Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Enigma of the Tea Party

I live in a Florida city that like most of Florida is filled with grumpy retirees. Many are early retired from corporations, with large savings accounts, ample pensions and generous medical insurance plans, and there are others retired from blue collar factory jobs from the mid-west and northeast, so it is possible to walk around many neighborhoods in the afternoon without missing a line from Rush Limbaugh on talk radio. Needless to say, it is a pretty hostile climate for progressives. Tea Partiers thrive in this warm moist climate, most with plenty of time on their hands that they use to write mean and angry postings on the comment page of the local newspaper bashing liberals, socialists, commies, freedom-haters, Obama-lovers and others of questionable loyalty to American values that they imagine are trying to turn the United States into a third-world socialist nation by bankrupting the country with unnecessary taxes, giveaways to the corporations and banks, and a government run healthcare program that will have government bureaucrats dictating what care we can have before we are sent to the end of life death panels that they fear.

The two things that really set them off are taxes—they are too high—and socialist welfare programs for the poor, the unemployed, the lazy—all those scabs on the backs of true blue-blooded working Americans who have to work hard only to have their just financial rewards stolen from them by the government and redistributed to those who don’t deserve it.  Every news article, editorial, or letter to the editor becomes an occasion for these extremists to vent their increasing anger and frustration at society, at government, and at local and national politicians.

The Tea Party is something of an enigma. It is difficult and may be unwise to attempt to characterize a group that is as diverse and fluid as the Tea Party appears to be, yet there are some things that can be said about them. "They" appear to be a motley assortment of folks, well meaning in their intentions for the most part, gullible enough to be led astray by the right wing buffoons and rabble-rousers of talk radio and Fox News, foolish and naïve in their public displays and rallys, appallingly ignorant about American history and values, unable to make serious practical political judgments (note their fascination with Sarah Palin), and ultimately dangerous because they foster ignorance and mob rule. They do not understand either democracy or the realities of a republic, yet they are powerful enough to create real damage because they are frustrated and angry and they are lashing out at whatever seems to be a good target for their rage.

A recent dialogue illustrates the difficulty of intelligent conversation with a Tea Party supporter who advocates values that he does not really understand. In response to a newspaper critique of inflammatory rhetoric by speakers at a local rally in which supporters of President Obama were called everything from socialists to traitors, he said (talking about his friends who participated in the rally):

“They just want to be reassured that you’re an American and that you believe in capitalism, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. That’s all.”
I responded to him:

“The vast majority of Americans believe in capitalism, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, including me. I fear that what you mean is that you want people to believe in your way of understanding these terms, and that is where our disagreement arises.
[a] I believe that capitalism is the best economic system but it needs operating rules, and it needs to get disconnected from corporatism and monopolies, so that there is real and fair competition between equal parties in commercial transactions. When one party to a financial transaction makes the rules (for instance, the banks), then real and fair competition does not occur and the basic premise of capitalism is defeated.
[b] I believe in Constitutional government, as do most people, including the courts and judges. The issue is how the Constitution is interpreted. That is what we argue about. If you mean that you want judges who make Constitututional decisions the way you want them decided, and I want judges inclined to go along with my read of the Constitution, both of us believe in the Constitution, but we disagree about what it means and how it is to be interpreted.
[c] I believe in the Bill of Rights. I believe in freedom of speech. I think that provision was put into the Constitution to apply specifically to political speech. No one should be able to muzzle your freedom to express and advocate for your political beliefs. But I want that strictly interpreted. Speech is speech. Actions are not speech. Money is not speech. Corporations are not people. So my take on this is that what the courts have called “symbolic speech” – i.e., flag burning, desecrating public buildings with splattered blood, or disrupting public meetings, etc. is not properly an exercise of “free speech.” I also maintain that “money” is not free speech and campaign contributions can be limited without any individual being deprived of his right to speak his mind.
In other words, we do not disagree about the importance of capitalism, or the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights, but we surely disagree about what they mean.”
The leadership of the Tea Party movement says that the characterizations and estimates of the Tea Party should not be based on what happens at public demonstrations, what is yelled out, what is written on crude illiterate signs. It is apparent that the excesses of the Tea Party followers and hangers-on have proven to be an embarrassment to its leaders, who have visions of being taken seriously and having some impact on future political events. Fox News, in a surprisingly candid article on the Tea Party following its national tour, said that “while organizers have held the tour as a way to stay front-and-center as a political force, the rallies have also attracted the kinds of mistruths, exaggerations and conspiracy theories that make Tea Party leaders cringe. Though the movement is still trying to shore up its credentials as a grassroots power that's here to stay, the so-called "fringe" and its accompanying antics continue to give critics fodder.”

Adherents of the Tea Party movement are supposedly brighter than the average citizen (a questionable judgment based on the signs they carry and the slogans they shout), but regardless even those identified as its leadership seem strangely deficient in knowledge of history and the meaning of some of the simplest political concepts—socialism, communism, tyranny, fascism, Nazi—which they use in the most bizarre and uninformed way. An analysis of this aspect of the Tea Partiers appears in a recent issue of Slate, in a perceptive article worth the read by Ron Rosenbaum, The Tea Party's Toxic Take on History. In his critique of the lack of historical awareness evidenced by the Tea Party Rosenbaum says:

“Most people with a basic grounding in history find Tea Party ignorance something to laugh about, certainly not something to take seriously. But I would argue that history demonstrates that historical ignorance is dangerous and that it can have tragic consequences, however laughable it may initially seem. And thus the media, liberals, and others are misguided in laughing it off. And educated conservatives are irresponsible in staying silent in the face of these distortions.... The muddled Tea Party version of history is more than wrong and fraudulent. It's offensive. Calling Obama a tyrant, a communist, or a fascist is deeply offensive to all the real victims of tyranny, the real victims of communism and fascism.... The media for the most part has shown itself afraid to challenge the insidious distortions of language and history Tea Partiers promote.”
It would be nice if the so-called “Tea Party” crowd were actually a new third party instead of what appears to be merely “Republicans with attitude” who talk about change we might believe in but are actually just the same “angry white folks” with the same tired complaints about big government, unbalanced budgets, porous borders, gay marriage, enemies behind every bush, government giveaway programs, and high taxes. They are Republicans wearing camouflage, and I guess they assume we won't notice.

When the Tea Party movement first surfaced I had hoped for more. I really hoped for a third party of fiscal and social moderates that would give some balance to the flaky fringe of the right and the left and might lead to a national conversation about needs and priorities and a willingness (and necessity) to compromise in the interest of accomplishing something useful and workable for our nation and to move us beyond anger and frustration.

I wanted a party for fiscal moderates, a party that would not engage in unnecessary wars and that if and when a war was necessary for our defense would have the integrity to pay for that war by raising taxes so they could show they were serious and were not just engaging in political rhetoric for short term political gain at long term cost to the next generation of ever increasing debt and ever decreasing quality of life.

I wanted a party that would commit to making lobbying illegal; end campaign donations by corporations, businesses, labor unions, trade associations and political action committees; reform campaign finance laws and amend the “free speech” provisions of the Constitution so that corporations were not deemed to be persons and money was not deemed a proxy for speech; and eliminate the influence of corporatism in our lives.

I wanted a party that would enforce our borders and our immigration laws; end agricultural visas for farmers and technical visas for computer programmers and other professionals unless coupled with enforceable provisions requiring those with temporary work visas to leave when their visas expire; stand up to the Republican Party that wants our immigration laws to be ignored to keep the cost of labor down and ensure a continuous supply of low cost workers to business in order to undermine worker protections and unions; stand up to the Democrats who also want the immigration laws to be ignored so that more poor workers and minorities will increase the potential membership of their party; and change the national conversation about immigration so that there was no implication that open national boundaries are desirable and enforcing our immigration laws was somehow “racist.”

I hoped for a party that would encourage free enterprise to flourish by breaking up the big banks and big corporations that dominate our markets and prevent real competition in price and quality of goods and services; devise regulations to make markets fair and competitive; eliminate manufacturer agreements with retailers that arbitrarily fix prices and penalize retailers who compete on price; remove legal constraints on Medicare so that drug companies would have to bid successfully to get their drugs on an approved list; and enforce trade agreements to prevent dumping and other unfair and anti-competitive practices that undermine our economy and our workers.

I hoped for a party that would recognize that government is separate from religion and would not try to impose sectarian or religious values into the political sphere or try to impose particular religious standards on the rest of society.

But I am a realist and I do not think this will happen. I am afraid that the Tea Party is not really a serious political movement that will give us a real choice because we have seen the Tea Party movement co-opted by the Republican Party to try to win unhappy independents. Our choices will still be between Republicans and Democrats. That is a great disappointment to me, because both parties are firmly in the control of the corporations and despite what they say with their campaign rhetoric, fundamental change will not happen. The existing political parties are too entrenched in their ways, too entangled with lobbyists, too much under the influence of corporations, PACS and political cronies, too sure they can continue their current ways with no real consequences, too inclined to protect and advantage their friends. That said, and with considerable reluctance, I will continue to support the Democrats in elections as a moral choice of the lesser of the evils because they tend to be less selfish and more inclined to support programs that benefit people.

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