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Tea and Patriots

February 17, 2010

I’ve been mulling over the TEA Party movement lately. It’s hard to appreciate the chord that it has struck with Americans because I have been watching the birth of the movement from abroad. And yet many of the sentiments reflected in this grassroots movement resonate with the average citizen not only in the US, but also in the UK, and even to a lesser extent, in Canada.

Consider the name: T.E.A. stands for Taxed Enough Already.

This is a social movement through and through. It is a manifestation of people’s anger with the system and it has succeeded in attracting people who are pretty middle-of-the-road in terms of their political beliefs. This NY Times article on the Tea Party puts the movement and its politics into perspective:

Pam Stout has not always lived in fear of her government. She remembers her years working in federal housing programs, watching government lift struggling families with job training and education. She beams at the memory of helping a Vietnamese woman get into junior college.

But all that was before the Great Recession and the bank bailouts, before Barack Obama took the White House by promising sweeping change on multiple fronts, before her son lost his job and his house. Mrs. Stout said she awoke to see Washington as a threat, a place where crisis is manipulated — even manufactured — by both parties to grab power.

She was happily retired, and had never been active politically. But last April, she went to her first Tea Party rally, then to a meeting of the Sandpoint Tea Party Patriots. She did not know a soul, yet when they began electing board members, she stood up, swallowed hard, and nominated herself for president. “I was like, ‘Did I really just do that?’ ” she recalled.

… Mrs. Stout said she felt as if she had been handed a road map to rebellion. Members of her family, she said, think she has disappeared down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. But Mrs. Stout said she has never felt so engaged.

The Tea Party movement has become a platform for conservative populist discontent…But it is also about the profound private transformation of people like Mrs. Stout, people who not long ago were not especially interested in politics, yet now say they are bracing for tyranny.

In the same way that Barack Obama ignited the left in the US and succeeded in getting all sorts of disenfranchised people to participate in the political process, the Tea Party has now succeeded in firing up people like Mrs.Stout who would not have previously thought of themselves as being on the far right. In many ways, this new engagement is a good thing: having more people involved in the political process strengthens democracy. These are people who are clearly angry with Government– not just Barack Obama’s government– but governments that came before as well as the institution of government.

This anger is not a new phenomenon. I have argued in an earlier post that there is an American streak that does not like big government. Think New Hampshire. And this libertarian streak is now resonating with people that it was unable to reach before when the good times made it easy to ignore the failings of government. Alongside the libertarians are the militia groups and the anti-immigration crowd. Together, they make up the Patriot movement–  the ideological heart of the TEA Party.

If you take a look at what the Patriot movement purports to stand for, you can see why it would sound appealing to someone who is trying to understand why we are bailing out Wall Street Banks AND why some of these banks are simultaneously giving out massive bonuses to the bankers who caused this mess. Meanwhile, unemployment has soared, property values have plummeted, we are in the midst of a global recession, and the US has record deficits.

In times like these, you want to have someone to blame, but to do that, you need an explanation.

Most of us accept the conventional explanation for the economic crisis: Poor understanding of derivatives. Failure to regulate these instruments by the Federal Reserve. Greedy bankers and mortgage brokers. Greedy homeowners who took on more debt than they could manage. Banks that were too big to fail. Two successive administrations that bailed out the banks without asking for anything in return on behalf of the taxpayer. More greedy bankers. Governments who are too politically scared to tax the greedy bankers.

Clearly, this is a complicated mess with lots of moving parts.

The Patriot movement and the Tea Party offers answers that are simpler. From the NY Times article,  “Mr. Obama and many of his predecessors (including George W. Bush) have deliberately undermined the Constitution and free enterprise for the benefit of a shadowy international network of wealthy elites.”

Here are some more examples from the Original Intent website (presumably a cornerstone in the Patriot Movement):

Federal Reserve Opponents – These Citizens feel that the creation of the Federal Reserve, and the delegation of our national monetary policy to a group of private bankers is fundamentally unconstitutional as well as injurious to The People of this nation. They also feel that since Federal Reserve Notes (which is what most Americans call “money”) were “de-monetized” (i.e. removed from the gold standard) they are worthless and our currency has been debauched.

Judicial Reformers – These Citizens feel that the courts in America no longer dispense much justice, but consistently rule in favor of those who hold the political and/or financial power, essentially disenfranchising the average American from his own court systems. This group feels that the best way to resolve the problem is to hold judges accountable for the decisions they make that are plainly incorrect and unlawful. No effective system of accountability exists today.

Right to Keep and Bear Arms Advocates – These Citizens believe that our unalienable right to keep and bear arms is slowly, and intentionally, being eroded by the government. Given the proliferation of gun control laws in the last 30 years, it would difficult to argue against their perspective. These Citizens agree with Thomas Jefferson when he said, “The strongest reason for people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government”, and with George Washington who said, “Firearms stand next in importance to the Constitution itself. They are the American people’s liberty teeth and keystone under independence”. Given that this site is dedicated to revitalizing this nation’s sense of liberty by educating The People about the egregious, immoral, and at times unlawful conduct of our government, it is easy to see why many Citizens still see Mr. Jefferson’s and Mr. Washington’s remarks as compelling truths that cannot be ignored.

There are two key themes that are consistent throughout this site.

1. Fear of government tyranny

2. Elite power

While I personally don’t fear government tyranny, I do agree that elite power is a real problem and has been a real problem for a long time. Supreme Court rulings like the recent one allowing unlimited corporate influence into the political system only affirms what Tea Party activists think about the system. Once you adopt this view, it is always possible to marshal up evidence to support it.  (Conspiracy theories are everywhere: Consider that 9/11 is viewed by many in Middle East as being orchestrated by the US itself as a guise to take over the region. People have martyred themselves in part because they believed this to be true.)

At this juncture, the US has polarized its politics so deeply that it is impossible to imagine how it will ever come together again. By consistently demonizing the other side (e.g., publicly lampooning Sarah Palin), both Democrats and Republicans have painted themselves into a corner where co-operation effectively becomes political suicide:

During a recent meeting with Congressional Republicans, Mr. Obama acknowledged the potency of these attacks when he complained that depicting him as a would-be despot was complicating efforts to find bipartisan solutions.

“The fact of the matter is that many of you, if you voted with the administration on something, are politically vulnerable in your own base, in your own party,” Mr. Obama said. “You’ve given yourselves very little room to work in a bipartisan fashion because what you’ve been telling your constituents is, ‘This guy’s doing all kinds of crazy stuff that is going to destroy America.’ ”

I’ve presented a rational view of why the Tea Party has unexpectedly resonated with people– but there is no mistaking that the movement was considered “fringe” for a long time. Along with the moderate conservatives who call themselves Patriots are those who are firmly in the right-wing nut camp.

If the Republican party is going to encourage this movement and fund it as a political instrument for taking back power in Congress and the White House, then it should also be prepared to face some unintended consequences. You can’t ignite a movement like this and expect the fire to burn nicely in the fireplace. No– if they are not careful, this movement is going to burn down the living room, then it is going to burn down the house, and soon the street will be on fire.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 17, 2010 3:44 pm

    Fantastic and intelligent blog.
    As a member of the Tea Party movement myself, I can say that what you are saying is spot on. Consider the emergence of age old books such as Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” , George Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm”, or Aldoux Huxley’s “Brave New World”. These books are selling by the caseload from Why? Because they define the character of the true individual in cases when supreme Government sickness encases said individuals in an amber shell of restriction.

    What we dislike is the “We are better than you, let us tell you how to live” beliefs of the average Leftist.

    Ronald Reagan said it best, “The most terrifying words in the world are ‘We’re the Government and we’re here to help”

    Is Leftism the optimal level of slavery, where we are given a place to sleep, modest food to eat, and the right to live, if only at the loss of our every freedom?

    What the Left believes about the Tea Party both confuses and terrifies them. They believe us to be all white, but the many people of color in our movement are ignored by the media. The fact that all the people are united by a goal of Freedom strikes them as odd and stupid.
    They say we are all over 60, as if to define us being senile, again ignoring our membership extending from children all the way up to members of the “Greatest Generation”. Further, they want to believe we are like they are, simply paid supporters bussed in by a party. The fact we are not is their greatest threat.

    They fear the individual acting on individual wants and beliefs. To them, indoctrination is slavery. In a way, we are their kryptonite: Independents, Republicans, and Conservative Democrats simply fed up with being ignored and minimized.

    We hold no allegiance to anything but our own beliefs and will.

    Christine, I invite you to come and join us if you can and see for yourself. It would be our pleasure to welcome you.

  2. February 18, 2010 12:11 am

    Hi NorthernLibertyAlliance,

    Thanks for your comments! I’m delighted that you took the time to write.

    As a political scientist, I have to admit that I am absolutely intrigued by the Tea Party. I would love to understand exactly what is pulling it all together at this very moment in the US even though in political terms, it’s not really my cup of tea. [Groan here.] I really would love to see it for myself though– I think grassroots political movements are generally something to be celebrated– on the left and on the right. But I do worry that the Tea Party movement is going to polarize American politics even more– is that even possible??

    Also, I don’t buy into some of the conspiracy theories that are being pushed. I think the Tea Party gives the elites in Washington too much credit: they are human too and make mistakes like everyone else– I don’t think the bailouts were a deliberate scheme as much as a series of successive screw-ups.

    And here’s where I fundamentally differ with the Tea Party: I think there should be more and tighter government regulation, not less government interference– particularly in the financial sector. Maybe it’s the Canadian in me: solid regulation from the Bank of Canada (our Federal Reserve) prevented our economy from melting down, so I don’t feel like my faith in government is misplaced.


  3. Anna permalink
    February 27, 2010 9:47 pm

    “There is an American streak that does not like big government”

    I nominate this for understatement of the year! 😆

  4. Kwan permalink
    March 6, 2011 5:33 am

    You get some things right, but miss out on the true reasons behind the Tea Party. The Tea Party insurgence is about three main things:

    1. Barack Obama’s Presidency (particular emphasis on keywords and terms like white guilt, Kenyan, unqualified, bleeding liberal, fat Michelle Obama, and illegal immigration)

    2. Taxes (i.e. particular emphasis on keywords like redistribution, welfare, Detroit)

    3. Big Government (particular emphasis on health care reform, conservative values, guns)

    There. Thats sums it up nicely.

  5. Kwan permalink
    March 6, 2011 5:37 am

    A correction:

    In place of “bleeding liberal”, I would put “liberal elite”. Tea Partiers don’t care about conservative elites as long as the candidates support key mandates, else they are RINOs like Dick Cheney (before he converted to the Tea Party side) or traitors like Scott Brown.

    Above all else though, the Tea Party hates “liberal elites” whom they largely consider to be Harry Reid, Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, etc.


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