The last week has seen a lot of analysis of the Tea Party Movement. It's a Republican rump, according to the NYT, and a national majority, according to Pat Caddell. My view is that it's so amorphous that you can slice it any which way. A minority of Americans seem enraged by the Obama administration in ways that are hard to explain. But many Americans also retain a healthy distrust of government and debt (even though they keep voting for lower taxes and more spending). They have a real point. Over the last decade, it is surely evident that big government has come back with a vengeance. And one has to grasp that part of the tea-party anger is pent up from the Bush years. Most of the rational tea-partiers accept that the GOP has been as bad - if not worse - than the Democrats on spending, borrowing and the size and scope of government in recent years. They repressed this anger during the Bush years out of partisan loyalty. Now, they're taking it all out on the newbie. It's both fair and also unfair.
It's fair because Obama is a liberal who believes government can and should help the poor and disadvantaged and has proven it by providing access to insurance for the working poor. But it's unfair because Obama's fiscal and governing record is massively distorted by the impact of the bank meltdown, the steep revenue-killing recession, and the stimulus. Until its last months, the Bush administration could claim no such excuses for its awful debt-management. The big Bush jumps in discretionary spending, the big leap in entitlements under the unfunded Medicare D program, the long nation-building wars put off-budget, and the huge claims for executive power dominant in the first term: all these are far more damning to my mind than Obama's pragmatism in grappling with an economic collapse or even the healthcare reform, which at least formally claims to reduce the deficit and pay for itself (unlike Bush's Medicare-D). Even the protests at the manner in which the health reform was passed are disingenuous. The Medicare-D process - involving holding the vote open for hours and brutal arm-twisting on the floor of the House - was far, far more cynical and brutal.
And this is why, despite my own deep suspicion of big government, I remain unmoved by the tea-partiers. Their partisanship and cultural hostility to Obama are far more intense, it seems to me, than their genuine proposals to reduce spending and taxation. And this is largely because they have no genuine proposals to reduce spending and taxation. They seem very protective of Medicare and Social Security - and their older age bracket underlines this. They also seem primed for maximal neo-imperial reach, backing the nation-building efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, favoring war against Iran, etc. Only Ron Paul, peace be upon him, extends his big government critique to the military-industrial-ideological complex.
So they are truly not serious in policy terms, and it behooves the small government right to grapple with this honestly. They both support lower taxation and yet bemoan the fact that so many Americans do not pay any income tax. They want to cut spending on trivial matters while enabling the entitlement and defense behemoths to go on gobbling up Americans' wealth. And that lack of seriousness is complemented by a near-fanatical cultural alienation from the modern world.
In my view, this confluence of feelings can work in shifting the public mood, as seems to have happened. When there is no internal pushback against crafted FNC propaganda, and when the Democrats seem unable to craft any coherent political message below the presidential level, you do indeed create a self-perpetuating fantasy that can indeed rally and roil people. But the abstract slogans against government, the childish reduction of necessary trade-offs as an apocalyptic battle between freedom and slavery, and the silly ranting at all things Washington: these are not a political movement. They are cultural vents, wrapped up with some ugly Dixie-like strands.
When they propose cuts in Medicare, means-testing Social Security, a raising of the retirement age and a cut in defense spending, I'll take them seriously and wish them well.
Until then, I'll treat them with the condescending contempt they have thus far deserved.
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