Thursday, June 03, 2010

Tea Parties: Two Attempts at Analysis

There is a certain bizarre unreality to the the Tea Party movement. Here we are, in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and enraged demonstrators are out in the street, demanding that we adopt the policies of Herbert Hoover. Jacob Weisberg at Slate doesn't think this is so strange. The Tea Parties are just typical Western libertarian conservatives, expressing their "opposition to any expanded role for government, whether in promoting economic recovery, extending health care coverage, or regulating financial markets."

I find this argument unconvincing for two reasons. First of all, does Weisberg really believe that if the government had adopted the policies of Hoover, allowed the financial system to crash, cut spending when most needed and (some even propose) refused to expand monetary policy, that Tea Partiers would be pleased with these developments? As we sunk into depression, would they be proclaiming how happy they were that the government was off their back and letting them starve in peace? Pardon my skepticism. The other reason is the demographics of the movement. Tea Partiers tend (with many exceptions) to be older -- some already receiving Social Security and Medicare, others anticipating receiving them within the next ten years. Why is rage over government spending strongest in the age group that most benefits from it? Do they want their Social Security and Medicare cut off?

Assuming the answer in both cases is no, I see two other answers to who the Tea Partiers are and why they are so upset over government spending.

One explanation is economic. They are of an age group that receives or will soon receive Social Security and Medicare. They also know that these programs will come under increasing strain in the near future as our population over 65 swells. They therefore fear government taking on any more obligations lest it threaten obligations to them. Seen from this perspective, their opposition to (any more) government spending is perfectly rational. I do wish they'd be more honest about it, though.

The other explanation about the Tea Party movement is that is is first and foremost about culture. The problem is not the amount of taxes (which have not, in fact, increased), or the amount of spending (deficits, after all, started ballooning as soon as the financial crisis hit, but they didn't seem too concerned so long as Bush was in power). It is not even what the money is being spent on. The real question is who is spending it.

By this view, Tea Partiers see their own culture, authentic Real American culture, under siege by a mocking liberal elite that has no respect for their values and no reverence for the things they hold dear. This is not an unreasonable complaint. Modern liberals do mock and look down on a lot of what might be considered traditional American culture and values. Preaching tolerance and cultural relativism, too often they are willing to extend it to everyone except our own. The Democratic Party represents this liberal elite -- as well as Spanish speaking immigrants, Muslims, and really anyone outside the Real American consensus. The real problem with government spending is not that it is too great, or that it is driving taxes too high, or even that it is going to unworthy people, but that the inauthentic, un-American Democrats are in charge of it. And, when you get right down to it, the real problem with government in the first place is that it sometimes falls into the hands of Democrats.

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