The True Meaning of The Tea Party Phenomenon
My first encounter with the tea party movement was as an undergrad at the University of Georgia. I’d heard about the Tax Day “Tea Parties” — a very ironic name, in my opinion, because the Boston Tea Party was actually protesting a lowering of a tax on a foreign, state-backed corporation (the East India Trading Company), and the lack of democratic accountability over the move, not just taxes in general — and I decided to run over and see what all the commotion was about.
After a rowdy event where friends of mine were pushed, called racist names — a Korean friend I had was derided with the N-word, which is something that confuses me to this day — I was able to describe the event with only a brief phrase to someone who asked me about it later: “Those were the craziest people I’d ever met.”
Yet my feelings about the tea party phenomenon have changed since then. It’s not that I agree with them — on the contrary, I think the movement as a whole has devolved even further as far as seeking actual tangible goals, and if maintaining the most disturbing health care system in the world is one of them, I want no part of that — it’s that I’ve taken a greater interest in what motivates these people, and by doing so, I’ve learned that it simply isn’t productive to call these people crazy. Instead, they are byproduct of the politics of our time — the feeling of desperation common among so many Americans, and the crazy and cynical demagogues like Glenn Beck and Dick Armey who stand ready to exploit desperation.
What finally brought me to this conclusion in a way that I feel ready to write about it was something I saw this weekend. I had a visitor come in from outside the Beltway, and we went over to the Capitol to watch the sunset. As we sat there, we watched as a woman dressed in Uncle Sam colors carrying two brooms and banners with “CAPITALISM” splashed over them walked by. We exchanged bewildered looks, and as the person got closer, it became obvious that they were part of the tea party gang — they were there to protest the Senate vote to allow debate on health care (one of the bizarre elements of our system is that it takes sixty votes in the Senate to even agree to allow something to be debated).
As this person walked off into the distance, turning into a silhouette against the coming evening, I turned to my visitor and told them, “I don’t agree with them, but I admire the fact that she’s willing to do that.” Here we had someone who probably lives nowhere near the Capitol or Washington, D.C., willing to dress pretty ridiculously and carry around brooms outside the U.S. Capitol, knowing they’ll probably not impact much of anything at all. Something inside of me — maybe the part of me that took part in raucous and disruptive living wage protests at my University that were part of the movement that had our University Council pass, unanimously, a resolution outlining boosting the wages of all low-wage employees there — looked at what that woman was doing, however much I disagreed with it, as an expression of patriotism.
A few months ago, I had a chance to talk to a lot of tea partyers. The one overwhelming theme I found among all of them — other than their fiery and odd-among-the-developed-world hatred of the concept of taxation — was that they felt desperate. They felt like the government wasn’t listening to them, that the economy was plunging over a cliff, and that the only thing they could do was to pack their families into minivans and drive to Washington, D.C. to give us all a piece of their minds. Now, what they actually wanted was pretty awful — though there is little in the way of concrete goals of the tea party movement, from what I’ve seen, deregulating and cutting taxes seem to be two things that we can’t get enough — but something inside of me really felt for these people. They’ve seen, over the past three decades, their livelihoods fall apart. They’ve watched as their government became increasingly distant, and how the United States they grew up in has rapidly changed in ways few could’ve predicted (a mixed-race President with an Arab name, for starters).
Most of the tea partyers I’ve talked to aren’t just Randian selfish autobots or racists who want to see the President’s birth certificate. They’re people who see the same problems as most progressives do — their economic futures being ruined, the destructive feelings of a government that is unaccountable, the increasing tension between different geographical parts of the country — and they feel like they need to do something about it. The problem, in my view, is that the solutions to all of these problems just about any of us can see are being presented by lunatics (Glenn Beck and his radio host crowd) and cynics at the helm of corporate vehicles (Dick Armey and similar raiders come to mind) who are looking to exploit the feelings of desperation and helplessness of these people for their own means.
The reason the tea party movement has arisen is because the far right has managed to convince people that it isn’t the corporate lobbyists who’ve engineered the economic policies of the last 35 years who are responsible for the state of our economy — it’s those evil lefty bureaucrats and their allies in those all-powerful poorly paid community organizer outfits like ACORN. And the fact that people like Armey and Beck have managed to commandeer such a movement isn’t just about their evilness or the ignorance of tea party demonstrators — it’s also about the failure of those of us who are progressives to engage these people and bring them into a real populist economic movement against the right targets. Rather than mocking the largely white, southern demographic that makes up this movement, we should be trying to engage with it — no matter how difficult that is — to enlist it on our side. Because if there’s anything creeps like Beck and Armey are afraid of, it’s the people they’ve been duping all along pulling the curtain aside and realizing their predicament.
When we have the same people taking part in the tea parties marching on the offices of FreedomWorks and Cigna, then we’ll start to see real change in this country. If we’re simply going to dismiss the tea party as some crazy phenomenon and not look for its social roots, then we may have to deal with the Becks and Armeys of the world for a long time to come, and I’m willing to bet that their successors will be even worse.