Tea Party populism tastes fake

Tea Party’s right-wing extremism is absurd, yet potentially damaging

By Andrew Thornton

The idea of a “tea party” used to make me feel content, comfortable, and nostalgic for the fond memories from my youth. The Tea Party of today—an amalgam of every flavor of right-wing extremism—has excised all such positive connotation. There are hundreds of Tea Party groups nationally, their only nodes of commonality being those two words in their names and generic praise for conservatism. Possibly because it is so difficult to pin down their views, thoughtful analysis of their policies has been absent from news reporting. (Of course, it could merely be that the fatuity of the protesters’ slogans “rebuts itself,” so to speak.) But we ignore the substance of what Partiers say at our peril: They are voters, donors, and volunteers, who are waiting for right-wing candidates to co-opt at least some of the items on the Tea Party menu. Hence the Tea Partiers deserve analytical scrutiny, since their influence may become great enough to elect otherwise-mainstream candidates who share their extremist views.

The protesters’ frequent hostility to established Republicanism and its candidates has led some, including the New York Times, to call their movement populist, but this is a difficult characterization to make. Tea Party convention attendees paid $550 for a lobster and steak dinner and convention officials paid $100,000 for ex-Governor Palin to deliver the keynote. These bourgeois extravagances prompted some—presumably the “realer” Partiers—to counter-protest in the parking lot. A CNN/Opinion Research poll of February 12–15 found that compared with all respondents (N=1,023), Tea Party activists (N=124) are 20 percent (±9) more likely to have received some college education, 24 percent more likely to earn at least $50,000 per year, and 20 percent less likely to earn less than $30,000 per year. In light of the Census Bureau’s report that the median income for individuals over 25 was $32,140 in 2005, before the recession began, it may be indefensible to give the populist imprimatur to the Partiers’ protests, at least insofar as populist means what it has always meant—“in the interests of ordinary people.”

Though they are not statistically representative of average Americans, it is still possible that Tea Partiers have the interests of ordinary Americans at heart in advocating for their preferred policies. Tea Party Patriots, a coalition of many state and community Tea Parties, lets its Web site visitors choose their favored 10 policy proposals from a group of 21, most of which may be duly characterized as utterly insane. A few representative examples: scrapping the progressive income tax and replacing it with a single-rate tax law “no longer than 4,543 words—the length of the original Constitution;” allowing “young Americans” to opt out of Medicare and Social Security; requiring Congress to justify the constitutionality of each bill passed by referring to “the specific provision of the Constitution” that grants Congress such power; introducing a balanced-budget constitutional amendment that also requires a two-thirds majority for tax increases. The most popular proposals will become the Tea Parties’ Contract from America.

Indeed, it staggers the mind. In none of these proposals do we see the interests of ordinary Americans favored over the interests of right-wing ideologues. The progressive income tax favors the poor and middle-income over the wealthy. Tax revenue transfers from today’s workers to today’s retirees are necessary for the government to fund Medicare and Social Security; without them, poor and middle-income seniors will face the death panels of the free market. Nearly all Congressional legislation is rationally related to some desired end that fits easily within “the common defense and the general welfare” of Article I, Section 8. A balanced-budget constitutional amendment, while it sounds fine, would require substantial cuts in Medicare (13 percent of the FY 2010 budget), Social Security (20 percent), and the Department of Defense (19 percent), all of which are political third rails and noticeably absent from the Contract’s proposals. To see the impracticality of requiring a supermajority for tax increases, one needs to look no further than California, which is facing a $40 billion budget shortfall over FY 2009-2010, partly due to the political impossibility of budget proposals’ receiving a two-thirds majority.

It is lazy, and indeed reckless, to call the Tea Partiers a populist movement when they support thoughtless right-wing causes like those above. The New York Times would be forgiven if these proposals were directed to help average Americans, but they plainly are not. They are instead the pet causes of various right-wing activists, dragged out every time people are distrustful of government; we see their missing logic after only a moment’s research.

The truly extremist constituents of Tea Party protests should not worry us too much. Ideas advocated by secessionists, citizen militiamen, and the “birthers” have little chance of being incorporated into the mainstream political parties’ explicit platforms. More worrisome is the inevitable situation that mainstream, electable Republicans will co-opt some of their less-distasteful positions in an effort to get Tea Party support. To treat them as political sideshows, as the Times does, is dangerous, because they will all too soon become serious proposals when they are made by candidates like Ms. Palin or Texas Congressman Ron Paul.

— Andrew Thornton is a third-year in the College majoring in philosophy