Sydney M. Williams
During and following the debt and deficit debates, voices were raised in increasingly acrimonious tones. The normally balanced columnist, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times compared Tea Party members of Congress with Hezbollah. Nicholas Kristof, in the same paper suggested Tea Party members pose as big a threat as al-Qaida. Allegedly, Vice President Joe Biden agreed with Democratic Representative, Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania who said: “They have acted like terrorists.” The Republican establishment has belittled this unconventional movement. John McCain referred to Tea Party House members as “Hobbits.”
In less than three years the Tea Party has risen from a series of uncoordinated, spontaneous protests against a government perceived as too big and too irresponsible to becoming a threat to Washington’s establishment. Tea Partiers are particularly offensive to coastal elites, especially Congressional members who suffer from what I call the Rudyard Kipling Syndrome, a sense that intelligence and education have endowed them with a responsibility to take care of the rest of us. Mainstream media has sided with Washington’s elite; in doing so, they have misrepresented and demeaned their values. In an incredible bit of hubris and twisted logic, Democrats have blamed Standard & Poor’s credit downgrade on parsimonious Tea Partiers. Ironically, among the first Tea Party protests were those against the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP,) a bill signed by President Bush on October 3, 2008. Its libertarian theme first found voice in Congressman Ron Paul’s libertarian and fiscal conservativism in the 2008 election.
George Friedman, writing in Stratfor yesterday, argues that the Tea Party emerged as critics of the political elite who had stabilized the financial system in the fall of 2008, but then who used the crisis to dramatically increase the power of the state. Who can forget Rahm Emanuel: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” The Tea Party received notoriety with CNBC’s Rick Santelli’s infamous rant on February 19, 2009. His call-out was prompted by the Administration’s decision to subsidize mortgages of those who otherwise risked losing their homes. The financial plight of those unfortunate people, though, was largely self-inflicted. Ever rising home prices, combined with eager lenders, had caused many to use their home as an ATM. For government to provide the prodigal with a pass seemed unfair to the vast majority of prudent Americans who had lived within their means. It was a “heads, I win; tails, I don’t lose” decision on behalf of the imprudent. The decision violated the principles of thrift and responsibility ingrained in so many Americans, especially those from rural and mid sections of the country – home to the bulk of the Tea Party.
To argue that the Tea Partiers have become “full blown terrorists,” as William Yeomans recently did in Politico, assigns them a sense of unity that never existed. During the deficit ceiling debate, John Boehner had the job of forming a consensus among the 240 Republicans in the House, 85 of whom had been elected for the first time in 2012. That job was akin to herding cats.
It is, of course, in the interest of established organizations to mold this amorphous group to fit their specific needs. Democrats, unsurprisingly, prefer demonizing a single group, under the concept that it is easier to first unite what one wants to destroy. Republicans, also unsurprisingly, have adopted the Tea Party as their own to press their social agendas. Bashing gays or advocating Christian principles was never part of their agenda. That it was fiscal issues and the size of government that prompted the movement in the first place is irrelevant to those who either want to batter them, or use them.
For a fiscal conservative, it is hard to disagree with the Tea Party’s original purpose – to focus on government that had grown too big. As government has become more paternalistic, society has seen a loss of individual responsibility and diminished liberties. Personally, however, I took exception to their complaint, about bailing out banks during the fall of 2008. That decision, in my opinion, was critical to preserving ours, and the world’s capitalist system. And I am unhappy that the Christian right has subsumed the Tea Party as their own.
What I do share with Tea Partiers is their libertarian view of personal responsibility. We should reap our successes and be penalized for our failures, and that should apply to businesses as well as individuals. Government is necessary to help care for the old, the infirm and the destitute. But there must be a limit to what government provides. I particularly find repugnant mean-spirited, big-spending liberals who condemn Tea Partiers for conditions they themselves created. Standard & Poor’s downgraded our debt, not because of a battle over a deficit ceiling, but because our national debt approximates our GDP and because neither Congress nor the Administration has put forth a credible plan to repay it. Maligning Tea Partiers, as Democrats have done, or marginalizing them by altering and usurping their message, as Republicans have done, does a disservice to a legitimate protest movement whose main concerns remain unaddressed.
Dissent has a long history in the United States. Its honor role extends from pamphleteers in the 18th Century to the civil disobedience of Henry David Thoreau in the 19th to Martin Luther King’s peaceful protests in the twentieth. The Tea Party is part of an enduring American tradition.