The Bigger Picture
Published on August 1st 2010 in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
Having spent the 4th of July Independence Day weekend back in the states taking the political pulse of my fellow Americans, in today’s column I want to begin discussing my views about the American Tea Party movement. Some of you have no doubt heard about the Tea Party given the American news media’s fascination with this phenomenon, but for those of you who haven’t, I think it’s important to understand both what the Tea Party is and what it is not.
I refer to the Tea Party as a movement because it is not an organized political party in the sense that the Republican, Democratic, Libertarian and Green Parties are. The American Tea Party does not appear next to political candidates’ names on any local, state or federal election ballots, nor does it have any means of ‘officially’ endorsing political candidates. The Tea Party also does not have a concrete platform of political ideas, offices or paid staff, nor does it exist as a political organization or entity that can be regulated by state and federal election commissions. In other words, the American Tea Party actually does not exist in any sort of tangible sense.
So if the Tea Party doesn’t actually exist, how is it that in a recent Gallup poll three out of ten Americans described themselves as Tea Party supporters? The answer is that the American Tea Party is essentially a figment of these Americans’ imagination. The American Tea Party is really a state of mind more than it is a political movement, because political movements have a concrete set of objectives and a plan for how to achieve them via the ballot box.
Real political movements also have a set of ideas about government policies that they believe their political leaders will implement if they are successful in getting their candidates elected to political office. For example they might want to replace the current graduated income tax scheme with a flat tax on income or a national sales tax. Or they might want to implement a carbon tax in order to spur the development of alternative energy or reduce their dependence on imported oil and natural gas. In other words they have ideas about how to fix our problems.
By contrast the American Tea Party movement has no real plan for governing or addressing America’s problems. What the supporters of the Tea Party movement have instead is an abiding faith in America’s founding fathers, men who have also been dead for more than 200 years. Their devotion to these men borders on religious and in many ways their rallies and demonstrations remind me of the traveling religious revivals that are part of my southern US heritage. They regard themselves as ‘true’ American patriots and many of them attend Tea Party demonstrations dressed like Benjamin Franklin or George Washington, swathed in American flags or are dressed in Revolutionary War costumes and carrying musket rifles.
But contrary to the ‘Tea Partiers’ belief that our nation’s founding fathers represent the last word in wise and statesmanlike political governance, I and most political historians believe that the founding fathers did not see themselves in this light. I believe they wanted and expected future generations of the American people to go much further than they did and use the wisdom gained through our own governance experiences to continue to modify our political governance structures in order to cope with changes in American society and the rest of the world.
I attended a Tea Party rally in order to find out what kind of solutions the ‘Tea Partiers’ were proposing and or what ideas they had for addressing America’s problems. What I heard from them instead was deep seated frustration with our nation’s government and anger towards virtually every institution of government. For instance, Tea Party supporters are not only against America’s progressive income tax system, but they are also against virtually all other forms of taxation as well. But when I asked them how they would propose that governments pay for things like building and maintaining roads and schools, they didn’t seem to have any answers.
They described President Obama’s health care reforms as “government tyranny” or ‘socialism’ and said that the federal government needed to stay out of the heath care business. But when I noted that many of them were receiving government funded health care through Medicare, their response was to complain that the federal government was taking over everything and we needed to have less government. In other words, they still had no answers.
Another favourite complaint of the ‘Tea Partiers’ is the huge budget deficits the federal government is currently running up. When I noted that the biggest contributor to the federal budget deficit was Social Security and Medicare entitlement spending, most of them either disputed this fact or claimed that we could balance the budget by cutting all sorts of other unnecessary federal programs. But when I then mentioned the possibility of cutting Medicare or Social Security benefits as part of a larger scheme to rein in the federal deficit, their reaction was one of vehement opposition.
Regardless, even though they don’t appear to have any real ideas about how to address America’s problems, the ‘Tea Partiers’ are still much more engaged in this year’s mid-term elections than my other friends and acquaintances be they Republicans, Democrats or Independents. So I left the Tea Party rally with a deep sense of unease as regards what the future holds for our nation’s ability to deal with many of its problems. My concern is that this Tea Party segment of American voters, who have no real ideas or solutions to offer will nonetheless have a major influence on the outcomes of several crucial federal elections. However, the Tea Partiers distrust of government institutions and an oft times unwarranted self confidence are characteristics typical of many other Americans. So I will discuss the dangerous assumptions embodied by these two classic American psychological traits in more detail next week.