April 26, 2010

The Tea Party Movement. What Is It?

by Hal Gershowitz

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Unlike the “experts” on both sides of the political spectrum who will state with absolute certainty who the Tea Partiers are and what they stand for (invariably to support the reporter’s political persuasion), we will admit that at this point in time, we can only say for certain what the movement is not.  Like the storied Boston Tea Party of 1773 where the citizens of Massachusetts protested British taxes being imposed on them without any representation and dumped three shiploads of British tea into the harbor, the current movement is not a political party, at least not yet, and it probably never will be.

Of course every commentator and pollster is ready to tell us definitively what the meaning is of this unique new political movement.  Former President Clinton likened its followers to the odious Timothy McVeigh of Oklahoma City notoriety.   The former President knows better but as a loyal Democrat he apparently is willing to share in the heavy lifting to demonize the Tea Party.  Many Republican leaders say the movement is nothing more than an outcry against the policies of the current Administration, but in our view that would be an over simplification as well.

The common philosophical thread which does seem to run all through Tea Party adherents who speak out appears to be a sense that government has become too large, too overbearing, too much in debt and that it is muscling into our private lives as never before.  True, many attendees who are interviewed are outraged about specific issues like high taxes, the recently enacted health care bill and the tactics used to force its passage.  Divining coherency and consistency out of all of this is impossible even though we are treated daily to talking heads and newspaper analysts who state with absolute assurance what it all means.

Our take is that the movement can be attributed simply to frustration with the “political class” and a free-floating anxiety about whether any elected officials can provide inspiration and leadership in troubled times.  But any review of the history of the shifting political tides in our nation clearly shows that this movement has numerous antecedents . . . and that it is very healthy for our democracy.

In recent years, we Americans have been increasingly worried about our relative position in the world and whether it is declining economically, commercially and militarily vis‑à‑vis other powers, and there is good reason for this worry.  But one characteristic of America in which we can place enormous confidence is that, built into our democracy’s DNA, is free speech and the dynamics of an open marketplace of ideas which revivifies the political system and supplies it with the equivalent of new blood cells to keep it healthy.  By way of comparison, the Chinese model, even allowing for its impressive economic growth, is ossified (as is that of every dictatorship not open to change and experiment), and in the long run that is very likely to prove costly to oppressive nations.  Moreover, it will ultimately prove to be dangerous to them.  As we have seen this year in Iran, people cannot forever be suppressed, whether by a dictatorship of the left or the right.  If there is no safety valve for free expression, the only outlet becomes violence and revolution.  What makes America different is that change springs from the ideas of ordinary people and those ideas can grow into living political organisms.

Political commentators and pundits have, of course, found in the Tea Party movement new material for their unending need to fill space in the op-ed pages of major daily newspapers and to participate on endless cable television commentary.  They count the number of people at rallies who are in business suits, and they analyze in great detail the racial makeup of the on-stage participants giving speeches, and the people in the audience.  The New York Times reported that 18 percent of Americans who identify themselves as Tea Party supporters tend to be “white, male, married, and more than 45 years of age.”  In general “they are wealthier and more educated than the general public.”

Some pundits note that Tea Party attendees comprise a mix of libertarianism and conservatism with the political issue common denominator being lower spending and smaller government.  However, media analysis varies greatly.  Commentators on the left have derided the movement as if it were comprised only of angry mobs of Klansmen carrying pitchforks and armed to the teeth threatening elected political officials with bodily harm.  They converge upon a rally of tens of thousands of people and then spend the next two weeks discussing, without end, a few boors whose behavior was vile and who may have shouted vulgar racial or homophobic epitaphs.  We have all seen “instant replay” videotape coverage played over and over in which we are supposed to determine whether someone in the crowd used the “N” word when screaming at a political official of color or who spat in the face of an elected official.  On the right numerous commentators have claimed that the allegations of bad behavior have been fabricated.  But to focus on a few bad actors is to miss the meaning of what is happening all around us in this political year.

James Taranto’s recent Wall Street Journal on-line column, “Best of the Web”, on April 19th makes an extraordinarily important point.  He notes that Charles Blow, of The New York Times, who attended a Tea Party rally was put off by the fact that the speakers on stage represented an abundance of ethnic diversity, but that there was a dearth of it in the crowd.  Blow said what he witnessed was a “political minstrel show” . . . for those engaged in a subterfuge of intolerance.”  Blogger, Conor Friedsdorf, who is also quoted in the Taranto column, states that “ . . . the vast majority of liberal writers would normally praise the act of highlighting the voices of people of color even if they aren’t  particularly representative of [the audience].  Let it happen at a rally of conservatives however, and it winds up [being criticized] on the nations’ premiere op-ed page.  As both Mr. Taranto and other commentators have observed, the political left is obsessed with racial diversity unless it occurs on the political right.

In the middle of President Obama’s term of office and with his party in complete control of the federal government, doesn’t it make sense that a political protest movement would have more adherents among the party out of power than the one in control?  Since African Americans vote in vast majorities for Democratic candidates and are rightfully proud (as are most Americans irrespective of ethnicity) that this nation elected its first black president, is it reasonable to expect large throngs of black Americans congregating in public in protest of his Administration?

Robert McCartney, a liberal Washington Post columnist, attended a Tea Party rally last week to determine just how reactionary and potentially violent the movement truly was. 
Answer:  Not very. 
He reported Tea Party members are not seething, ready-to-explode racists, as some liberal commentators have caricatured them.  While assortments of sign-carriers were present he ignored them and chose instead to interview, at random, numerous attendees.

“…On the whole, they struck me as passionate conservatives dedicated to working within the system rather than dangerous militia types or a revival of the Ku Klux Klan.

Although he found shrinking government to be their primary goal, none were clamoring for civil disobedience, much less armed revolt.

Interestingly, Politico, the non-partisan group that covers national affairs concluded much the same following a statistically valid sampling of 457 attendees at the Tea Party Tax-Day Rally in Washington, D.C.  They found that: three out of four tea partiers were worried about the direction in which the country is headed; seventy-two percent were worried that the next generation’s standard of living will be lower than their own; fifty-one percent have a close friend or family member who is out of work and an incredibly high percent (29%) are small-business owners.  Not quite the crazed insurrectionists the popular media make them out to be.

In the last two decades, Republicans and Democrats in turn have been given the opportunity by the voters to take responsibility and leadership to solve the most pressing problems of our country.  The current debt explosion, the underfunding of Social Security and Medicare, our dependence on foreign oil owned mostly by despotic nations and the threat of Islamic fundamentalism have been coming at us for years.  Each political party that has been given the opportunity by the American people to show leadership on any of these issues has frittered it away, being more concerned with having it all their way instead of seeking compromise solutions.  Seeking retribution against their predecessors seems always to trump the opportunity to govern effectively.

The Tea Party movement is not the first nor will it be the last spontaneous coalescing of a political protest movement disgusted with all mainstream political parties.  In one manner or another, this has happened many times before in our history and in some cases the movements ultimately morphed into the replacement of a political party.  The original Federalists and Republicans transitioned into Democrats and Whigs, the latter of which was absorbed into the Republican party which first elected Abraham Lincoln as President.

In the late 1890s, and the early twentieth century the country experienced a populist period, often associated with three-time defeated Democratic presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan.  President Theodore Roosevelt altered the political landscape by reforming the Republican Party and adopting many progressive reforms (which the populists favored) to modify laissez-faire capitalism, and, of course, he ran for president in 1912 on a third party ticket.  Many of the populist demands of the Bryan era such as breaking up large monopolistic concentrations of power ended up either becoming law or being adopted as Amendments to the Constitution (i.e., direct election of Senators, women’s suffrage,etc.).  In American history, our politics has adapted to the changes brought about by social upheaval, changes in our frontiers, urbanization and reactions against concentration of power.  Because of this elasticity the democratic experiment created by our founding fathers has lasted and remained true to the basic principles embodied in our Constitution.

More recently, political protest movements altered the shape of our politics and our presidential elections.  The long delayed Civil Rights Movement sprang from the grass roots of the nation and it radically changed the shape of our body politic and our political alignments.

It is not surprising that this phenomena has arisen and loosely coalesced into a movement, given the current poisoned atmosphere of our national politics, the major economic crisis of the past three years, the changing fabric of our population, (now no longer European in its growth), competition from globalization, the change from a manufacturing economy to a service economy and a failure of mainstream politicians effectively to inspire our people away from a growing feeling that America’s great exceptionalism may be a thing of the past.

We are surely in a turbulent election year and emotions are running high.  At this point it appears that public anger at the political class as typified by tea parties, will result in many incumbents losing their seats this fall and right now the Democrats seem more endangered.  But this movement is not controlled by the Republican Party and its aim is not to sweep Democrats from office.  Rather, it is aimed at all those politicians who are elected year after year who seem utterly clueless about the anger that the voters have over their repeated failure to solve problems or improve the lives of the American people and who see their main job, once taking the oath of office, to start raising money for their reelection.  Both parties should take account of the fact that the public holds both parties and Congress in very low esteem.  The only thing on the upswing with the voters is cynicism and we can expect more of it now that the Administration seems to be trying to increase its standing by focusing its litigation guns at Wall Street.  Can the public have confidence in any institution?

The movement also proves that the posturing and spin of those in office do not fool the people.  Legislative chicanery and side deals done out of the light of day are in fact noticed, resented and exposed.  Congress cannot regain the trust of the public until it stops taking us for fools.

On November 2, 2010, the makeup of Congress is likely to change drastically.  Both parties will be affected by the decision of the voters.  On November 3, the pundits will tell us with their usual certainty precisely what the message was that was sent, and as usual they will not agree.  Coherence and democracy do not necessarily go hand in hand.  Democracy and politics are much too messy and for that we ought to be grateful.

All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the subject of the essay or which are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.

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5 responses to “The Tea Party Movement. What Is It?”

  1. Dan Newell says:

    Hal and Steven:

    Very nice. Parts sound a little like Fareed Zacharia’s view on India’s democracy in his “Post American World”.

    What is your take on CA politics insofar as the entrenched liberalism in Sacramento? Worse than IL? btw, I like Arnold for having tried to push things thru given the political system he and we are stuck with (eg. a reserve fund AKA a rainy day fund).

    CA led the nation politically being the first to have a “broken system”. Now I see that people (not just tea partyers) are saying the same about the feds. So let’s see democracy in action change CA. Let’s show the rest of the nation how to do it. Meg or Steve? What else?


  2. Californians should study what is happening in Greece and shudder. Greece will probably be bailed out by the EU. The U.S. government cannot bail out California without opening the flood gates to several other states that are ready to come knocking on Uncle Sam’s door. Hold on to your hat!

  3. Harris says:

    Not to nitpick but:
    shouted vulgar racial or homophobic “epitaphs”. should be “epithets”

  4. Indeed. Thanks for calling typo to our attention.

  5. […] Divining coherency and consistency out of all of this is impossible even though we are treated daily… […]

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