The audacity of teabagging

In a recent issue of The Economist, Lexington details the wave of growing resentment towards the Obama administration, with the new “Tea Party” phenomenon its most vocal component; “on November 2008 all the buzz in American politics was concentrated in the campaign to elect Mr. Obama. Now it has passed to the Tea Party movement, a sprawling, grassroots campaign against big government and fiscal irresponsibility.”

While the populace’s first collective glance painted this new movement as just a bunch of conspiracy-theory lunatics, frothy-mouthed racists, and backwater rednecks, Lexington argues that “the tea-partiers’ gripes are shard by a huge swath of the electorate”, and that furthermore, “Democrats, Republicans and independents all share these worries in equal measures [but] the party in power gets most of the blame.” Lexington is correct on one count; it is high time the American public view the Tea-Party as something more than just a rowdy bunch of mad-dog lunatics.

At its core, the tea-party ideology borrows much from a sophisticated political philosophy, espoused by our founding fathers and held in high intellectual regard still. These are the values of limited government, individual liberty and fiscal modesty. There is nothing particularly controversial about such values; in fact, they’re about as American as apple pie. Neither is there anything particularly new or unique about these values—they are just the latest iteration of libertarianism. What I mean to suggest is that we look beyond the Obama as Hitler, “Get your government hands off my medicare” crazies and admit the legitimate ideological core of the Tea Party movement.

The former, after all, is no hard task. Discounting the ridiculous claims made by teabagging protesters, such as Obamacare will “kill granny” (thanks, Grassley/Palin) is an unnecessary expenditure of mental energy and certainly not worth one iota of media attention. However, I also with to suggest that even disregarding its more ignorant and vitriolic components, the Tea-Party movement needs to take a long hard look at itself—at its own ideological consistency and the motives behind its emergence.

In the first case, I think the Tea Party’s value of fiscal responsibility should be brought to bear in asking “why now?” Libertarians preaching fiscal responsibility have been grinding their wheels for ages, so why this populist upwelling of grassroots libertarian sentiment now? The obvious answer would seem to be, “look at how much Obama’s spent so far—the irresponsible auto bailouts, the massive bank bailouts which lined the pockets of Wall Street fat cats instead of main street stray cats, and finally the dauntind reality of healthcare reform which will dig our country into a financial hole for generations.” All of these are legitimate concerns. The current public debt stands at over 11 trillion and the projected budget deficit will exceed 1 trillion. Truly, the functionality of our society depends on fiscal conservatism serving as a check on any political measures, Democratic or Republican.

However, considering the past eight years, is it not a peculiar time to hear these voices all of a sudden on the DC Mall? It has been well noted in newspapers, magazines and blogs alike that Obama inherited this financial mess—to quote from

“Bush inherited a budget surplus of $128 billion in 2001. Budget experts projected a $710 billion surplus for 2009 when he came into office. But the deficit soon exploded, thanks largely to the Bush tax cuts — which accounted for 42 percent of the deficit. When Bush left office, he handed President Obama a projected $1.2 trillion budget deficit for this year, the largest ever. As for the debt, when President Bush took office, it was $5.73 trillion. When he left, it was $10.7 trillion.”

Paul Krugman also weighs in on the source of this massive deficit:

“There were two big-ticket Bush policies. One was the tax cuts, which cost around $1.8 trillion in revenue; add in interest costs, and we’re presumably talking about more than $2 trillion in debt. The other was the Iraq War, which has cost at least $700 billion, and will cost more before we finally extract ourselves. Without these gratuitous drains on the budget, it seems fair to assert that we’d be coming into this economic crisis with a federal debt around 20 percent of GDP ($2.8 trillion) smaller than we are. And that, in turn, means that we’d be looking at projected net debt in 2019 of around 50 percent of GDP, not 70.”

For all the above arguments, I find myself asking, “where was the Tea Party for the past 8 years?” Here are a few prominent Tea Party slogans; I think it’s important to read them while asking this very pressing question:

“Stop Bankrupting America”; “You Can’t Spend Your Way Out of Debt”; “You Can’t Borrow to Prosperity”; If YOU Voted Yes to Spending,  Consider This Your Going Away Party”; “HONK … If you don’t like the word TRILLION$”;”1 Trillion and climbing – Now that’s a lot of change”; “Can We Bankrupt The Country? YES WE CAN”

Where were you when the budget deficit ballooned to over $730 billion, the national debt to to over $9 trillion and the trade deficit grew to %759 billion under George W. Bush?

“Yes We Can: Stop the Bailouts and Earmarks!”; “We Don’t Want Pork, We Want Liberty”; “Your Pork Broke My Piggy Bank”; “Special Interests Get the Pork; We Get the Beans”; “My Piggy Bank is NOT Your Pork Barrel”

Where were you when Bush allocated $170.7 billion to pork barrel spending?

“Trickle Up Poverty”

Where were you when the number of Americans in poverty grew by 5 million? When the amount of private sector jobs created declined by over 400% between 2001-2008?

“Truth, Justice and Real Transparency in Washington”; “R.I.P. Free Market Economy”

Where were you for the years of cronyism, corporate favoritism and rigged private sector deregulation under Bush? Remember Halliburton and other no-bid contracts during the Iraq war? Remember Michael Brown, the head of FEMA during Katrina and other nincompoops dubiously appointed to positions of power?

Of course, the popular Tea Party response is that anger towards the government was simmering even under the Bush Administration; that the party is a truly grassroots movement that simply reached a tipping point when the outrage could be contained no longer. While this might be a halfway plausible argument–after all, social movement don’t spring into existence overnight–it’s still just too easy an explanation. Before we can regard the Tea Party movement as a having a coherent political ideology, honest to it’s principles, they still have some ‘splainin’ to do.