Strong opinions, weakly held

A non-reflexive response to the Tea Party

Let me be up front. I am hostile to the Tea Party movement. It gravitates toward leaders who seem to me lack any seriousness of purpose in terms of fixing the country’s problems. The tea partiers, like most people, are frustrated with the current economic situation in America, and the long term economic trends that are working against the middle class in this country. Beyond that, though, I feel they generally do a terrible job of diagnosing the country’s problems, have no clue what causes those problems, and have no good ideas when it comes to fixing those problems. And their leaders are lying demagogues who are happy to ruin the country if it helps line their own pockets.

For the lowdown on the Tea Party movement, check out Matt Taibbi’s article, Tea & Crackers, in the Rolling Stone. If you’ve been following this phenomenon, it won’t surprise you, but it captures the essence of the movement pretty well. I think this description fits:

The world is changing all around the Tea Party. The country is becoming more black and more Hispanic by the day. The economy is becoming more and more complex, access to capital for ordinary individuals more and more remote, the ability to live simply and own a business without worrying about Chinese labor or the depreciating dollar vanished more or less for good. They want to pick up their ball and go home, but they can’t; thus, the difficulties and the rancor with those of us who are resigned to life on this planet.

Anil Dash made a similar point in his Ignite talk, Defending the Indefensible. Do read the article and watch the presentation, they’re both great.

There is a question that remains, how should progressives react to the Tea Party. One thing most articles about the Tea Party leave out is the context. Yeah, they are hung up on social issues, but the Tea Party is also reacting to the economic changes in America over the past few decades that have radically changed the future prospects for many Americans. As jobs have disappeared and industries have waned, there are parts of America that are shadows of what they once were. The town I come from almost certainly has fewer stoplights now than it did when I was in high school. The chemical plant that was the town’s best employer when I was a kid has been sold off in pieces to a variety of companies, none of which offer the benefits or pay that the original company did. In the end, these sorts of changes are the real source of the energy behind the Tea Party.

People from across the political spectrum are justifiably frustrated with these problems and the many other symptoms of long term decline that politicians are not addressing. The framework of employer-provided health insurance is collapsing. There’s no willingness to do anything all about global warming. And whether you support less immigration or more, our current immigration policy is a joke. Last week Ken Silverstein, the Washington editor for Harper’s Magazine, explained why he’s giving up. He’s as angry and disillusioned as anyone at a Tea Party rally.

So proceeding from the position that the Tea Party is generally wrong on the facts but understandably frustrated, here are three recommendations I’ve seen recently. Stanley Fish argues convincingly that ridicule is not the answer:

Commentators who explain smugly that O’Donnell’s position on masturbation (that it is a selfish, solitary act) is contradicted by her Ayn Rand-like attack on collectivism, or who wax self-righteous about Paladino’s comparing Sheldon Silver to Hitler and promising to wield a baseball bat in Albany, or who laugh at Sharron Angle for being in favor of Scientology (she denies it) and against fluoridation and the Department of Education, are doing these candidates a huge favor. They are saying, in effect, these people are stupid, they’re jokes; and the implication (sometimes explicitly stated) is that anyone who takes them the least bit seriously doesn’t get the joke and is stupid, too.

Matthew Yglesias argues that people who are obviously wrong on the facts are the ones we should argue with first:

Sometimes I think that smart people actually spend too little time responding to the dumbest forms of arguments. It takes a certain kind of hubris to think that I’m going to persuade people who adhere to strong arguments that they’re mistaken. By contrast, I really do think I can persuade people that their bad arguments are wrong.

And finally, Clay Johnson argues that Washington is, in essence, a closed system and that we should work on local issues instead. Here’s his summary of the problems in Washington:

To an extent the Tea Party and the Deaniacs from 2004 have something in common. They’ve caught on that their government is not representative to them, and feel that the Federal government is more accountable to “special interests” like big corporations and labor unions than it is to them. But Washington is actually more accountable and responsive to the rituals, rules, and limitations of Washington than it is even the big corporations and labor unions.


  1. My few attempts to argue facts with Tea Party types have run against a brick wall. I realized that we live on different planets: my view of reality is based on factual data, while theirs is based totally on emotion. I honestly have no idea how to have a dialog with someone who literally will not listen to facts.

  2. Rafe – Thanks for a very well thought out essay on this topic. I worry for this country, as do the Tea Partiers, but for the opposite reason. When I see things like “Creative Design” seriously urged as a topic for education and evolution dismissed as a “theory” meaning it has no proof, and things like candidates seriously suggesting that we need to do away with the Dept. of Education, I get very very frightened. And it scares the daylights out of me that those ideas seem to get traction, and otherwise reasonable, sensible people support them. I’m aghast and astounded that people thing going backwards is a good idea. What’s next? Repealing women’s right to vote??? (Said with only slight sarcasm. I’m too scared for more.)

  3. The tea party doesn’t scare me as much as establishment republicans do. Tea partiers (not candidates) typically want less trade. They want the healthcare law repealed. They support second ammendment rights. I’m not sure about their position on repealing the patriot act.

    If they would all become pro-gay marriage and support any pollution reduction or global warming measure, I could vote for one or two candidates.

    As far as ending the Department of Education. You need to understand that they are worried about the federal government setting curriculum. You can’t expect a conservative family from Alabama to be happy about their kid being taught evolution. Furthermore, without the Dept of Education, we would never have had no child left behind.

    I couldn’t believe the fluoride comment when I first heard it. When I was a kid my father would not let any of us drink public water or use anything but baking soda to brush teeth with. Not because of communists or anything but he worked for a company where sodium fluoride was a by-product. It was treated as toxic, illegal to dump into the ocean and very expensive to dispose of.

  4. NOTE: I’ve never been to a TEA party rally, but I have followed the movement and this is MY opinion of it.

    I view the Tea Party as a leaderless entity that is trying to accomplish what Ross Perot did from ’92-’96. That is to try and lead our country back toward a sane fiscal course.

    The difference is that there is no one leader that can coalesce the movement and those that are trying are partisan hacks of the worst kind.

    I sympathize with the TEA Partiers. Our nation is out of control fiscally. Republicans made a complete mess of things from ’00 to ’06 and Democrats have been doing even worse since they took control of the House in ’06.

    There is really no party that is willing to make any type of sacrifice to solve our fiscal issues. We are $13,617,255,556,356.04 in debt and will likely push that over $14 trillion before the end of the year. There is no painless solution. Democrats want to raise taxes and spending. Republicans want to cut taxes and spend some more.

    This is the TEA Party I identify with. The one that realizes the Washington, DC establishment does not care about the fiscal future of this country. While you may not agree with their push for candidates such as O’Donnel over Castle I can tell you exactly why they do it. They know Castle has been in the US House since 1993 and in his 18 years in office the federal debt has gone up $10 trillion. They also know they don’t trust the Democrats now that in two years they have increased the debt $3 trillion, a feat it took George Bush 6 years to do. So, what’s the solution? Vote for ANYONE else.

    That’s the anger of the TEA Party. Sure, there are some social nuts thrown in there but it’s almost exclusively fiscal and they’ll vote for anyone that isn’t tied to the current crop of Republicans and Democrats. They are desperate and you should care.

    You can try and pretend they don’t matter and stick your head in the sand but that won’t work. Our fiscal situation is continuing to deteriorate and no one in power gives a damn.


  5. My problem with the Tea Party though is that deep down, they don’t really seem to care about fiscal issues. Some do, of course, but for the most part, they don’t have a serious take on the fiscal problems that we face. I see lots of posts about our fiscal problems on liberal blogs with graphs and charts that show exactly how deep a hole we’re in and what the cause of that hole is. I don’t see similar sorts of things from the Tea Party.

    The fundamental problem with the budget is that we lack the revenue to support the future obligations of the government. People complain about spending, but they are for the programs that make up nearly the entirety of the budget.

    Congress is absolutely worthless in terms of addressing the budget. Republicans aren’t open to any changes in terms of increasing revenue and don’t want to cut popular programs, either. Democrats don’t want to cut popular programs and don’t really want to raise taxes, except maybe on the rich. Maybe. Obama is better than Congress, but not by leaps and bounds.

    And the Tea Party candidates are not going to make anything better. We need to take a close look at what happened to the California state assembly when they imposed draconian term limits. They brought in a ton of candidates who were long on anger but short on knowledge of how to govern, and the richest state in America is just in terrible, terrible shape.

    I don’t begrudge the Tea Party movement its anger, but I wish they’d channel that anger in a more useful way. At least Ross Perot made fact-based arguments in favor of his candidacy.

  6. Democrats in control right now want to raise $70 billion in taxes a year by rolling taxes back to their 2001 levels. That would only leave us with a $1.2-$1.3 trillion debt.

    If we rolled spending back to 2001 levels, we’d instantly balance the budget.

    I appreciate the fact you feel we have a revenue problem, but it’s really a spending problem. The issue with spending cuts is that everyone is going to complain when the spending on their hand out gets cut. Just as everyone complains when their taxes are raised. No one wants to feel any pain and the situation gets worse and worse.

    I guess things will just have to get worse before they get better. Thankfully at the rate Obama and the Democrats are spending and trying to tax, that won’t take long.

  7. I say it’s a revenue problem because there is no political constituency for making the kinds of cuts that would be necessary to balance the budget at the current revenue level.

  8. We agree. We’re ******.

  9. @Jeff: I think you mean $1.2t deficit, not $1.2t debt.

  10. BTW Rafe, I give credit for the TEA partiers at least trying to elect folks who say they will slash and burn the federal budget. Guys like BJ Lawson, Rand Paul and a few others whose rhetoric matches extreme fiscal conservatism. We’ll see if there is a political constituency or not.

    Regardless of the Democratic talking points, the TEA party folks don’t want to had the keys back to the same old Republicans…that’s why they defeated a surprising number of incumbents and entrenched politicians during primary season.

  11. The Calif. legislative process is (for now) hopelessly borked and it’s easy to adjust state law or constitution by ballot initiative. The legislature has largely punted tough decisions to voters. Others, such as bond issues, must be approved by initiative. And while the legislative analyst reviews the propositions and reports on them for the voter’s guide, the language is exactly what’s drafted, signed by petition and certified by the secretary of state. The ripple effects of Prop. 13 continue, too, with a strong boom/bust cycle in the state budget.

    When it booms, there’s agitation to cut fees and tax rates. When it busts, all hell breaks loose.

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