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The Tea Party, a populist movement, but to what end?

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Being the contrarian that I am, whenever it becomes popular to ridicule something, I find myself asking "wait a minute. Is there more to this?" Many of the figures of the Tea Party movement are pretty easy targets, making it easy to dismiss the whole movement as a bunch of extremists, ignorant backwoodsmen or agents of some evil puppet-master.

There are things I should like about the movement. First, it started as a populist movement, which is what I think we need to shake up the current rigged two-party monopoly. But it hasn't played out that way. Tea Party proponents say they "don't care about party labels" and that they "don't care what party you're in; they just want to know if you reflect their values." However, in practice, there is no place for Democrats in the Tea Party - and what's more, all Tea Party candidates have run on the Republican ticket, not a third party ticket.

Ok, so the real Tea Party is older, white, somewhat more male, and 30% more likely to identify as "born-again" Christians than the general population. They have a favorable opinion of the Republican Party and an unfavorable opinion of the Democratic Party. But what do they want?

A common slogan is "Take back America." When I see representatives of the movement speak, whether official PR spokesmen or ordinary attendees at rallies etc. it feels like this is code for a number of what appear to be fear-driven goals. In a lot of ways, "Take back America" seems to mean taking America back to a mythical, idealized time in the past, when white people had it good, jobs were plentiful, taxes were low, and everybody feared/loved Jesus in appropriate quantities.

They want to roll the clock back to some imagined version of America that never really existed. It's a fictionalized, Rockwell-esque amalgam of all the best of America, from their perspective, from many different times in history. Except in this rose-colored-glasses story, they leave out the ickier parts.

They want lower taxes and less government, but does that mean going back to a time before Social Security and Welfare? If there was a Tea Party back when those issues were moving through congress, it certainly would have opposed them, going by their stated mission of strongly opposing such social programs. Keep in mind, 43 percent of the federal budget goes to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, yet the vast majority of Tea Party members support these programs and want them to continue.

Or how about civil rights? This "better time" they long for allowed segregation and countless forms of formalized racism and discrimination, even slavery, if you take them at their word that they want to revert to the original doctrine of the Constitution.

The Tea Party says they support reduced government interference and "liberty" while at the same time Tea Party candidates have said "we would like to see prayer back in school" and activists carry signs reading "Yes, we are a Christian nation" and "United government under God." Or there's Governor Robert Bentley announcing that "Anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister." So, "liberty" in the Tea Party definition, appears to be the liberty to impose Christianity.

Tea Party darling Christine O'Donnell famously said "Evolution is a myth." Recall that, even though Clarence Darrow made William Jennings Bryan out to be a fool at the 1925 Scopes trial, he lost the case and Scopes was found guilty of illegally teaching evolution - and those anti-evolution laws were not repealed in Tennessee until 45 years later, in 1967! Yes, you read that right - it was illegal to teach evolution in Tennessee as recently as 1967! Is that the America the Tea Party wants, where factual science is excluded from education by government mandate?

As for tax rates, nobody likes paying taxes and getting rid of government waste sounds great. But let's give it some perspective, shall we? Analysis shows that the effective income tax rate is currently at its lowest level since at least 1955 and corporate tax rates are already lower than they’ve been in 50 years. High taxes are not the problem.

Tea Party enthusiasts are quick to throw around the word socialism in reference to Obama’s tax policies. They claim he wants to raise the tax burden on the rich and lower it on the poor to "distribute wealth" but the facts, again, don't bear it out. The rich continue to get richer. Even if Obama had gotten his way, it would have represented a pretty paltry tax increase for the richest people and, even then, it would only get things closer to where they were because, while the tax rates for nearly all households have been dropping since the 60s, the rates of the richest have dropped the most, by far. If the Tea Party sees a pro-business, pro-capitalism moderate such as Barack Obama as a socialist with all his tax cuts, imagine what they would think of a president who ran a federal government with significantly higher tax rates than today and who raised taxes while in office, specifically, Ronald Reagan.

The basic message of the Tea Party movement is quite appealing: Government is too expensive, too intrusive and too big. But the devil is in the details. In the end, I don't think there's anything new here. The Tea Party should be praised for managing to organize some of the anger and frustration that's out there into something people are looking at - and perhaps it can be a model for other populist movements in some way. But for the Tea Party itself, there is no "there" there, at least not yet - it's not that unlike the old "moral majority" but with a much narrower agenda. And like that movement, it will continue to be a fringe element. It is a movement that cannot deny that it is heavily loaded with extremists - truth hurts, sorry. Mocking them really is easy, and justified in most cases. Again, tough luck. You are what you are.
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Bob said...

The Karl Denninger branch of the Tea Party isn’t racist, and he co-founded the original Tea Party. Go to his site at and see if you find any racism. I don’t think you can because it’s not there. He founded the Tea Party in anger against the bailout of big banks by the government and is scathing against those who hijacked it.