Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Be careful what you wish for, teabaggers

The Tea Party movement in the United States saw its most high-profile electoral success last Tuesday with the primary election of Rand Paul, son of the notorious Texas Libertarian Ron Paul, to be the Republican candidate for Senator in Kentucky. The pundits told us it was a “victory over the Washington establishment” delivered by voters seething with anger. Paul’s mainstream Republican challenger had received the endorsement of long-serving Republican senators, while Paul had been endorsed by the Tea Party and Sarah Palin. “This is a message to Washington from the Tea Party!” shouted an elated Paul at his victory speech.

But it wasn’t long before the reality began to sink in about exactly who the teabaggers were pushing into power. Like his father, Paul is an adherent to a uniquely American brand of ultra-orthodox Libertarianism. This strain of thought opposes almost all government interference in people’s lives. It is opposed to income tax, the environmental protection agency, the FBI, the Americans with Disabilities Act, government pensions, medicare, you name it. If the government does it, they want it killed.

Lately this kind of non-government ideology has been gaining popularity amongst an increasingly radicalized American public. The Tea Party movement, born out of citizen anger over Barack Obama’s efforts to give all Americans health insurance, has morphed into a snowballing anti-government crusade that seems like it won’t be content until Washington has been burned to the ground. Spurred on by Fox News, the most watched news network in the US, the Teabaggers believe that the US government is “out of control”, developing into an authoritarian super-state that seeks to regulate every area of their lives.

Of course for anyone who’s ever left the United States, this assertion is observably absurd. Compared to its counterparts in Europe, the United States has almost absurdly low tax rates and the government barely gets involved in the day-to-day welfare of its citizens at all. But that’s not how the teabaggers see it. The idea for their name came from an acronym with sure to curry populist sympathy – Taxed Enough Already. In a recent poll, 77% of independent American voters said they agree with the Tea Party.

The tea gaffe

The movement’s ideas have been on an inevitable collision course with reality, and the crash came just days after Paul’s victory. Rachel Maddow, one of the few liberal voices in American broadcast news, decided to press Paul last week on comments he had made in the past about the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which made discrimination on the basis of race or gender illegal in the US. He responded that the provision of the act forbidding private businesses and employers from discriminating was wrong. The government can prohibit government institutions from discriminating, but it should not be able to tell private institutions what to do.

The reaction was both swift and fierce. The Civil Rights Act is the cornerstone of American progress on ending institutionalized racism. Had it not been passed, the American South could still be segregated today, with separate water fountains for blacks and whites, separate seating in restaurants, seperate areas of employment, etc.

The Republican establishment quickly sprang into action, desperately trying to defend their new senate candidate before he self-destructs. They locked him away, making him cancel all his television appearances over the past week so that he wouldn’t be asked the question again. Paul cancelled his appearance on Sunday’s Meet the Press, the main public policy forum in the US. the Republicans sent in his place defended Paul’s statements by saying he was just new to politics, and had misspoke. He was being "too theoretical", they insisted. But they can’t keep him hidden away forever. Eventually Paul will have to answer the question again, and he will either have to disavow the opinion he’s expressed on the Civil Rights Act almost his entire life, or maintain a position which is abhorent to the majority of Americans.

Even if he is able to wiggle his way out of this one, what about all his other positions? His opinion on the Civil Rights Act is really just the tip of the iceberg. A few years ago he said it should be permissible for private individuals to deny Americans access to housing because of their race. He’s also said there is a conspiracy between the US, Canadian and Mexican governments to turn the North American continent into an EU-like superstate, and the first step toward this dastardly conspiracy is a 10-lane superhighway stretching from Mexico City to Toronto. This “North American Superstate” has been a popular conspiracy theory for some time on the US right, but in reality none of it is true, not even this imaginary superhighway.

His kooky comments aren’t just youthful indiscretions. His recent take on the Gulf oil spill was that the Obama administration should stop beating up on poor BP – because any criticism of private business by the government is “un-American”. "What I don't like from the president's administration is this sort of, 'I'll put my boot heel on the throat of BP,' “ he said. "I think that sounds really un-American in his criticism of business." He had similar thoughts on the recent West Virginia mining accident that killed 29 miners, saying that it was wrong to blame the mining company, or the regulatory structure that allowed safety lapses, because “accidents happen”.

The Tea Party leaders, Sarah Palin in particular, have accused the “liberal media” of “gotcha journalism” for trying to trap Paul into saying these things. But these aren’t slip-ups, they are what Paul, as an ultra-orthodox Libertarian, really believes. Apparently any reporter asking a politician about his opinions is conducting “gotcha journalism” in the world of Sarah Palin. And it is this “no government is the best government” belief that the Tea Party movement has been espousing.

A teachable moment for Americans?

Perhaps Rand Paul’s victory last Tuesday and his subsequent “gaffes” (if you can call an expression of your heartfelt ideology a gaffe) will provide the American public with a “teachable moment”, as they say in education. Many on the left in the US have pointed out the painful irony of the fact that many of these Tea Party protests calling for the end of US government interference in their lives are doing so on public parks. The situation reached the height of absurdity when a Tea Party group put out a press release after their protest in Washington DC complaining that the government-funded public transport system had not operated satisfactorily enough to get them around town.

A large proportion of the teabaggers are over 65, meaning each week they get a state pension social security check from the government in the mail (and don’t even try to take that 60-year-old programme away from them, or they’ll raise hell). If the over 65s get sick, they can go to the doctor for free thanks to the government-provided medicare that’s been there since 1965. Try and cut a penny from the bloated medicare budget, and those seniors will lash your throat. Yet there they are, in front of the white house demanding an end to all this government spending.

But fine, perhaps they don’t see the inherent irony of demanding the end of government provisions while benefiting from what government provides to them. But are they willing to see this anti-government ideology carried out to its logical conclusion? No government means no protection from discrimination for minorities and the handicapped. It means no public parks for you to enjoy. It means no regulation of companies and businesses which want to exploit you or are indifferent to your well-being – and we’ve seen the effects of lax regulation in the financial crisis and the gulf oil spill.

In short, government does deliver a huge benefit to people, even the teabaggers. But they don’t connect these good things about government to the vague “government spending” they’re railing against. Apparently, government spending is only wasteful if it benefits someone else.

A society without a strong government to protect people from each other would not be a fun place to live. But the Tea Party activists are unable to see it this way. They are so obsessed with the idea that the state might tread on their freedoms that they fail to see the actual threat posed to them by their fellow private citizens, or by private corporations.

It’s a preoccupation that could only ever be made by the majority within a population, which is why you only see a sea of white faces at these tea party rallies. Minorities know better. They know that to place blind trust in their fellow citizens and to give up the protections afforded by a strong government may sound appealing in the ethereal sense, but in reality it is the real recipe for tyranny. One can only hope that the overall American populace will start to see things that way, before they get swept up in the anti-government rhetoric of the Tea Party.


Anonymous said...

These people are just stupid. There's no other word for them, their ignorance is shocking. I hope soon they will wake up, its very frightening that this movement has become so popular in America

itinerantlondoner said...

That's a great piece of writing there. Great combination of serious analysis and righteous anger.

Evil European said...

Given some of the ugly rehotric coming out of the tea baggers, sadly, I doubt many of them would have a problem with Paul's comments about discrimination.

Captain Kid said...

"A great thing about Tea Party activists is that every one of them, if they'd been there in 1773, would have been on the side of the British"

Jonathan Schwarz on Twitter.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I certainly don't agree with teabaggers that approve of segregation, But isn't the larger, more interesting point, that so many people are unsatisfied with government? Did that just happen or are governments partly responsible for it? Cynicism is growing amongst the peoples of western democracies. We are being lied into war, tax payers have to bail out banks, huge public debts are being built up by our politicians. Countries are on the brink of going bankrupt and inflation is going to eat away peoples' purchasing power and savings. My point is that it's too easy to demonize people that shift up too much left or right of the political spectrum. It's the main stream parties that are to blame for it and they need to wake up.