April 16, 2010

Whither the Tea Party Movement?

The function of the Mass Media, of course, is to reduce any social phenomenon to a catch-phrase or pigeon hole so that all references to the phenomenon have a "theme" or commonly-understood meme which fits easily within the microns-thick coverage of contemporary "journalism." We often forget this (the MSM count on such forgetfulness) and thus we are prone to believing that the once-over-lightly discussion of a mass movement such as the Tea Party people is all there is to say on the subject. By now most of us here "progressive" types are inured to the characterization of the Tea Party as anti-abortion, anti-gay, "Birther" racists who are motivated mainly by a hatred of Barack Obama's African-American complexion, and use fancy "Constitutional" arguments to give their sordid movement the patina of respectability.

I think that fairly characterizes the popular take. If I've left anything out, let me know. I think one of the reasons that the MSM of the moderately progressive ilk would tend toward such characterizations (pundits such as Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann) is that they instinctively realize that they are in the cross-hairs of any such "anti-Big Government" movement, because Big Media depend on Big Government every bit as much as Big Business depends on Big Government for financial support and a favorable legislative "platform" for carrying on multi-national business or chain store oligopoly and corporatism. Their "scale" is the same as Big Government's, in other words.

Whether they always realize it or not, I think that's the sum and substance of Tea Party thinking- anti-Bigness. I suspect there's a little of that in most "progressives" as well. At the deepest psychological level, we're very tired of a mediated existence - government mediated through the TV set, political campaigns run through Internet programs, hundreds of billions here, hundreds of billions there, imagery, falseness, inaccessibility, a pervasive sense of powerlessness. I don't doubt for a moment that there is a racist element within the Tea Party movement, but, to be fair, another element contributing to the rise of an "alternative" politics is the complete failure of Barack Obama to be anything other than a conventional D.C. politician, making all the same moves as his predecessor, using many of the same people, talking the same rhetoric, covering up the same government crimes, relentlessly increasing the concentration of power within the federal government.

Here's a statement of Tea Party political philosophy from a University of Michigan supporter of the movement, published in the Daily Michigan:

The defeat of President Barack Obama’s radical agenda is one of the main focuses of this movement, which seeks to restore limited-government Constitutionalism to its proper place in our society. Tea Party members view the massive deficit spending and growing size of the federal government (with all of its new regulations that are supposed to protect people from themselves) as directly in conflict with the principles espoused by our Founding Fathers in our founding documents.

We view higher taxation as an imposition upon economic prosperity. A man’s right to earn, create and own property is the essential building block of a free market society. We view governmental mandates to buy healthcare as an imposition upon personal freedom and choice. We view cradle-to-grave entitlement programs as irresponsible and as “generational theft,” a term invented by Sen. John McCain (R–Ariz.).

The Tea Party movement is all about personal responsibility, hard work, and the ability of the individual to improve his or her own condition through their efforts. We see bankrupt entities like Social Security and Medicare, and then listen to D.C. politicians promising newer, bigger programs that will “work”. And we don’t buy it. At least someone hasn’t fallen for the sugar-sweet but nevertheless insubstantial and poisonous rhetoric of “hope and change.”

At one level, this is a correct restatement of some of the principles of key Founding Fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson ("that government is best which governs least"). Yet I think the underlying theme is pretty simple: this is a new version of States' Rights -- the "Constitutional" arguments being raised do not concern the Bill of Rights so much (what's left of them) as they do the fantastic expansion of government's reach through the Commerce Clause - that legal Swiss Army knife which has permitted the federal government to regulate everything it feels like regulating. This was the focus of the Southern racists of another generation - if they could wrest control away from the central government by means of the Tenth Amendment (residual powers in the States), they could continue to segregate lunch counters, motels, train stations, water fountains, swimming pools, anything they wanted to segregate, and the Justice Department would have nothing to say about it. But the federal government was seen as the hero in those days, and the substantial majority of Americans wanted it to succeed.

That's not true anymore. The degree of public discontent with Washington D.C. has gone critical. The vast majority of Americans do not approve of Congress at all, and this is a proxy for disgust with rule from afar. So that when the central government now trots out some huge program, such as the recent health care legislation (which is a very tepid, pro-business piece of largely useless law-writing), there is an instinctive revulsion at its very promulgation. People don't want it because of where it came from.

The pols in D.C. recognize what's going on. The viability of their careers depends on recognizing which parade to jump in front of.

I personally think that re-delegating government functions to the local level could be a very positive thing. The United States, the third largest country in the world and riven by partisan and regional divides, has become essentially ungovernable. The compromises necessary to get anything done have become so extreme that nothing effective can be accomplished anymore.

It would be interesting to me if the Tea Party people begin to realize that Big Endless War, Big Government Spying, Big Terrorism Paranoia, Big Defense and other Bush-Obama Era accretions are also anathema to classic American principles. I don't see a lot of that, which makes me wonder (despite their protestations that the core Tea Party principles are not dictated by Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, et al.) if the Tea Party isn't just a stalking horse for an even more Right Wing form of the Republican Party. Time will tell. At least they're kind of interesting, which is a lot more than you can say for the Democrats or Republicans.

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