Friday, May 24, 2013

Confession of a Tea Party Extremist

One of the major items in the news lately has been the alleged targeting of groups with the words "tea party" or "patriot" in their names and other conservative. Also,their have been stories about units from the Department of Homeland Security monitoring rallies which were organized to protest the targeting of these groups. The Tea Party movement has been considered by many people, including some members of Congress to be an extreme and dangerous movement having approximately the same status in the minds of many people as terrorists who committed violent acts or advocate the violent overthrow the government. I take great interest in the stories because I have a faded bumper sticker on the back of my care that has been present since 2009 this says "Tea Party Patriots." I certainly don't consider myself to be a terrorist extremist and the people that I've met in Tea Party groups or at Tea Party rallies are the farthest things from violent terrorist extremists that I can think of.

Following are some examples of the ideas hostile to the Tea Party movement that I have seen, which I will follow with an explanation of why they are wrong. As part of an online class in American Government that I taught at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport Connecticut in the Spring semester of 2013, one of the assigned books was a collection of debates on current issues (2012 You Decide!; Current Debates in American Politics by John T. Rourke).  Another part of the class is a discussion board on which students are to discuss different topics based on the reading material. One of the debates in the reading material was "Tea Party Members: Irresponsible Zealots or Responsibly Dissenting Citizens?" and one of the questions for discussion on the discussion board was "Are tea party members extremists or ordinary citizens with legitimate complaints?" Here are relevant excerpts from comments on the discussion board: "… I do believe that the tea party members are extremist with and it's my way or the highway attitude." "I think the Tea Party are mostly ordinary citizens who have legitimate complaints but like in every group I'm sure that there are a few that can be categorized as extremists." "The Tea Party, started a good idea, but has become an extremist organization. It seems to be filled with people who have all sorts of crazy notions about the government, have some racist hatred of Barack Obama, or have other ideas that are ultimately destructive to American society. Most Republicans are in the Tea Party.… I believe between the GOP and the Tea Party, one is openly racist and the other uses code words to show the racism." "Of course tea party members are extremists. Therefore for ordinary citizens with legitimate complaints. They complain about all the wrong things instead of what is at hand. Such as, job lost I really do not hear much of the tea party address this issue. They want to sit around and address non-important things instead of what can actually help this country we live in today. In my opinion, they are not just ordinary citizens, but on the extremist side."

In the book of debates, the supposedly objective introduction to the debate regarding tea party members describes supporters of the Tea Party as "… overwhelmingly white, over age 45, and identify as Republicans and conservatives." It goes on to say that a majority of them are men, or least $50,000 here, and are Protestants.  I fit part of that description in that I am a white man approaching 65 years of age, a member of my town's Republican Town Committee, and have income over $50,000 a year, although most of my income as a retirement pension from my 38 years of work at the Social Security Administration. I doubt that most people would consider a retired employee of the Social Security Administration to be a typical Tea Party member. Also, most other college professors, particularly in the social sciences, have views quite the opposite of those of the Tea Party, but that is another story.  The characterization of the Tea Party movement as "overwhelmingly white" is misleading. Although a majority of members of Tea Party organizations are white, that is to be expected considering the majority of the general population is white. At every event I've been to, I've been in close proximity to African-Americans and at some events, African-Americans were among the organizers. I have no idea what the typical incomes were, since I never asked and never considered it relevant, and do not know the religious affiliation of most members, although I note that a majority of the general population of the United States that attends church attends Protestant churches. Although I'm not a particularly religious person, when I do occasionally attend church, is a Catholic Church, because my wife is Catholic.  Many critics of the Tea Party movement focus on stereotypes of what the people are in are like instead of addressing their ideas.

The side of the debate in the book describing the tea party members as irresponsible zealots comes from remarks made by Senator Frank Lautenberg to the U.S. Senate on March 10, 2011. Senator Lautenberg described the Tea Party as being busy trying to eliminate opportunities for the American people to stay in their homes, have adequate healthcare, and provide education and a better path for the lives of their children. By his description, the Tea Party opposes affordable college education and even education of of small children before kindergarten. They are against protecting the health of women, and funding for medical research in general. According to him, the Tea Party opposes making the air cleaner and wants to get rid of the air traffic control system he claims that the Tea Party, and the Republican Party want to cut funding to help states protect drinking water and that "the water is not safe for dishwashing, much less consumption." I don't know where in United States Senator Lautenberg finds drinking water that is not fit to drink. I've lived in many places the a number of  states, in environments that they been rural, small-town, urban, and suburban. I have never encountered drinking water that is unfit to drink. Most of the time, the husband said to breathe, except when I lived in Chicago it was easy enough to detect the air pollution from the steel mills on the south side of the city and the Indiana suburbs on hot summer day in which there were no breeze.  Yes, there are such days in the Windy City.  As for getting rid of the air traffic control system, let me say that as an occasional airline passenger, I am very much in favor of air traffic being controlled, but I think it can be done better than the federal government does it.

I will skip describing the side of the debate in the book that portrays Tea Party members as responsibly dissenting citizens, because frankly I think I can do a better job of it than Senator Mitch McConnell did. Since the Tea Party movement is not one organization, but is made up of many organizations, any general statement about what a Tea Party member or Tea Party organizations like would have to be qualified with exceptions. The core principle or belief of the Tea Party movement is the federal government of the United States spends and borrows far too much money because it is incapable of being efficient, of setting priorities, or of recognizing that most issues involve making trade-offs. Tea Party members and libertarians are often accused of being anti-government. They are not anti-government. I, for one, believe in a strong and efficient government that does well what governments are supposed to do. What is it that governments are supposed to do? According to the Declaration of Independence, governments are instituted among men to protect their inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. At best, government enables us to pursue our own happiness; what it cannot do is provide happiness for us. Voters and politicians alike tend to forget that the government's resources are limited and that the only way it can obtain more resources is by taking them from someplace else. We also tend to forget the economic law of diminishing returns. With that means is that even if of the particular sum of money spent for a particular purpose, such as housing, education, or health care improves the product or service for which it is spent by certain amount, spending twice as much does not make it twice as good. We also tend to forget that for every benefit, there must be a cost, and that if we're not very careful the costs can easily outweigh the benefits. Like many other Tea Party members and supporters, I believe that housing that is affordable is better than housing that is not affordable, that is desirable for people to get education, that is desirable for them to be healthy, the it's desirable for them to have clean air and water, and so forth. It is also desirable that we have police to protect us from crime, firemen to fight fires, and armed forces to protect us from those who would do us harm. Unfortunately, the federal government cannot, as many voters and politicians think it can, do everything at once. When the government does too much, it ends up doing most things not very well and wasting a lot of resources.

Independent analysis by the nonpartisan and reasonably objective Congressional Budget Office indicates that the federal government's current pattern of spending and borrowing cannot be sustained. Currently the interest rate that the United States government pays him and on the national debt is at or near historic lows. The Congressional Budget Office has projected that unless the rate of increase in the National Guard brought down, within a few decades, the combination of paying interest on the national debt, and paying for Social Security and Medicare will consume the entire national budget, leaving no money for such essential government services as national defense or protecting the environment. As the economist Herbert Stein has put it, something that cannot go on forever must stop. Many critics of the Tea Party movement claimed that the Tea Party does not care about children. What kind of future do our children face when the government becomes insolvent and no matter how hard it tries it is unable to raise enough revenue to pay for the most basic of government services? I, for one, and not so much worried that the government is currently doing more than it should as I am that within the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren the government will burn itself out and be unable to function at all. If worrying about that and standing against it makes me extremist, then that is something for which I make no apologies. If that causes me to become a target of the Internal Revenue Service or the Department of Homeland Security, then so be it.

I don't know were many critics of the Tea Party movement have gotten the idea the members or supporters of the movement are prone to violence. I've attended local events in which there were hundreds of people. I've attended events in Washington, D.C. in which there were hundreds of thousands of people. Not only was there no violence at any of these events, all interactions between the people that attended these events and law enforcement officers were courteous and respectful. Many people brought garbage bags with them so they could dispose of their own trash and even the trash that they found on the ground. They left the site of the event in better condition than he found it. Compare that to the behavior  the people attending Occupy Wall Street and similar events. Who are ordinary citizens respectfully requesting common sense changes and who are the extremists?