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I suppose it is kind of preposterous that one imagines himself important enough to write down his opinions for others to read. Chattering superciliousness is one of the most infuriating things about academics and so-called intellectuals, generally, who feel compelled to share their thoughts. But here it goes, anyway.

The Very Republican Tea Party

The Very Republican Tea Party
By Michael E. Berumen
04-16-10
                An extensive poll of “tea party” supporters by CBS News and the New York Times has put the lie to the notion that this represents some sort of populist uprising.  It is a manifestation of unrest among reasonably well-educated, middle-aged and older, white, moderately-affluent, Republican males.  Moreover, it has sympathies with only about 18% of the general adult population, and only 4% has either sent money or attended a tea party event.  Despite the seemingly constant and fawning attention of conservative cable news and talk radio shows, this hardly constitutes a popular uprising amongst the downtrodden masses.  And given the fact that the “movement” is primarily focused on defeating key or weakened Democrats, it most certainly cannot be described as nonpartisan.  
              While its leadership maintains that it is separate and distinct from the Republican Party, it is only in the same sense that certain tax-exempt 527 organizations, such as the Swift Boat and Moveon.org, groups, or the Chamber of Commerce and certain labor organizations, are also separate and distinct from the major parties, notwithstanding the fact they all clearly cater to Republican or Democratic platforms and candidates.  The Republican Party is currently falling all over itself trying to curry favor with the tea party and, along with its  media arms in talk radio and Fox News, it makes full use of its anti-Democratic, anti-Obama platform.  The “distance” its leaders try to create is a sham, for the truth is, the group consists of the core constituency of the Republican Party, one that is knee-jerkingly against everything President Obama is for, and one that is increasingly disenchanted with the apostasy of its few remaining moderate voices or the occasional attempts to be bipartisan, this being guaranteed to incur the wrath of the base.
                This angry white male group is essentially the same kind of phenomenon that helped put Richard Nixon in the White House back when “law and order” was the buzz phrase of the day, code for a dislike of integration, the anti-war crowd, and social change, generally.  The buzz today is too much government, socialism, and, whatever Obama is for it must be bad for America, even when much of what he promotes was also supported by the party’s patron saint, Ronald Reagan, and other Republican luminaries of the past.  And, as was true in President Nixon’s day, and while certainly not representative of the majority of tea party members or angry white males, there was and remains a fringe element of potentially dangerous, anti-government nuts (not that they refuse public assistance for themselves) emerging from the political underbelly of America. 
                The tea party is a vocal minority, one generated by economic discontent and fear of President Obama, a discontent ginned up by the shriller elements of the reactionary chattering class, especially Fox News, and it is unlikely to be anything more than a fleeting political movement that manages to gets some Republicans elected and some Democrats tossed out of office in November.  As the economy improves, however, its influence as a group outside of the conventional party machinery will surely begin to wane.  It is unlikely to ever become a large political movement or organize into an independent party, especially since most of what it promotes is already being promoted by the Republican base.  Indeed, in no small sense, it is the Republican base... just availing itself of another avenue of expression.
             One wonders where all of these anti-government people were when the last President Bush took us into an unnecessary, prolonged war and occupation at considerable cost in in human and capital treasure; massively expanded the size and cost of government; when he trampled on any number of constitutional rights, so much so that even the conservative Supreme Court could not uphold his decisions; and when he crafted a very expensive (and poorly designed) "government run" drug program under Medicare. Where were all of the states rights people when the Supreme Court cynically appointed George W. Bush as president, in the first place, nullifying the decision of the Florida Supreme Court?   Why were they not in the streets showing their outrage at such brazen abuses of power and spendthrift behavior?  Clearly, because they were then, as they are now, partisans, pure and simple.  In other words, they have no problem at all with Republican big government, overspending, and infringements on the Constitution. They are not opposed to big government at all, they are opposed to the other guy's government.  And they deplore attempts to correct (with several notable successes, I might add) the large mess and legacy of malfeasance left behind by a Republican president and congress.
                The principal spokespeople for the tea party bunch include former Governor Sarah Palin and Representative Michele Bachman, intellectual featherweights, who even openly pride themselves in this painfully obvious fact.  They are able to create a great deal of heat with their anti-elitist, anti-intellectual rants and they do so without ever producing much light. Fortunately, their popularity is largely confined to the gun-toting,  trailer park crowd , those who think of these women as being one of their own. They are not taken very seriously even among core constituencies in the Republican Party, where these post-feminist demagogues fail to garner much real interest as future presidential candidates, as the straw polling shows.  They are aided and abetted in their  pyrotechnics, of course, by the ethically challenged, but less home-spun and more cerebral former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, a historian cum ideologue who knows enough history to twist it to his purposes, and who is looking for a base for his own presidential aspirations (it will never happen); the bombastic and relentless partisan, Sean Hannity; the political theorist to the unlettered, Glenn Beck; and the former opiate addict and perennial rabble rouser to the Republican base, Rush Limbaugh.   
                The danger of the tea party movement is primarily on the fringes, as is the case with any political faction that arises from discontent during hard times.  The far right has used this movement in an attempt to give voice to its complaints about such things as immigration, an African American president, guns, Muslims, diversity, homosexuals, and what-not, and in order to make its own agenda seem more mainstream by association with it.  So they show up at tea party events with their crazy, incendiary signs and shout epithets to politicians.  I am not especially worried about the effects of tea party members, as a whole; dissent is healthy and these are just Republicans in sheepskin.  However, I do worry about the constant anti-government drumbeat (one wonders just what the object of their patriotism is), accusing Obama of being a radical socialist (he is not), or even questioning his legitimacy (saying he wasn’t born in the US: he was), and some of the other nonsense that could cause one of the fanatics on the fringe to do something mad, a la Timothy McVeigh or David Koresh.  Responsible people in the party establishment and amongst the chattering class on TV and radio must be more mindful of the untoward effects their hyperbole in their zeal to win elections can have, lest they bear some responsibility for a tragedy. 
                Of equal concern to me is the fact that some Democratic politicians have been entirely too wishy-washy as of late in an effort to be politically correct and sensitive to the tea party crowd, people who are unlikely to vote for a Democrat under any set of circumstances.  Too much of their nonsense passes without comment, e.g., that the country is headed towards socialism, that health insurance reform is tantamount to government takeover of health care, etc., instead of denouncing such silliness in no uncertain terms, along with a failure to condemn some of the more outrageous things promoted by the birthers and the like.  Democrats should be addressing this silliness with much more vigor and more routinely without fear of alienating them, for they are already alienated.   The objective is to ensure that people who do not presently identify with the tea party group do not begin to believe what is being said simply because it is said often and loudly enough, which depends upon a clear and timely counterattack, one that is based on facts.  I was pleased that former President Clinton has begun to do just that, and I would hope some well-known, respected politicians from the “old guard” (and to my mind, preferable) Republican ranks, e.g., former Senators Howard Baker, Bob Dole, and Alan Simpson, and even President George H.W. Bush might do the same.  This is precisely what the rational center needs to counter the efforts of the likes of Palin, Bachman, and Gingrich, along with the ubiquitous noise emanating from the infotainment world of cable TV and talk radio.
           With all this said, don't get me wrong: I think the core Democrats are only slightly less contemptible, and I am especially critical of President Obama for his failure to spend his political capital early-on in his administration for a more sensible health insurance reform program with a properly designed and funded government-payer option (such as Medicare). He still managed to get something better than what we had, to be sure,  but it is insufficient and an opportunity was squandered through dithering for bipartisanship and placating special interests. While the Republicans have never been especially competent at managing the checkbook (contrary to convention), they have always excelled at marketing (hence, the convention), and they clearly out-marketed the Democrats with their sales points on death panels, government takeover of health care, etc. I hope the president does better on financial reform, and there is some early evidence suggesting that he will.
         I also do want to say that the tea party people are absolutely correct with one of their principal sentiments, and that is a general distrust of government and a fear of government overreaching.  Where I differ is that this is true of governments run by both Democrats and Republicans.  There are very good reasons to be suspicious of government, even when the original intention is to do good.  For that reason, alone, dissent against it has value; even when it is not altogether coherent and when it is clearly partisan, as in this case, because it keeps politicians on their toes, and that is a very healthy thing.  But I extend this suspicion to all institutions, including private business, large and small, where, in fact, an equal or greater amount of corruption exists. The thing that makes it less problematic than government power is that power in private hands is generally not monopolistic, whereas the government's is. We have more alternatives and choices in the marketplace.
       The pluralism inherent in private property and its adjunct, capitalism, helps guard our individual liberties through a diffusion of power over our lives, and that is of paramount importance. Competition amongst firms affects not only product quality and price, but also reputation and integrity. In other words, competition can keep the players honest, not always in the short run, as we know, but very often in the long run. It is the role of government (among others) to smooth the rough edges of the marketplace, and also to provide a safety net for those who fall through the cracks, which any one of us is apt to do at one time or another (it is worth noting that the poll shows tea party members like their government benefits!).  Voters and dissenters, alike, including tea party people, are all we have to keep politicians and regulators accountable by forcing them to compete for the consent of the governed.