“I think we have to blow up the place.”
— Retiring Sen. George Voinivich on how to fix Congress
It’s not easy to glean a coherent message from the raspy bullhorns of the Tea Party Movement. I get the part about cutting taxes, cutting spending, and reducing the deficit, but beyond those maddeningly contradictory goals all clarity breaks down into a stew of id-driven rants.
However, amidst the semi-coherent blather some common themes do emerge. If those messages could be distilled and combined with intelligent solutions, there might be some promise to this movement.
Our Political System Punishes People Who Make Difficult Decisions
As a consequence, it is impossible to terminate any government program, refuse any new spending, or absorb short-term pain in the longer-term public interest (see paragraph above). This is where the Tea Party message comes closest to striking home. Sure, our tax burden is relatively low, but our inability to refuse any new spending or cut any unnecessary program means it doesn’t matter how much revenue we collect. New taxes alone won’t solve our money problems, because there’s no amount of money you can’t spend.
It Seems Like Our “Elites” Have Given Up
They have decided to take their superior educations and capital to the bank, and let the chips fall where they may for everyone else. Those we once would have looked to for authority, trust, and guidance have suffered a crippling failure of optimism. Gripped by a sense of hopelessness and a conviction that ordinary Americans are so disengaged or crazy that there’s no point wasting their time, our “best and brightest” seem to have abandoned any sense of public interest. They are stripping the Republic of its pipes and fixtures ahead of the wrecking ball.
Fundraising Has Overtaken Government Entirely
This unproductive activity leaves policymaking as an activity for earnest suckers. You hear this in the complaints about politicians who “no longer represent us.” Washington has always been preoccupied by the need to get re-elected. That’s how the system is supposed to work. But that emphasis has never been as driven by money as it is today. It’s hard for ordinary people to be heard over the roar of the cash register.
The Middle Class Is Being Hollowed Out
Our capital markets are consumed with Las Vegas-style speculation. Wall Street is less engaged than ever with financing American economic growth. It is consumed with the short-term profit it gains from fleecing the middle class. That money is funneled into the hands of global elites and sovereign wealth funds while their speculation in asset markets means we pay more for everything.
The Tea Party Movement reflects the sense of unease, the growing sense of despair, that’s settling in on the American middle class. It feels like there is no one in positions of authority, either in politics or in the corporate world, who is authentically working in their interest. We can smell the grift.
The Tea Party directs its anger over this feeling almost entirely toward government because its ideology blocks its members from seeing the rest of the picture. Combined with a hostility toward thought and a lazy disregard for facts, that limited vision allows the entire movement to be diverted toward futility and worse.
What the Tea Party gets wrong is practically everything it proposes to do about our situation. Basically, the response to Wall Street corruption is to let bankers do whatever they want.
Worried about crumbling infrastructure? Slash spending. And the unchecked drain of capital from ordinary Americans to the wealthy all over the world can be fixed by cutting taxes on the richest Americans.
You can see why the “elites” are losing any interest in the public interest.
Basically, the Tea Party is a fantastic, principled expression of ordinary Americans’ frustration with our broken politics. And along the way, Tea Partiers demonstrate with depressing clarity the kind of laziness that got us here in the first place. In the face of complex problems, they spout slogans. They propose to fix our collective roof by burning the house down while we’re all left inside. There’s no problem so complex that it can’t be solved with a can of gasoline and some oily rags.
What the Tea Party has demonstrated more than anything is how easily real concerns about concrete matters can in this country be redirected and neutralized. Facing an angry mob? Dangle some fear of foreigners and their wicked religions, mix in some resentment of mooching minorities, and you can make them do whatever you want.
Perhaps the Tea Party will prove to be a good start, an initial step in the right direction. Maybe it will eventually spur us to care more about the details and look for serious solutions to our problems. Good things can and do happen. Or maybe the movement will just cannibalize itself in an escalating spiral of extremism and paranoia. Maybe they’ll find the “real” birth certificate.
In the meantime it’s tough to appreciate what the Tea Party gets right through all that they get wrong.