Oh man, where to begin. I think I’ve been a little frustrated lately because I haven’t written in a while. So let’s get it out there so I can move on.
National Tea Party, 9/12
This last Saturday was the National Tea Party Day in DC. The Tea Party is a rallying cry for essentially Jeffersonian anti-big government, anti-taxation, anti-socialism, anti-public option Americans.
I live in DC. I went to meet some friends at the St. Regis hotel for drinks, since one of our friends was attending a wedding reception there for her friends. I think there were three weddings in the area because there were people dressed to the nines everywhere. But interspersed among them along 15th Street, since the St. Regis is due north from the White House, were tons of Tea Party out-of-towners. They wore the typical uniform of the red-blooded American patriot from the midwest and south. So imagine little black wedding party dresses and heels and tuxedos mixed in with American flag t-shirts, Don’t Tread on Me flags, large homemade posters decrying socialism, and 13 Colonies flags. It was quite a scene. Read this post for an idea of the iconography and symbology they use. Heavily Confederate, heavily Jeffersonian.
Inside the Tea Party
I am being generous in my description of the Tea Party because here’s what it really is: despite claims to the contrary (they say they are inclusionist) by those orchestrating it (Dick Armey, FreedomWorks, FOXNews, Glenn Beck), the Tea Party is almost exclusively old, white, fat Americans from the midwest and south (watch the videos, about the only minorities you see are the police, ironically…DC at least in the workplace is diverse, although not so much socially).
This panoply lends itself to legitimate elements of conservatism, as well as attracting isolationism, racism, and antiquated rhetoric, because they want to be left alone by the government, prefer Jeffersonian federalism, and couch their political rhetoric loosely around racist anti-Obama, obstructionist anti-Keynesianism, and anti-national anti-public school/health care/anything that takes money out of their pockets. As with any movement, the fringe elements make up a lot of the headlines.
The thing is, their political ideology has a strong historical foundation. The American debate has long focused around Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians arguing about central government vs. limited government, diplomacy vs. isolationism. The Tea Party certainly has legitimate doubts about the encroaching danger of a growing government, the problem of being taxed too heavily by hungry and wasteful federal programs, the desire to own guns vs. the fear of the government seeking to seize them, etc. They are the accountants of American domestic and foreign policy. Their first instinct is always to say no. And we need this.
Today’s American Policy Schools of Thought
One significant limitation with solely following this school, though, is that the world has become far more complex than these classic debates (fought out when America was not yet the superpower), and so has American history. Walter Russell Mead, author of Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, adds two more schools of American thought, the Wilsonians and the Jacksonians.
The Wilsonians can be best described as the non-government organizations in Washington, DC who lobby for peace in Darfur or de-mining Cambodia or human rights in China. They believe that the American freedoms we enjoy within successful democracy and human equality can be exported; we should spread those ideals abroad.
The Jacksonians are the belligerent, more realpolitik war-fighters who believe strongly in national security, honor, and individualism at any cost.
Naturally you can see that the Tea Party people take a lot from the Jacksonian movement, with their profession of faith for the 2nd Amendment, the vivid display of patriotism and love for the red, white, and blue, and resisting the “public option” of health care in favor of individualized, privatized health care.
But this is not what they choose to make the basis of their movement. They know that preaching fiscal conservatism is where they will be the most inclusive to the conservative base, judging by their organizing web sites. What’s interesting about that site in particular is that #tcot is a hashtag meaning Top Conservatives On Twitter (the libertarians’ is #tlot, the liberals are split up) and the site’s style is a direct knock-off of Drudge Report‘s site design (which I’ve since deleted as a bookmark despite it being a great place for a links, because it’s just become too much of a political EFP pushing anger at certain topics). The Tea Party Patriots web site uses film footage from FreedomWorks, the lobbying group that (and I’m trying not to be too judgmental here, but the FW logo is on everything) is pushing the Tea Parties.
I would describe myself as mostly a Hamiltonian (having had a Keynesian economics grad school education, admittedly), but I also draw heavily from the other schools: Jeffersonian appropriateness of levels of government and high requirements to declare war, Jacksonian desire for ferocity when war must be conducted and desire for militaristic honor in combat and argument, and Wilsonian dreams of universal human rights. I share libertarian suspicion of Wall Street and the Federal Reserve (and any organization that is not transparent and accountable to the people). I support companies in their mandates to earn as much money as possible, but I also think they must do it within the commonly-accepted range of American regulatory institutions protecting the public interest vigorously. I grew up in a Jeffersonian, libertarian Texas as a kid, fought in a post-9/11 Jacksonian US Army, studied at the afore-mentioned Keynesian economics institution, concentrated in a Wilsonian international development concentration.
What’s Wrong With the Tea Party?
With all that said, I feel as though I am qualified as a well-rounded American to question the motivations behind the Tea Party movement.
First of all, it is exclusionary, in that it is made up of old white people who are afraid of having things taken away from them by illegals, blacks, government, etc. As this recession becomes more severe, you can expect hatred to increase. In the past, when the economy did worse, groups like the Ku Klux Klan enjoyed higher enrollment.
I also feel it is out of touch, even down to its name: the Boston Tea Party desired representation for British taxation, in essence declaring that paying taxes was a way of expressing voting preferences. The Tea Party is anti-federal government, and desires to pay much less taxes (if not any), and thus, losing voting rights. This is a horrible distortion of the original meaning of a pretty significant declaration in favor of democracy by our forefathers.
For the Tea Party people to travel to a district (DC) that has no representation, down to the license plate (“taxation without representation”, to protest being over-taxed, seems ignorant.
The Tea Party also called itself teabaggers at first, until liberals informed them that teabagging was a lewd sexual act. Another massive blunder.
The Tea Party also will not to admit to this, but it consorts with racists. All-white crowds who bring firearms and yell down opponents? This is intimidation in its rawest and most public form: if you’re an illegal, a Latino, a black, a gay, then you better not attend. Racists rarely come out and say they hate other people (at least the white supremacists are honest about it), but it is intellectually dishonest for the Tea Party to say it is not racist while it does not censor its own members for being racist.
Again I must emphasize that the Tea Party expresses legitimate fears, once you get past the overt lobbying effort at the top of it. It is not a baseless, stupid movement. DC is a liberal town and most of the residents were unhappy to see the Tea Party show up in town. But as Mead writes,
“Divided We Coast. By the closing months of the Clinton administration, American foreign policy could have been compared to a car. In the front seat the Wilsonian and Hamiltonian schools agreed that the car should go as fast as possible, but they disagreed on the best course. Their feet were together in pressing on the accelerator, but they wrestled for the wheel. Jeffersonians, meanwhile, sat in the back and exercised the classic privilege of the backseat driver: They complained loudly and irritatingly that the car was going too fast, and that it was taking wrong turns.
“The three schools were so busy fighting that at first none of them noticed that the engine — the Jacksonians, whose support gave the car its real power and drive — were no longer responding. Hamiltonians and Wilsonians pumped the accelerator, but to no avail: The car continued to slow.”
For all the ill-informed bluster about death panels, socialism, big government, Nazi/Communist Obama Brownshirt Girl Scout Nazi Youths, the Tea Party engine is genuinely scared. For Obama and liberals to ignore these peoples’ fears and desires would be political stupidity and lack of empathy for fellow Americans.
In fact, the progressives, underneath it all, share a lot in common with these protestors. Both are deeply sensitive to the powerlessness they feel against elites and big government/business. They both feel as though the system has been stacked to pay off the elites and not the common man. Both fear a blow to the middle class. Both seek reform. If anything, both now benefit from the increasingly wise understanding of how money, politics, and influence can affect different organizations and legislation and externalities. We live in the first days of rapidly increased transparency (but not yet accountability, except through smear campaigns).
CNBC is Involved
CNBC has strangely had some connections to today’s debate. It perhaps began with Jim Cramer’s famous blow-up about how bad the crisis was (which Bush and Obama used stimulus money to prevent, successfully, I might add).
It continued with Rick Santelli, a trader and commentator on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, made a massively influential rant on CNBC about subsidizing losers using government money, to the cheers of fellow financial class traders.
Santelli’s video was a rallying cry for the Tea Party before CNBC intervened and tried to have his name removed.
Another CNBC alumn, Dylan Ratigan, left for MSNBC and recently wrote an op-ed for Huffington Post about how the financial industry owns us and we haven’t done anything about it, because we are hostages.
So CNBC is intertwined in all these debates as well. Those who make the most money in this country, the financial executives and the industries that support them, have a vested interest in stoking up capitalist-socialist fears and monopolistic/subsidized conditions for their profit.
As an aside, I was watching FOXNews and Tucker Carlson (the kid who got beat up in school and is taking it out on us now, and also got beat up verbally by Jon Stewart on TV and was then trashed by CNN) did a smear piece on “The Trouble with Textbooks”, where he’s arguing that progressives and intellectuals are secretly inserting their messages into your kids’ textbooks. Better take your kids out of public schools. Let me guess. Are they going to Christian madrassas?
A Bad Summer
Obama clearly lost control of the message this brutal, brutal political summer during the Congressional lull. Obviously he fouled up the entire health care debate, allowing FOXNews to dictate the terms of the debate through town hall ridiculousness. He was not achieving the immediate success in jobs numbers he hoped from the stimulus. He has not pleased his progressive base by advancing on any civil rights fronts (the easiest of which would be to allow gays in the military).
He needs to engage the Tea Party people and address their demands. At the same time he should play the base off (Mead’s “engine”, made up of Jacksonians at their core) against the lobbyists and corporatists who are playing them like puppets. These lobbyists are scaring up the disconnected gap of the midwest and southern states who are afraid of losing more and more during a brutal recession and transformation of the American economy to that of an information economy. It is scary that lobbyists have convinced whites from the middle of the country to vote in favor of cutting taxes for the richest of the rich, disallowing better health care for those who can’t afford it, and in general voting to allow the most elite in this country to have less responsibility and compliance to the rest of us.
THAT is pretty disgusting. But Obama could exploit this divide. Keep in mind that it was Bush, an idealist but running as a conservative, who violated fiscal conservative policies. It was he who exploded the national budget deficit and negative trade balance. Just imagine if Obama cut back the anti-recession stimulus measures (which, I might add, he HAD to do, and which DID prevent a financial sector collapse) and ran as a fiscally responsible politician? He would win away a lot of scared, hurting midwestern whites.
Racism Grows With Recession
I’ll be honest. I’m getting a little worried. It is true that Latinos will become a major power in this country, through pure demographics. This will continue to exacerbate the divide between the cosmopolitan coastal cluster cities and the rural traditionalist interior. The radical whites that the Republican party has been forced to rely on (i.e. Palin) will continue to be disconnected and feel that the rest of the country does not pay its fair share of respect and resources to them.
Look at this one video of a guy who definitely does not want the US government, law enforcement, or anyone to go near him:
Now compare it to a jihadist video by Azzam al-Amriki, who, American interpretation aside, actually preaches on the face of it a message to the west to leave his people alone, get out of Muslim countries, and stop imposing foreign values on his people. He is anti-globalization and anti-financial system.
In both cases, they are in a private room, secluded, wearing the uniform of their people (cowboy hat vs. kuffia), listening to their music (country vs. jihadist), finger-waving that they will shoot to kill anyone who attempts to infiltrate. I hate to compare the two, but the similarities are striking; they both complain of an attack on their strong sense of identity, and they are both reacting against what they see are great injustices against their people.
Their concerns should not be ignored. They should be empathized with and understood properly. We should get a good sense of this loss of trust. When we ridicule Iran for rattling its sabre against Israel, we should remember that it is because Ahmadi-Nejad gets votes for being anti-Israeli. The Republicans get votes for being pro-white, anti-federal government. When we wonder why the Taliban has such a stranglehold in tribal AfPak, we should look at our own country and see the people who don’t want to live in the cities or be cosmopolitan or be around people who aren’t Christian, hetero, and white.
While fortunately our Americans are not militant, it is not a far cry to see that they one day may be.
A Call for Unity
Which is why it’s so crucial that we unite our nation. Through manifest destiny and the belief we are a city upon a hill with special providence, we’ve been provided one way or another with a secure geostrategic position nestled between Canada, Mexico, and two oceans. We are secure, if we are smart about what our vulnerabilities are and work to reduce them. We have the largest economy in the world and we are the largest country that has the most unified populace. We have naval, air, and space superiority over all the other nations. The Russians are weak, the Europeans are wrestling with forming a union, and China is running into significant demographic and political instability risks.
I believe in taking bold steps necessary to maintain American superiority, but I also believe that we must push a more equitable international system, and I also believe that the only risk we have is if we break apart as a nation. It was quite right of FDR to say that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Our position in the world is assured as long as we don’t screw it up.
“And finally, in our progress towards a resumption of work, we require two safeguards against a return of the evils of the old order. There must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments. There must be an end to speculation with other people’s money. And there must be provision for an adequate but sound currency.
“If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize, as we have never realized before, our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take, but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress can be made, no leadership becomes effective.”
We face two domestic risks: that the white base will turn itself against the USA and break apart from the coastal liberal city clusters that provide most of the economic clout (e.g. SF, LA, DC, NYC, Miami). While they will manage to divide both coasts (which would give the breakaway states the ability to hamper coordination between the coasts), this would be even more destructive to national unity.
At the same time, the southwest continues to build dual loyalties: those to the union and those to Latino heritage. I do think that the southwestern states are strong contributors to the union, but if things disintegrated, the cultural, racial, and religious affinities might force them to create a sub-state, much like Kurds in Iraq. The failed War on Drugs has turned Mexico into a weakened state amongst drug cartel lions whose resources eclipse those of the nations in which they exist. This brings violence and drugs to our borders, which we can’t hope to guard effectively. Mexico is a primary national security concern, as a result. But we do very little to aid Mexico’s stability with our drug policies.
A Russian professor recently got a lot of press for proposing this break-up. The details are ridiculous (even indicating lack of ground truth knowledge of the USA) but in my mind, it’s the US’s only real risk.
Texas, where I’m from, of course flirts periodically with the idea of seceding from the Union. Its crazy governor, Rick Perry, is now joining up with Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, asserting 10th Amendment state sovereignty rights. This is fine, of course, but legal subtleties barely cover up a seething desire for separation from the Union.
The Tea Party was being sponsored partially by Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project. As this essay rightly states, the 9/12 Project is an attempt to commandeer a national event, 9/11, and commemorate it “their” own way. It separates my 9/11 from your 9/11. Having joined the Army after 9/11 to go fight terrorists, part of me wonders how many of the 9/12 Project answered their country’s call. Part of me is offended that they try to co-opt the military as being part of them, when I wore the American flag every day for 5 years too.
Losing national unity is our greatest risk in the long-term. Our success is so assured that it is almost as if we are doomed to ruin it if we are not vigilant about promoting equality and unity.
On PBS I was watching a documentary on some of the civil war leaders and presidents who tiptoed the line between these schools, in the midst of vicious civil war, America finding its place in the world, and ultimately Lincoln unleashing his generals to fight the Confederacy. It of course was the bloodiest war the US has ever fought (most civil wars end up being that way). Now, when political climates have turned poisonous, all these ancient resentments have re-surfaced. Just like what we might see in Lebanon, or Sudan, or Russia, or China.
There are common threads among pissed off progressives, pissed off libertarians, and pissed off conservatives: fiscal discipline, getting rid of corruption, re-evaluating our national interest based on risk-reward. There is common ground that could form consensus, if used correctly.
The Butt of International Jokes
But what are we going to do about this?
What are we going to do? We are fighting amongst ourselves, ridiculing each other, taking the high road while denigrating and minimizing the strength of our opponents. Meanwhile, we are losing our competitiveness. We are not educating our children sufficiently to compete in an increasingly global economy. While we fight with each other, Chinese kids are working their asses off. Indian kids are working their asses off. It’s the same worldwide. People are learning that they have to compete. Other countries are laughing at us in disbelief over our fear of socialized health care systems and our inability to deal with border violence, health care, government spending, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.
Meanwhile, we have strong elements in our country seeking just to preserve what they have. All these lost jobs in the US will never return. We have to keep educating ourselves so that we can fill the newly-created jobs. It will never be the past again, in terms of comfortable blue-collar jobs. It certainly won’t be that way if we radically privatize our country (no social safety nets, no government benefits for workers or citizens).
Jefferson, in his own inaugural address:
“During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions. During the throes and convulsions of the ancient world, during the agonizing spasms of infuriated man, seeking through blood and slaughter his long-lost liberty, it was not wonderful that the agitation of the billows should reach even this distant and peaceful shore; that this should be more felt and feared by some and less by others, and should divide opinions as to measures of safety. But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it. I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government can not be strong, that this Government is not strong enough; but would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm on the theoretic and visionary fear that this Government, the world’s best hope, may by possibility want energy to preserve itself? I trust not. I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest Government on earth. I believe it the only one where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern. Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.”
Obviously Americans in Jeffersonian days still battled with the same balance between majority and minority, the Constitution and interpretation. But are we being played off each other?
In short, and I have said this before, we have a battle between elites, who are seeking to preserve monopoly status and government preference, and citizens who realize that the only way to make it in today’s America is to get rich or die tryin’. If you don’t get rich, you can’t feed your family. You can’t pay for health care. You can’t take any vacation. You can’t live in a safe neighborhood. It becomes a Hobbesian world where everyone is out to protect just their own families and maybe even their tribes. Large corporations, seeking protection under freedom of speech as “individual” entities, throw money at issues affecting them so they can influence policy, while at the same time using Milton Friedmanomics and Reagonomics to deny unions, public NGOs, and government oversight, the only institutions that can match corporate lobbies in influence, purpose, and money.
The American Dream becomes not one of inclusion, where we take in your poor, your huddled masses, promising them a fair start and a chance to get rich. The American Dream becomes “the greatest show on Earth” (thanks Bill Moyers) where you come to peddle your wares, make your money, and get out of the disgusting, violent market as soon as you can, to go live comfortably in a gated community where you’re safe from the violence and randomness that exists outside.
We as a country are going to have to make choices. And they are not really choices at all. Either we divide, and fall, or we unite, and fulfill what we consider our destiny.
We have to decide that we are true capitalists, who see firms as maximizing profit entities but working within the boundaries of a government that exists to protect the public interest and good.
We have to decide that yes, we are individuals who deserve our own rights, but those rights extend not only to us, but to those who are different than us, poorer than us, richer than us, from different countries, are here illegally, to every human on the planet. The liberals have to clean up their house, and the conservatives have to stave off death.
We have to remove obstacles towards implementing better project design and implementation. I don’t know how that will come about, except by the blunt force of inescapable technological advancement.
Mostly we have to decide that we’re going to do this together. With that, I think I should close with MLK Jr.’s last speech before being assassinated: