Remember the “Militia” movement from the 1990’s? If you recall, these were armed groups of men and women, galumphing through the boonies in their cammies and vowing to defend Liberty from the excesses of “Big Government”. At the time, I predicted that their beef was with Bill Clinton’s quasi-liberal government and, if a right-wing conservative re-appeared in the White House, all these so-called “patriots” would strangely disappear.
Which they did, of course, though not before one of their crazier numbers perpetrated the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the worst act of terrorism on American soil before 9/11. And, true to my prediction, they remained completely silent during the Bush-Cheney years when the Republican majority assaulted the Constitution, deregulated Wall Street and replaced the Clinton surplus with a whopping deficit.
Well, I figured that they were back but maybe under a new guise, namely the Tea Party Movement which has gotten all kinds of press over the past year, especially after a summer of town hall meetings, gun-wavings, and rallies where some of the signs portraying President Obama harkened back to something you’d see in Mississippi during the Jim Crow era.
After reading all the punditry about them, I went on Facebook to find out what kind of people made up this movement which is supposedly a leadless, polyglot of concerned American citizens. Entering various Tea Party discussions, I found the personal contact I established there to be both illuminating and alarming. Illuminating, because there are many sincere people involved who are scared to death that their government debt is spiraling out of control. Most of them bent over backwards to convince me that they hold both Republicans and Democrats in equal low regard and some polls validate that sentiment. If anything, they were excited to be politically energized, some for the first time in their lives. I brought my usual left-wing conservative (yes, we exist) viewpoint into the mix which inspired several people to invite me to join their movement as a fellow traveler.
But I demurred on their kind offers because not one of them could honestly answer the following question, which was.
“Where were you when George W. Bush and the Republican neo-conservatives were expanding Big Government from 2000-2006, wasting billions of our dollars on tax cuts for the rich and bogus wars?”
A simple question, really, but one that was never really answered. Mostly, I was admonished for “harping on the past” as if four years ago is an era frozen in amber. Others promised to hold all politicians’ feet to the fire (a phrase they borrowed from the Progressive Left, who they consider their natural adversaries) regardless of party. Another question the Tea Partiers dodged was this. If Big Government is so awful, are you willing to give up all those goodies you get from it like Medicare, Social Security, the G.I. Bill, and farm subsidies? This, too, was met with silence or evasive double-talk.
Essentially, the Tea Party espouses three main themes; Throw the bums out, cut taxes and let the free market take care of itself. All of which sounds uncomfortably like the philosophy of arch-conservative Grover Norquist and his ilk.
One wonders if the Tea Party folks realize (or care) that many of the bums they want to throw out are the same bums they elected between 1994 – 2008 and if they eject them, what’s to prevent a new bunch of bums from taking their place in 2010? Part of this conundrum is the American voters’ limited attention span and their inability to realize that they need to participate in the democratic process, instead of merely complaining about it.
As far as tax cuts, Tea Partiers forget that if they want good schools, efficient police and fire departments and usable roads and bridges, you have to pay for them, and in our system, taxes is how that is done. Several individuals expressed sympathy with Joseph Stack, the man who killed himself flying his airplane into the IRS building in Texas, while others made a point of distancing him from the movement.
And the free market? The Tea Party would rather have Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Insurance, and Big Banks play them for suckers and ruin their lives before they allowed the federal government to regulate them. This is considered “a return to free market principles on which this nation was founded”. Go figure.
Unfortunately, if you read the language on the various Tea Party websites and check out their espoused causes (not to mention all the ads promoting Sarah Palin’s book), you cannot help but conclude that this is a conservative movement which, at its extreme, echoes the same kind of right-wing paranoia that motivated Timothy McVeigh. Despite the honorable intentions of many of its members, historically, all populist movements tend to find its energy in fear and extremism, yielding demagogues who range from monsters like Adolph Hitler to minor league thugs like Huey Long and Hugo Chavez.
And herein lies the danger. Movements like the Tea Party, as noble as they appear to their followers, are eventually co-opted by sleazy pols who use that populist rage for their own benefit and ambition. And once elected, they will thank their erstwhile supporters, laugh at them behind their backs and then begin to initiate their own agenda, one that has little or nothing to do with the sentiments of those who placed their trust in them in the first place.