Widespread frustration among Americans is sure to play a major role in the November midterm election. The lingering recession and intensified partisanship in Washington have created rancor and concern which, in many cases, was effectively harnessed in primary elections by Tea Party candidates. Many votes were cast to protest the status quo, and many voters have become susceptible to the most extreme positions that candidates are willing to offer.
Although a spirit of bipartisanship is vital to effective government, it is put on hold for elections, when differences between candidates are illuminated and messages are crafted accordingly. In that context, it is necessary to understand the underlying motivations and themes that led to primary election victories for Tea Party candidates, address those themes with vision instead of anger, and urge the electorate to cast their votes for balanced judgment and pragmatism.
The Tea Party's Four Major Themes
The Tea Party has four major characteristics, two of which were central to its inception, and two others which emerged as the primaries became "open season" against the government and the Tea Party attracted people who had other agendas.
- Fiscal Responsibility: The Tea Party was born out of concerns about Federal spending, the national debt, deficit reduction, taxes, and capital infusions for banks and automobile manufacturers. Although the financial supports for banks and auto makers were effective in staving off a much deeper economic crisis and have largely been repaid to the Federal government, they caused resentment among many because large corporations were given greater assistance than that which was given to families facing personal income or mortgage problems. Fiscal responsibility remains a major theme - both for the Tea Party and the country as a whole - as the US will continue to face deficit, debt, spending, and tax policy choices during and beyond the current recession. These issues were the policy cornerstone of the movement, and are legitimate topics for a national debate on the priorities of government.
- The Role of Government: Dovetailing with fiscal issues, the ideological cornerstone of the Tea Party is its belief that the scope of the Federal government should be severely reduced. Its wrath was aimed at financial support that kept banks and auto makers in business, the planned sunset of tax breaks, and legislation to reform our health care and financial industries. Many in the Tea Party would like the Federal government to limit its focus to defense and international issues, relegating the rest to the states. Yet, this is just the latest chapter of the debate on Federal versus states' rights which dates back to our nation's inception. The Tea Party objects to two of the government's fundamental social responsibility roles that have increased since the 1930s: providing a social safety-net, and regulating industries which have national impacts on health, safety, the environment, consumer protection, fairness, and the economy. This philosophy is also reflected in the Republicans' recently released "Pledge to America" document.
- Anger: Many Tea Party votes were cast to protest the status quo, rejecting Republican office-holders who were not stridently opposed to TARP (even though it was crafted by a Republican president), the economic stimulus, and health care and financial industry reforms. The common denominator among Tea Party candidates who rode anger to victory was that they did not hold offices which would have saddled them to the ugly economy of the past three years, even if that resulted in nominees who are inexperienced, have shortcomings that usually inhibit electability, or hold views that are far outside of the mainstream. The "rejectionist" atmosphere also welcomed radical proposals that conflict with fundamental tenets of American society, which were marketed as dramatic departures from the status quo and a means to limit the scope of government. They include the elimination or draconian constriction of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Unemployment Insurance, civil rights laws, reproductive rights, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Departments of Education and Energy. Tea Party candidates have grasped for positions to differentiate themselves from the mainstream, despite consequences that even they would probably abhor if their proposals were to be enacted.
- Demonization: As the Tea Party gained traction, it became an outlet for resentments and malevolence that scorn 2010 America. The movement was hijacked by those emboldened to use it to spread anti-immigrant, racist, anti-gay, and anti-Islamic sentiments and policies. The demonization of demographic groups was certainly outside of the original scope of the Tea Party, and yet, its electoral value insulated it from rebuke by usually responsible leaders. Vitriol was focused on President Obama (e.g., the "birther" movement, venomous placards at Tea Party rallies, and Newt Gingrich's recent rants), immigrants (e.g., Arizona's law that countenanced racial profiling), and Muslims (e.g., the castigation of the Islamic Cultural Center in New York City). Such vilification exhumes the baneful and destructive pattern from our nation's past when the disenchanted seek scapegoats and turn their frustration into pernicious demonization. Even the Tea Party itself acknowledged this (laudably) by expelling one of its leaders, Mark Williams.
Antidotes to the Tea Party's Themes
Candidates who ignore the Tea Party's main concerns and message do so at their peril, since frustration is not the exclusive domain of the Tea Party. Candidates can address the four underlying themes while staking the territory as the effective, sensible, pragmatic choice.
1. Fiscal responsibility can -- and must -- be directly addressed, as it is a major issue for the overall electorate. Instead of amorphous slogans about spending cuts, the discussion should focus on jobs, economic growth, tax rates, and deficit reduction to help people at the local level.
Job creation and economic growth are very likely to accelerate due to initiatives by President Obama and Congress, such as small businesses financing legislation, economic stimulus projects, and the effort to double exports within five years. There are at least two other initiatives which would further bolster jobs and the economy. First, job skills training can be made widely, conveniently, and inexpensively available through e-learning. Unallocated stimulus funds could be used by for e-learning programs that would bridge the gap between the jobs that are available and the skill sets of displaced workers who seek employment. Second, a network of localized business parks throughout the US could add jobs and accelerate key high-growth industries by co-locating numerous companies that are in the same emerging industry to facilitate leveraging of each other's research, skills, resources, patents, and manufacturing and fulfillment capabilities. Each park would become a hub for job and economic growth with synergistic benefits for all involved (please see "Development of Industry-Specific Technologies for the Future Economy via Business Parks" for more detail).
Tax rates will remain reduced for the first $250,000 of annual income for all families. For the highest income earners, the decision on tax rates above that level must be balanced with another focus of fiscal responsibility: deficit reduction. Since the planned sunset of the tax breaks already gave certainty to high-income earners (i.e., that tax rates would return to their prior levels after 2010), any additional tax breaks must consider the economic and political factors. (Please see "Bush Tax Cuts: The End of a Tax Holiday or the Start of a Tax Hike?" for further discussion.)
Deficit reduction is important to all - from Tea Party voters to liberals - to ensure the long-term sustainability of our economy. The bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform will recommend ways to reduce the debt and deficit. Americans of all ideologies will be called upon to accept tough measures, possibly including means-testing for Medicare benefits, reductions of military spending, phasing out spending for certain programs, returning to the tax rates of the 1990s, increasing taxes on health insurers that impose excessive premium hikes, and increasing taxes on corporations with excessive executive compensation.
2. The role of government is an issue on which Republicans and Democrats historically and currently disagree. It is a legitimate topic for debate, and can best be addressed by specifically identifying what the American people would lose if government were limited as advocated by Tea Party candidates and the Republicans' "Pledge to America" document. The electorate would not take kindly to the prospect of Social Security and Medicare being privatized, Unemployment Insurance being dismantled, severe reductions in low-income assistance causing homelessness to skyrocket, education programs being dismantled, companies polluting the environment at will, oil companies jeopardizing our energy security, health insurers radically raising premiums, financial companies taking advantage of consumers, civil rights laws being eliminated, and reproductive options being directed by the government.
3. Anger that leads to a protest vote is based on the illusion that the views of one candidate matter less than those of another. It can be countered by urging voters to demand specifics from the candidates, evaluate them, and choose wisely. Voters must know that, whoever they choose, that person will bring a wide span of views, not only the few that they reiterate during the campaign. It is not enough for a candidate to be against something, or to offer banal platitudes like "It's time to give government back to the people" which don't offer any clue as to what they would actually do. Not all incumbents are the cause of problems, just as not all outsiders are the cure. In this sense, each race should be localized, with a focus on the choice between the particular candidates, rather than on national trends.
Radical proposals which stem from anger can be countered with sound policies toward shared objectives. President Obama and Congress instituted sound policies and programs to resurrect our economy from the fiscal epidemic, but hopes for a quick cure were inflated, as impacts need more than 21 months to work through the economy. Since these efforts are very likely to bear fruit in the coming months, voters would benefit by letting the policies take their full effect without causing a course correction. Conversely, if all of the Tea Party candidates were elected, their proposals on health care, education, environmental protection, senior citizens, low-income assistance, and energy security that would be destabilizing, inimical to societal needs, and detrimental to consumers in deference to corporate interests. Most Americans would soon regret the deconstruction of sacrosanct programs and policies. In this sense, the election should be nationalized, with full attention to what Tea Party candidates say they would do. This ominous specter would bridge the enthusiasm gap, even among independents and moderate Republicans.
4. Demonization is destructive of the social fabric which unites us as Americans, is based on distrust or prejudice, has neither a factual nor ethical basis, and obstructs responsible policies. Anyone seeking a more harmonious society should reject hateful and antagonistic rhetoric, and insist on civility. Decency and civility are hallmarks of American culture that eschew venomous or slanderous comments aimed for political manipulation. Recent comments about the President by Newt Gingrich created a "straw man" with false and baseless allegations, and then attacked it with vitriol that denounced the falsified characteristics. Americans of all political stripes should condemn such tactics, and insist on sticking to the issues. Civility enables bipartisanship, which bolsters the people's faith in their government, enhances voter enfranchisement, and improves legislative outcomes. Those who claim that bipartisanship is impractical, naïve, or undesirable usually lack either the mutual respect to find common ground or the desire to put forth effort in good faith toward pragmatic, non-ideological solutions. We should all honor President Lincoln's decree to act "with malice toward none, with charity for all".
The debate on the Islamic Cultural Center in New York showcases both the harm of demonization and the opportunity to find common ground. Through collaboration and civility, a compromise might be reached. Proponents do not want to move to another site, but are open to interfaith access. Opponents do not want an Islamic facility at that site, but don't mind other faiths having a facility there. One scenario might begin by renaming the project the "Institute for Teaching of Religious Understanding and Social Tolerance" (a.k.a., "I-TRUST"), with two or three areas for diverse religions to hold prayer services, a program of interfaith study, interfaith collaboration on community-oriented projects, and a cultural center with sports facility that is open to all people.
The November Election in a Nutshell
There are lessons to be learned from the traction that the Tea Party gained in Republican primaries. Yet, there is an antidote for each of the Tea Party's four main themes. The election should be nationalized with regard to the constructive policies that are beginning to take hold, and the proposals offered by the Tea Party while, at the same time, localizing each race as a choice between the policies of specific, identified candidates. The widespread frustration and anger is understood and acknowledged. But the solution is found in the vision for pragmatic, balanced, sound policies, not turning over the keys to those who would reverse America's progress.