Lots of folks, including me, have written before about the ugly underbelly of the tea party movement - the degree to which it is animated by racial resentment and a more general antipathy toward outgroups and difference. Admittedly, this gets us into complicated territory, not least because not all Tea Partiers are alike. And that conversation becomes emotional very quickly, making it difficult to evaluate soberly the place of the movement in American politics or its aims.
What's less difficult to do is to look at the movement's own stated aims and consider their validity. Since it's tax day, I will focus on two undeniably core grievances - 1) taxes and 2) government tyranny.
There are other grievances, of course. Tea Party supporters are strongly opposed to the new health care reform legislation and think government spending is out of control (naturally, however, they have nothing to say about Pentagon spending, by far the single largest discretionary item in the Federal Budget, or about the multi-trillion dollar tax cuts of the Bush years, cuts which overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy. And they oppose precisely the kinds of health care reforms that would reduce medical costs, a major driver of our deficits). But I'll focus here on taxes and tyranny because those threads have been woven through the disparate Tea Party elements from the beginning.
1) April 15 has become a kind of May Day for the Tea Party movement, prompting protests across the country both last year and this to insist that we've been "taxed enough already."
So what do we know about how much Americans have been taxed under Obama?
...taxes are at their lowest levels in 60 years, according to William Gale, co-director of the Tax Policy Center and director of the Retirement Security Project at the Brookings Institution.
"The relation between what is said in the tax debate and what is true about tax policy is often quite tenuous," Gale told Hotsheet. "The rise of the Tea Party at at time when taxes are literally at their lowest in decades is really hard to understand."
It should be noted that the overwhelming beneficiaries of that sixty-year low in taxation have been the wealthy, a product of a series of tax cuts aimed at the rich over the past several decades. Given their insistence that they represent "ordinary" Americans, one might think that the Tea Party movement would have something to say about this. Nevertheless, just focusing on developments since the Tea Party movement emerged fourteen months ago, roughly 98% of Americans received a break on their Federal taxes for 2009. Some of this has been offset by increasing taxes and fees assessed by states and municipalities due to the financial crisis. But these additional state and local taxes would have been less necessary had liberal stimulus proposals fared better in the final version of the 2009 stimulus bill. That's because most Democrats wanted to provide more direct federal aid to states, precisely to help the states avoid having to levy new taxes on their citizens and were blocked by filibuster-threatening Republicans, the party to whom the vast majority of Tea Party identifiers give their support. But to be clear, Federal taxes went down for most Americans in 2009, not up.
Some critics argue that it's Obama's plans for the future that has have them so scared. But what are those plans? They consist of proposals that would raise taxes on individuals making more than $200,000 a year and married couples making more than $250,000 a year (these are the income levels at which additional taxes will be assessed both in the new health care reform package and other proposed tax increases). These enacted and proposed future increases will affect no more than 5% of earners.
So, when it comes to a tyrannical assault on American freedom in the form of new confiscatory government policies, a.k.a, higher taxes, there is no evidence to support the Tea Party's anger, unless they can explain why they only started calling for a new American Revolution in February of 2009.
2) A second clear grievance is a broader one against tyranny. As I wrote last Fall, when it comes to things that most people think of as manifestly tyrannical forms of government abuse of power - like warrantless surveillance of individuals, torture, and other clear violations of due process and people's basic rights, the Tea Party movement should have become upset at the prospect of tyranny in America long before February of 2009. And if these clear, direct forms of government abuse of power and denial of individual rights were really at the heart of Tea Party concerns, then they'd have plenty about Obama to rant at, since there is no area in which Obama has more blatantly broken his campaign promises than in this realm. Strikingly, the Tea Party, on the whole, has had very little to say about these issues.
But what about other clear forms of tyranny and abuse of power, including instances where large private corporations rip-off ordinary taxpayers while government either turns a blind eye or actively abets the abuse? Indeed, the Tea Party movement has decried Wall Street bailouts. But the movement's rejection of bailouts has not been accompanied by any policy agenda to stop such things from happening again. Where, for example, is the Tea Party insistence on significant regulatory reform to mitigate abuse by large corporations? (It's worth noting that, at least according to one of the Tea Party's top organizing vehicles, The Contract from America, neither government bailouts of banks or financial reform is among the top ten items of concern).
Surely, given the movement's call to restore our founding constitutional principles, they know that the Founding Fathers' advocacy of individual liberty, including economic liberty, did not extend to protecting the interests of large moneyed interests. The writings of the founding fathers are clear, in fact, on the threat of concentrations of wealth to the well-being of the Republic.
In fact, Thom Hartmann has made the compelling case that the original Tea Party movement, in Boston in 1773, was primarily opposed to precisely such incestuous relations between large concentrations of private wealth and indulgent government.
The equivalent of the ride of Paul Revere for the modern Tea Party movement was the Santelli rant, in February of last year, when CNBC correspondent Rick Santelli fulminated not against the degree to which mega-billion dollar entities had conspired with government to rig the system in their favor at the expense of ordinary Americans Instead, the Santelli rant was directed against a (quite modest) government program to help distressed mortgage holders and against the so-called "losers" who couldn't pay their mortgages (and inspiring the widely circulated bumper sticker "honk if I'm paying your mortgage." No such widespread bumper stickers concerning honking at banking CEOs).. Nevermind that the cost of the proposed homeowner bailout to which Santelli was reacting cost a fraction of the bailouts of the big Wall Street banks.
And why hasn't the Tea Party movement screamed bloody murder over the despicable rip-offs of Main Street like the one perpetrated against Jefferson County, Alabama and chronicled by Matt Taibbi?:
In 1996, the average monthly sewer bill for a family of four in Birmingham was only $14.71 -- but that was before the county decided to build an elaborate new sewer system with the help of out-of-state financial wizards with names like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase. The result was a monstrous pile of borrowed money that the county used to build, in essence, the world's grandest toilet -- "the Taj Mahal of sewer-treatment plants" is how one county worker put it. What happened here in Jefferson County would turn out to be the perfect metaphor for the peculiar alchemy of modern oligarchical capitalism: A mob of corrupt local officials and morally absent financiers got together to build a giant device that converted human shit into billions of dollars of profit for Wall Street...
And once the giant shit machine was built and the note on all that fancy construction started to come due, Wall Street came back to the local politicians and doubled down on the scam. They showed up in droves to help the poor, broke citizens of Jefferson County cut their toilet finance charges using a blizzard of incomprehensible swaps and refinance schemes -- schemes that only served to postpone the repayment date a year or two while sinking the county deeper into debt. In the end, every time Jefferson County so much as breathed near one of the banks, it got charged millions in fees. There was so much money to be made bilking these dizzy Southerners that banks like JP Morgan spent millions paying middlemen who bribed -- yes, that's right, bribed, criminally bribed -- the county commissioners and their buddies just to keep their business. Hell, the money was so good, JP Morgan at one point even paid Goldman Sachs $3 million just to back the fuck off, so they could have the rubes of Jefferson County to fleece all for themselves.
If Tea Partiers cared about Main Street and were serious about stopping unchecked concentrations of power from robbing Americans of their freedom and the possibility of living decent lives, they'd be all over stories like this one, especially since a version of what happened in Jefferson County has been replicated in municipalities around the country. Why has such blatant and catastrophic malfeasance by such clearly excessive concentrations of power worth nary a whisper from prominent tea party outlets, protests and leaders, while a relatively modest government effort to help distressed homeowners is the spark for a new American revolution?
The Tea Party's most strongly stated grievances do not, on the whole, appear to be based on actual identifiable developments in the world since the movement arose. Whether their grievances are a proxy for other concerns, people can decide for themselves. I've already made quite clear my suspicions in this regard (and the New York Times recent poll of supporters does show that Tea Party identifiers are about twice as likely as the average respondent to say we spend too much time worrying about Blacks). Regardless, it's hard to conclude that the movement is anything but a fraud given the vast disconnect between the movement's supposed principles and the targets of their intense anger since their inception.
Jonathan Weiler's second book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in Contemporary American Politics, co-authored with Marc Hetherington, was published in 2009 by Cambridge University Press. He blogs about politics and sports at www.jonathanweiler.com