by opponents of the Cordoba Center project during the talking-head torrent following Obama’s remarks:

“The Muslims have, as everyone else does, the right to practice their religion and they have the right to construct a mosque at ground zero if they wish,” said Rep. Peter King, R-New York, on CNN’s “State of the Union,” “what I’m saying, though, is they should listen to public opinion, they should listen to the deep wounds and anguish this is causing to so many good people.”

Or these comments from Republican strategist Ed Rollins on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” , “Intellectually, the president may be right, but this is an emotional issue, and people who lost kids, brothers, sisters, fathers, what have you, do not want that mosque in New York.”

Or finally, the ever eloquent Sarah Palin, who put it succinctly, “We all know that they have the right to do it, but should they?”

They have the right, but do they have the should? Whether you’re stewing in outrage over the Supreme court decision Citizens United vs. FEC or simply watching a popcorn lawyer flick, we’ve all experienced the aggravating reality when that which is sanctioned as legal or constitutional often seems immoral or just plain wrong.

And as the bard says, herein lies the rub inherent in our constitutional system; We only have two possible options from which to choose in solving a social dilemma–legal or illegal, constitutional or unconstitutional. What is lost in this kind of legal structure is the human element; the ability to solve our differences by listening to each others’ stories, pains and experiences and coming to a mutually agreeable common ground.

The kind of listening Rep. King speaks of when he says, in spite of the legality of the Cordoba Center, we “should listen to the deep wounds and anguish this is causing to so many good people” is exactly the kind of listening that is made impossible when one side of the argument is deemed unconstitutional, for is there anything more invalidating and disqualifying to one’s entire belief structure than the label “unconstitutional”? What dignity is left to salvage when ones opinions are so thoroughly judged as ill-fitting to society. Unconstitutionality, it seems, is the modern form of exile.

Thus, the opponents of the Cordoba Center have made a valid point, and one which deserves the respect of audience. The right of Muslims to build a community center and place of worship two blocks from Ground Zero is unquestionable, but before we rush off into framing the issue as one of right and constitutionality, why don’t we slow down and listen to the concerns of the community first. After all, if the Center’s stated aim is to build trust and goodwill between communities of different faiths within the pluralist American society, how can we hope to achieve this aim if our starting point is one of mutual antagonism rather than mutual empathy?

…But there’s still something about this issue that sticks in my proverbial craw– something a bit sketchy and cynical about Conservatives like King, Cornyn and Palin making the argument for empathy over constitutionality in this particular instance. Conservatives have opportunistically applied this standard of judgment at a time when it best supports their ideological position.

Consider Rep. Kings statements once again:

“The Muslims have, as everyone else does, the right to practice their religion and they have the right to construct a mosque at ground zero if they wish. What I’m saying, though, is they should listen to public opinion, they should listen to the deep wounds and anguish this is causing to so many good people.”

Now let’s give it a little makeover:

“All Americans have…the right to right to bear arms and they have the right utilize their second amendment liberties if they wish. What I’m saying, though, is they should listen to public opinion, they should listen to the deep wounds and anguish this is causing to so many good people.”

Where is the Conservative sense of empathetic listening above strict constitutionality when it comes to the cries of victims and families of gun violence? Why is it more permissible to “refudiate” Muslim’s first amendment rights when it comes to the wishes of the victims of Islamic extremism than to abridge second amendment rights in light of those who have fallen by the gun?

Obviously there’s an absurdity here; we can’t disregard the Constitution in favor of bowing to popular opinion without ceasing to be a liberal society of law and order, checks and balances. But we also can’t have a coherent political discourse if our parties are allowed to choose an ethical standard du jour.

The goal of a Constitutional system should be to incorporate within a strict legal framework, a social generosity that, as Romand Coles writes, “elaborates itself…in dialogues torn between different sensibilities and visions of the future; a generosity torn between, on the one hand, the pursuit of what appear to be among the best political directions, principles and practices that have been illuminated thus far…and, on the other…the radical need to listen attentively to the voices and visions that come from places it cannot or has not yet illuminated.”

Such an incorporation might allow our society to find more inclusive ways to solve trenchant social dilemmas; it might indeed allow us to “listen to the deep wounds and anguish” of “so many good people” without necessarily having to appeal to antagonistic legalities. But if all this is just a possibility, one thing is for certain–such a potential will never come to fruition if we use the ethical standard of empathetic listening not for the sake of community strengthening, but for the sake of blind political opportunism.