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 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 ThinkProgress.org:

“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.