Sunday, August 1, 2010

Legitimization of the Tea Party

The below was originally written for Politics and Pucks, Mike's blog. He was kind enough to invite me to do a guest post on the day of Blogathon. Because this was a guest post, it has none of my usual formatting. I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.

One of the very interesting responses to the Democrat Party's takeover of Congress and the White House during the 2006 and 2008 electoral cycles has been the emergence of the Tea Party phenomena amongst voters in the United States. As readers of this blog will know, the Tea Party isn't actually a political party, but a loose association of individuals who share openly the ideas that government is too big and oppressive, and especially, taxes far too much. I don't feel the need to delve into the extended history of the Tea Party - Mike's coverage of the movement has been more thorough than I could ever be - but I would like to go over their ascendancy from fringe movement to legitimate portion of the American right.

The Tea Party began as an embodiment of the concept that the government should reduce taxes and expenditure in order to restore power to the average American, and a popular patriotic symbol was chosen as the flagship of this movement - the Boston Tea Party of 1773. It is interesting, and apt, that these self-described patriots chose to name their movement after an event that was designed to lash out against legitimate government on a hypothetical and ultimately fictional basis while utilizing extreme racist overtones that precipitated a violent event. The two Tea Parties have shared interestingly similar paths of development, though of course, I hope the end result differs.

Today's Tea Party is not a movement by the Sons of Liberty (though, I suspect it is only widespread ignorance that has resulted in the disuse of this infinitely more patriotic name); rather, it is a political movement offered legitimacy through the reinforcement of both mainstream and underground media. Unlike the original Tea Party, this movement had little legitimacy to begin with, but has picked up speed and power through constant exposure until it reached the point of today, where self-identified Tea Party candidates are running for office in the states of Kentucky and Nevada, and both have a chance of victory.

As a Canadian, the concept of Fox News is repugnant to me, as is the sometimes liberal slant of MSNBC, and the crazy stuff I see on CNN from time to time. In Canada, we have three ways of getting news - your local news, CTV (Canadian Television Network), and CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Company). The former provides local reports and often gets interesting tidbits from the Canadian and Associated Presses. CTV is privately owned, but it doesn't really push an agenda. Its news reporting is extremely unbiased; CBC is a publicly owned company that again provides mostly unbiased news. If I want to catch up on what's going on elsewhere in the world, I tend to read the BBC, which I consider the finest news producing company that exists today.

Fox News has pushed the Tea Party movement from the beginning, and the support of Fox News (and popular radio talkshow hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage) has been integral in people who identify with the Tea Party believing their thoughts are both logical and rational, and accepted by a majority of Americans. Unfortunately, none of this is true. Tea Party protests have been massive (the Tax Day events of the past two years), local and angry (various Democrat town halls run during the August 2009 recess), and sporadic (anti-health care rallies in Washington DC that Fox News claimed had somewhere around 10x the people who actually showed up). Because, for over a year, the only real source of information on the Tea Party was Fox News, it simply wasn't reported anywhere else. The global media doesn't trust Fox; so what it said didn't get distributed.

The rest of the world has gotten a very sudden awakening to the meaning of the Tea Party, and the meaning (to us) is clear. Despite Fox's attempts to obfuscate the obvious, it is clear the Tea Party is not a unified movement, but a forced alliance of people who are anti-Democrat, anti-government, racist, and believe in wild conspiracy theories (9/11 Truthers, Birthers, and so on). While the Tea Party's public face has attempted to emphasize the economic section of Tea Party doctrine, most of the images and soundbites I've heard show otherwise.

The fact of the matter is that the Tea Party has embraced people who believe Barack Obama was born in Kenya and is therefore constitutionally ineligible to be President; the Tea Party has embraced people who carry racist signs that call the President a monkey, coon, and nigger; the Tea Party has embraced people who have suggested the Civil Rights Acts were misguided; the Tea Party has embraced those who ignore economic sense and those who ignore greater example. These are fringe elements, 5-6% of people who have come together with people under a similar umbrella: the Government of the United States does not represent me, as it is illegitimate/too liberal/run by a black guy. It's not that each individual Tea Partier believes the same thing that each other Tea Partier believes; most Tea Partiers who are very pro-gun may not be racist, and may not believe at all that President Obama is illegitimate, but the political candidates for office seeking their approval appeal to their particular political view when few others dare to work for their votes. Because each fringe element brings a sliver of the vote to the table, cobbling these views together makes sense, if you don't care what others think of you.

The result of this strategy - enforcing the Tea Party movement as a seemingly united political force, and bringing out politicians who attempt to win votes by speaking to the various sects of the Tea Party to bring their votes into a fringe coalition, has led to their legitimization as a voting block via the the primary victories of two candidates who defeated the preferred Republican candidate for their region, both for US Senator. The first was Rand Paul (R-KY); the second was Sharron Angle (R-NV). Rand Paul, the son of Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), proved his Tea Party credentials almost immediately. It turns out that Paul has suggested that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was misguided in places, and could be unconstitutional. Similarly, Paul has suggested the interpretation of the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment does not apply to the children of illegal immigrants (which is a difficult position to defend, given that the clause states unequivocally that "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States". Paul, like many members of the Tea Party, clings to an idealistic view of the United States Constitution, and tends to ignore portions of the Constitution that do not immediately suit his personal view, which I will elabourate on shortly.

Sharron Angle, of Nevada, is running against the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, in November, and her views are even further from the global Western norm, let alone that of the average American. Angle is against Medicare and Social Security, supporting the full privatization of both programs. Angle has voiced support for the War on Drugs and Prohibition, though her spokesperson later refuted any reference she may have made to criminalizing alcohol use. She doesn't believe the science behind global warming, considering it a conspiracy; she believes the Department of Education to be unconstitutional; she has interpreted the Second Amendment to suggest that people have the right to form their own militia. These views are the sorts of ideas that are considered straight-up crazy in every modernized, Western country save the United States, and it speaks very loudly about the Tea Party.

Believe it or not, most people who are familiar with political thought from outside of the USA are extremely familiar with the United States Constitution, its amendments, and the major court battles that have resulted from attempts to interpret that document. There are few scholars, even from the United Kingdom, France, or Canada, who aren't familiar with Roe v. Wade, Brown v. Board of Education, Loving v. Virginia, Barron v. Baltimore, the Civil Rights Cases, Bush v. Gore, and so on. Interpretation of the first document of the modern era of democracy is always important for the development of future constitutional discussion for the entire Western world, so when we see a group from the United States that comes to power that is in the midst of denying the legal precedents set in these momentous cases, the Western world reacts with shock.

The nature of the Tea Party, much like the event it was named after, is disingenuous. The rights of the Massachusetts colonists who felt so oppressed by the Tea Acts may have been somewhat repressed (and somewhat not, depending on how you prefer to argue), but the reaction was over the limit; a cowardly attempt to sabotage the people importing tea and blame it on Native American tribes, hoping for racist sentiments to cover their tracks. They weren't entirely proud of what they did, though since their disguise was quickly taken apart, they declared they were proud of their accomplishments; the legitimacy added to the event by the support of Boston politician Samuel Adams served to fuel other similar (and more violent) acts against the government, and it became a spark in the start of the American Revolution. The Boston Tea Party continued to be a flagship event in the formation of the Revolution, and used as pro-Revolutionary propaganda during the Revolution, even though the Tea Acts were repealed well before the outbreak of violence in the Thirteen Colonies. The media has constantly and consistently presented the Boston Tea Party as a noble event, the brave stance a few noble patriots took against tyranny, when in reality, it was the reaction of cowardly Boston upperclass men who hated the fact that they had to pay more for tea in order to fulfill the taxation needed for the British Empire to protect their colonies from foreign aggression, men who didn't want to be associated with their acts until they found a famous patron.

Our Tea Party is based on people who have found a powerful patron for their fringe beliefs, beliefs which people have been told are wrong to have but still persist, from the harmless (believing in less taxes), to the concerning (those who openly carry firearms); from the bizarre (the President is from Kenya!) to the insulting (the President is a ----). These beliefs have been brought together in equally unacceptable candidates - candidates that were rejected by the Republican Party as too far from the mainstream to be supported by even the GOP. When we see the deliberate cognitive dissidence of those who fail to appreciate the value and consistent interpretation of the 14th Amendment while proclaiming to love the Constitution; those who demand the government get their hands off of Medicare; those who insist the government provide jobs without taxation, the world sees people who are hypocrites and fools.

The fact of the matter is that the Board of Education is constitutional via the Commerce Clause, as are the majority of gun regulations (as supported by the majority brief in McDonald v. Chicago). The 14th Amendment gives the government the duty to protect rights within the Constitution, and we should remember that the Constitution itself, via the 9th Amendment, informs us that it is not an extensive list of rights (such as the unenumerated right to privacy). The Tea Party is angry, and they don't really understand why. Their inability to appreciate the complexity of government and their eagerness to reduce it to a hatred of some poorly-defined way of life, or a constant discussion of "values" without definition, defines them as a group that can never be pleased. They've nominated Paul and Angle to run for Senate, and the two may win; however, they can never please the group that has selected them, with their strange beliefs, as those beliefs will have no traction in the Senate - they will be oddball Senators, with little power even within their own party, much as Ron Paul is seen in the House of Representatives.

The people who represent the Tea Party as heads of the various organizations, in the media, and are attempting to represent them in government are as mix-matched as their supposed ideals. The only consistent message is outrage at the way things are. There are no solutions set forward by the Tea Party. They use racism as both a secret weapon and as a ruse to escape greater analysis, much as the original Tea Partiers did. Their outrage was not collective until gathered under a powerful voice, be it Sam Adams or Fox News. And finally, they have people who champion them, as the Continental Congress did; as Sharron Angle and Rand Paul suggest to do.

As a member of the world, I humbly implore my southern neighbours to remind the Tea Party there is a reason their views are, at best, unorthodox - because they are unwelcome and antiquated ideals.


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