I find myself troubled by the “Tea Party Movement” that is bubbling and churning in the contemporary political scene. This is not an unusual statement; many observers have reacted to this movement with responses ranging from head-scratching confusion to utter disgust.
Most of these complaints, it seems, focus on the movement’s methods. Indeed, the hateful racial and homophobic epithets (slurring Representatives John Lewis and Barney Frank at a rally in March), automatic weapon carrying, boisterous shouting and lockstep adherence to Glenn Beck’s hysterical chalkboard scribbling can be alarming to outsiders.
This is not what really disturbs me, though. I would like to skip over their methods and engage with what seem to be the actual principles of the “movement.”
As far as I can tell, the movement seems to believe at its core in the devolution of power from the federal government to the lowest possible unit of political organization. Any attempts to engage in collective problem solving at the federal level are met with hysterical cries of “socialism” and “communism.”
In an April 19th poll from Politico, a majority of Tea Party participants identified themselves as “libertarian.” In this model, taxes are as low as mathematically possible to retain a huge strategic reserve of nukes, a blue water navy and an overwhelming army. Everything else should be managed by states, counties or local school boards, I guess.
There are a few especially weird components of the Tea Party and their avowed platform.
First, it’s a strange inversion of the conservative and liberal labels. Those who are called “conservative” are interested in conserving little.
Many are actually radicals bent on ripping out the wiring from institutions that have endured in this country for decades, like Social Security and food and drug inspection. Those “liberals,” characterized as brazen and careless, are actually standing at the bulwark, trying (and often failing) to uphold some semblance of public responsibility in the U.S.
Second, their platform seems to be a throwback to the bad old days of Reagan-era deification of the private sector. It’s like the economic conflagration of 2008, which we have just begun to extinguish, never happened.
The Tea Partiers espouse a private sector left to frolic on its own with the whole economy as its Garden of Earthly Delights. They seem to be forgetting that this too often means games like the ones played with the housing market, purposefully designing risky time bombs then taking out billion dollar bets that they will explode.
This was a sort of nihilistic hot-potato played with the full knowledge that when the music stopped, the American tax payer would foot the bill. Is this irresponsible, sociopathic and self-centered morality to be elevated above an ethic of public service?
Generations of Americans seem not to have caught on that in the film Wall Street, Gordon Gekko was the bad guy.
Finally, devolving power excessively would harm our ability to deal with some of the most pressing threats of our era. The overwhelming scientific consensus points to a future of weather disruption and flooding as a result of human–influenced climate change.
Additionally, the entire American economic infrastructure is based on fossil fuels that are undeniably finite –– the only question is whether they’ll reach full depletion sooner or later. The former problem requires sophisticated international collective action to manage global public goods and the latter requires a colossal domestic project akin to the space program of the 1960s.
A weak federal system is not properly suited to address these sorts of solutions. China is investing millions in high–tech, high-speed internal rail lines to introduce more efficiency into their economy.
What is the largest possible development project undertaken by a tiny unit of political organization? Perhaps salt trucks and pothole repairs are appropriate for local–level governments, but complex national development is not within their purview.
Put simply, beyond their rowdy and unseemly methods, the underlying philosophy of the Tea Party movement is untenable and incompatible with the state of the world today.
It is the final spasm of a incompatible set of premises laid out in the Reagan era of the 1980s, thinking that we could pay less in taxes and get more government services while keeping the deficit balanced and that we could trust a free market of would–be plutocrats over a bureaucracy of public servants, that a government designed to protect and advance public goods is somehow the villain.
Hopefully, in light of the overwhelming reality in front of us, more individuals from our generation will shun these concepts as they realize what they are: vestiges of a me–first morality put together by narcissistic baby boomers and propagated by special interests rich enough to constitute a modern aristocracy.