Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The real tea party

The other day I was at a conference here in Brussels and one of the speakers, who was German, made a joke about America's tea party movement. Making the case that European consumers would not like paying extra taxes in order to pay for recycling, he joked, 'but in the United States I understand they have the tea party to take care of this kind of thing'. The audience laughed, and I laughed as well, because I assumed it was said tongue in cheek. But then when I thought about it I realised, wait, maybe he's serious...

I wouldn't blame Europeans for thinking the American tea party movement is motivated solely by their opposition to taxes, after all this is how its portrayed in the European media - particularly by the British press. And they in turn are taking their cues from the American mainstream media, who have also been portraying it as a movement of libertarian fiscal conservatives concerned about deficit spending and taxes. But even as this narrative continues, there is clear and unavoidable evidence that this is not what the movement is mainly about at all. In fact the movement has no real focus, serving mostly as a confused jumble of rage. Its participants – who show up to street demonstrations and rallies wearing funny hats and revolutionary war costumes - appear to have various grievances, and some seem to have no specific grievances in particular. But one thing is clear – the leaders of the tea party movement, and the candidates they have elected to represent the Republican Party in November's midterm election, are the same old social conservative culture warriors that have been around for years. Only this time, they're wearing funny hats.

So why the funny hats, and why the tea? The name is a reference to the Boston Tea Party, where disgruntled colonial Americans dumped tea into the ocean rather than pay new taxes the British had levied on it. The idea of the movement is that Barack Obama is a tyrant who is overtaxing the American public and must be overthrown just like King George was driven out by the American revolution. Of course, Obama hasn't actually raised taxes (much to the displeasure of European conservatives who are pursuing austerity strategies of budget cuts and tax hikes). In fact the American public is being taxed less than at any time in the previous 30 years. Amusingly, the situation during the American revolution was similar – the American colonies were actually paying drastically less tax than people in England or people in other colonies. But if there's one constant truth it's that Americans will always think they pay too much tax.

So the anti-tax American revolutionary heroes are the folklore heroes of the movement, and its followers chant that they want to 'take their country back' from the 'out of control' spending in Washington. The media has followed them on this fun little game of dress-up. But the reality is that underneath the costumes these are the same social conservatives that have been ingrained in American politics since the 1980's. A recent survey showed nearly 2/3 of self-identified tea partiers say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, and less than 1in 5 support allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. Nearly half of Tea Party movement followers say they are part of the religious right or conservative Christian movement. 81% identify as Christian. The majority say that Fox News is their most trusted source of news. And of course, they overwhelmingly support the de facto Tea Party leader, Sarah Palin.
 Even a casual observation of the sorts of signs these people were holding during their demonstrations against healthcare last summer - or of the dramatic religious overtones of Glenn Beck's "restoring honor" rally at the Lincoln Memorial - could have observed that this was a just a new incarnation of social conservatism in a reactionary backlash to the election of Barack Obama. And yet the American media continued to refer to it as a movement of libertarian fiscal conservatives opposed to taxation. Over the past few months the tea party has swept their own candidates to victory in the Republican primaries, making tea party candidates the nominees for dozens of House and Senate seats. Often times, such as in Delaware and Alaska, the Tea Party/Sarah Palin-endorsed candidate was able to beat the Republican Party establishment candidate - even when the Republican Party campaigned against them.

But steadily these candidates have shown themselves to actually be the old familiar far-right fringe social conservatives. In the most recent example the Tea Party/Republican nominee for the New York State governor's race went on an anti-gay rant at a meeting with Hasidic Jews in New York City. The American mainstream media has portrayed the event as a one-off, an isolated rant from one kooky candidate. But as MSNBC's Rachel Maddow explains in the clip below, Carl Paladino's rant is just the latest example of this kind of out-of-the-mainstream social conservative ideology rearing its head in the Tea Party movement.

A quick look at the positions of tea party candidates shows them to in fact be anything but libertarian. Take tea party candidate Sharron Angle in Nevada, who has now raised a colossal $14 million for her campaign. Calling herself a "faith-based politician," she opposes abortion in all circumstances including rape and incest, doesn’t believe the constitution requires the separation of church and state, has said she wants to get rid of social security, and has said her followers may look to "second amendment remedies" (i.e. guns) if she doesn't defeat senate majority leader Harry Reid in November.

Or take a look at Republican nominee Christine O’Donnell in Delaware. In the 1990's she led a campaign against masturbation and she has said she is privy to secret information that China is planning to invade the United States. In Colorado, Republican tea party senate nominee Ken Buck also says abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape and incest. In Kentucky Republican tea party senate candidate Rand Paul opposes abortion, same-sex marriage and...wait for it...the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act that made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race. In Alaska, Republican tea party candidate Joe Miller opposes hate crime laws as violations of free-speech.

As Joe Biden said recently, "this isn't your father's Republican Party." Europeans should bear that in mind when thinking of the tea party as a movement of fiscal austerity. By this point it is quite plain to see that though the anti-tax feeling is strong within the movement, in reality that sentiment is not what is actually driving it.

4 comments:

Marianne said...

Great post and thank you. You've hit it spot on exactly.

Captain Kid said...

I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry while watching Rachel Maddows' show.

Anna said...

A French guy I talked to thought of it as primarily concerned with economic issues also. I explained to him it is in the sense that in the US, economic issues can be really social/moral (part of the whole Protestant work ethic and all that). Why else would a debate on health care lead to evoking Hilter and the Holocaust?

And it's not opposition to government in a purely libertarian sense - it's a reaction against government as a "liberal" (in the American sense) force "imposing" integration/rights of minorities, other religions, women, etc. Social welfare can go a long way to strengthen these groups and so it's being conceived as taking wealth from the hard-working, white, Christians to give to "lazy" minorities either wanting just to freeload off the system or take over America, establish death panels, reeducation camps, Sharia law, etc (depending on which pundit/personality you listen to).

Arno said...

Whaoh, scary stuff. What will happen if this group takes power in the elections?