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Taking the Tea Party at Face Value

Taking the Tea Party at Face Value

10 Mins
December 28, 2010

Winter 2010 -- Some of the signature values that animated a previous generation—independence, prudence, and self-discipline—seem to be in short supply today. People in my grandparents’ generation who came of age in the 1920s and 30s lived through the bracing trials of economic hardship and global war. They worked hard. They scrimped and saved. They hoped for a better life for their children.

By and large, their hopes were fulfilled. The next generation, growing up after the great convulsions of the first half of the twentieth century, enjoyed the return of good times. Many of them also worked hard, sometimes putting themselves through school, sometimes saving to put their children through school. With the notable exception of the stagnant 70s, the good times kept right on rolling.

But as the adult values listed above brought steady increases in prosperity, two other broad sets of values were increasingly competing for cultural dominance. One was a set of adolescent values, determinedly short-term and irresponsible, focused on the instant gratification that abundance made more accessible. The other was a set of paternalistic values, intent on saving people from themselves, whether they liked it or not, and at taxpayer expense, whether they liked it or not.

Our abundance, accumulated thanks to adult values, does give us many more choices. More time for leisure and gratification is a good thing, if these are responsibly enjoyed. More wealth to devote to charitable causes is also a good thing, if those causes are wisely targeted and freely chosen. Greater abundance also means more people shooting for goals they would otherwise have been unable to consider, like starting their own businesses or devoting more time to art.

But today, as in the 1930s and 70s, prosperity seems to have stalled. Individuals and governments alike have maxed out their credit cards, and the loans are coming due. If we are going to have any chance of settling our debts, many of those who have abandoned adult values will need to rediscover them in a hurry.


Some of the strongest voices speaking out against big government today can be found in the Tea Party movement. The movement has been much maligned in the mainstream media. Tea Partiers are often characterized as militaristic, hyper-religious closet bigots who are being manipulated by corporate interests and therefore do not constitute a real grassroots movement. Columbia history professor Alan Brinkley, writing in The New York Times Book Review on October 10, 2010, provides one example among many. While he admits that the “older white men” who he says dominate the movement are rarely overtly racist, he then claims that the cry of “Take Back Our Country” is actually a racist code. “There is little doubt,” he writes, “as to whom they wish to take the country back from.”

In judging the Tea Party, we should indeed investigate the various accusations leveled against them. It is only fair, however, to give Tea Partiers themselves a chance to tell us what they stand for. Of course, with a group of people as large and decentralized as the Tea Party movement, whom to ask is not immediately obvious.

A good place to start might be the recent book, Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto, written by Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe. Armey was House Majority Leader from 1995 to 2003 and was one of the chief authors of the Republicans’ 1994 Contract with America. He now serves as chairman of FreedomWorks, while Kibbe is its president and CEO.

In the chapter entitled “What We Stand For,” the authors of Give Us Liberty identify four recurring themes they say become clear when speaking to Tea Party activists: 1) federal power should be limited by the Constitution; 2) individuals should be held responsible for the consequences of their actions; 3) government spending is too high; and 4) the government is too big to succeed.

The authors also reproduce, in a chapter entitled “The New Center of American Politics,” Ryan Hecker’s Contract from America. Hecker launched a Web site in mid-2009 to elicit ideas for his contract from Tea Partiers across the country. From a list of the 22 most commonly submitted ideas, hundreds of thousands of people voted for the top ten items to be included in the contract. Revealed on April 15, 2010, they are:

1) Protect the Constitution.

2) Reject Cap and Trade.

3) Demand a Balanced Budget.

4) Enact Fundamental Tax Reform.

5) Restore Fiscal Responsibility & Constitutionally Limited Government in Washington.

6) End Runaway Government Spending.

7) Defund, Repeal, & Replace Government-run Health Care.

8) Pass an “All-of-the-Above” Energy Policy.

9) Stop the Pork.

10) Stop the Tax Hikes.

Individuals and governments alike have maxed out their credit cards, and the loans are coming due.

All ten of these points have to do with reducing the role of government and giving people back some of the control over their own lives that they have lost over the years through taxation and regulation. If adopted and carried through, these ten items would go some way toward restoring the respect formerly accorded to the adult values of independence, prudence, and self-discipline. With lower (and simpler) taxes and spending, a balanced budget, an end to pork, and the government just generally doing less, the adolescent impulse to ask politicians to solve all of our problems would be undermined—as would the paternalistic impulse to treat everyone like hapless adolescents.

Other groups are similarly focused on reducing the role of government in people’s lives. Tea Party Patriots, a leading national umbrella group that works with thousands of local Tea Party groups around the country, sees “excessive government spending and taxation” as the main impetus for the grassroots movement. It lists its three core values as: “Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government and Free Markets.”


Now, for the paternalist who does not think the average adult can take care of himself—and for the overgrown adolescent who wants to be taken care of—the Tea Party’s explicit agenda surely seems regressive and wrongheaded. Freedom is not what the paternalist thinks people need. And you know what? Freedom is not what the adolescent wants, not really—not the kind of freedom that would require him to act responsibly, anyway. The last thing the mental adolescent wants to have to do is exhibit independence, prudence, and self-discipline in order to thrive.

But what about those of us who really do value freedom and understand what it requires? Is there any reason for us not to embrace the Tea Party movement with open arms? There might be, if the accusations leveled against them have any merit. If the Tea Party is really just a respectable cover for bigots, Christian fundamentalists, military adventurists, and crony capitalists looking to perpetuate their ill-gotten perks, then those of us who embrace a pro-reason, pro-individual view of life had best not encourage them.

Tea Partiers are far more concerned with economic issues than with social issues at this time.

A long article by journalist Matt Taibbi (" The Truth About the Tea Party ") in the October 15, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone provides some critical grist for the mill. At a rally in Kentucky, Taibbi finds inconsistency in “elderly white people in Medicare-paid scooters, railing against government spending.” He similarly criticizes Kentucky’s Rand Paul for dropping his denunciation of Medicare as “socialized medicine” (among other reversals) now that he’s running for the US Senate. “The average Tea Partier is sincerely against government spending,” Taibbi opines, “with the exception of the money spent on them.” And where were they, Taibbi wants to know, through two terms of George W. Bush’s record deficits? Is a ballooning debt just fine and dandy as long as it’s used to fund overseas military adventures?

Taibbi also mocks the grassroots bona fides of a group that is thrilled by Sarah Palin ("the red-hot mama of American exceptionalism"), whom he characterizes as “the vice-presidential puppet hand-picked by the GOP establishment.” He sees the Republican Party’s fingerprints all over the Tea Party movement, implicating groups like FreedomWorks (an “an AstroTurfing-lobbying outfit” made up of “Republican Party insiders and money guys”) and Americans for Prosperity (“funded in part by the billionaire David Koch”).
With regard to the charge of bigotry, Taibbi writes that it would be “inaccurate” to call Tea Partiers racist. But he does take the time to mention that they “only took to the streets when a black Democratic president launched an emergency stimulus program,” that “they blame the financial crisis on poor black homeowners,” and that they “support politicians who think the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an overreach of government power.” (This last is another jab at Rand Paul).

Taibbi’s Tea Party takedown wraps up with a trip to Kentucky’s Creation Museum, which the author says gives one “a mind-blowing glimpse into the modern conservative worldview.” Apparently, it does not merely show Adam and Eve peacefully coexisting with dinosaurs. It also features a scaremongering exhibit about modern life’s plagues of graffiti, drugs, porn, and abortions. Taibbi concludes that this museum somehow explains Rand Paul’s success in Kentucky, since the Tea Party really amounts to “a campaign against that unsafe urban hellscape of godless liberalism we call our modern world.”


Do the accusations stick? The strongest case to libertarian ears is that Tea Partiers are inconsistent. The principle behind repealing Obamacare, if consistently applied, would indeed lead to the repeal of Medicare and Medicaid as well. But the fine print on item #7 of the Contract from America only calls for defunding, repealing, and replacing “the recently passed” government-run health care bill. (Of course, it must be noted that after 35 years, Medicare has severely affected the market for private insurance for people over 65. People currently on Medicare have built that benefit into their plans and no longer have other options. Any plan to repeal this program would have to take that into account and be implemented gradually.)

The rest of the case is weak, however. Yes, some Tea Partiers might have approved of the Republicans’ heavy defense spending. But did the protests really only begin under Obama? Did they not grow out of the opposition to TARP, which was signed into law by Bush II, and even earlier, out of the support for the 2008 GOP primary bid of US Representative Ron Paul, Rand Paul’s famous father? Do the worst financial crisis in decades and its ongoing fallout not offer an adequate alternate explanation for the sudden appearance of the Tea Party movement?

Similarly, trying to tar the people behind FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity as typical Republican insiders is unconvincing. Koch has been openly supporting free markets for decades. He clearly qualifies as a radical for capitalism in my book. As for the folks from FreedomWorks, Armey’s and Kibbe’s Give Us Liberty is peppered not only with thoughts from the Founding Fathers, but also with ideas from great free-market thinkers like Adam Smith, Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Joseph Schumpeter, Frédéric Bastiat, Milton Friedman, and Ayn Rand . How many run-of-the-mill Republicans would recognize even half of these names? If the Tea Party does get co-opted by the Republican establishment, it will be in spite of the efforts of the people behind these two organizations.

As for the charge that Tea Partiers are bigots, which Taibbi dances his way around, it has been fed by media reports that focus on a tiny minority of racist picket signs. But as the Washington Post’s Amy Gardner reported on October 14, 2010, an analysis of the signs on display at the 9/12 Taxpayer March on Washington failed to uncover much in the way of racism. Emily Elkins, a UCLA grad student who interned at the Cato Institute this past summer, scoured the crowd, photographing some 250 signs. Her analysis found that only a quarter of the signs expressed anger with President Obama himself, only 5 percent mentioned his race or religion, and only one percent questioned his citizenship. Instead, “the vast majority of activists expressed narrow concerns about the government’s economic and spending policies.”

What about the anti-modern, creationist hordes who threaten to drag us back to the dark ages? Well, the April 2010 New York Times/CBS News poll of Tea Partiers did find that those who self-identified with the movement were somewhat more likely than average to attend religious services weekly (38% vs. 27%) or almost every week (12% vs. 8%). As far as I could tell, the poll did not ask about creationism, but it did find that they were more socially conservative on issues like banning abortion (32% vs. 23%) and not legally recognizing gay marriages (40% vs. 30%). While not insignificant, these are relatively small differences.


This poll actually brings us to the crux of the matter, because despite their somewhat more socially conservative responses, Tea Partiers are far more concerned with economic issues than with social issues at this time, just like everyone is (78% vs. 80%). And on economic issues, like the ones listed in the Contract from America, libertarians and Objectivists can agree with Tea Partiers. As far as I can gather, the critics of the Tea Party have failed to provide sufficient evidence to prove most of their various accusations.

The question, now that Republicans have retaken the US House of Representatives and made important gains in the Senate, is: Are the Tea Party’s days numbered? Will the Republican establishment co-opt the movement’s momentum and go right on helping crony capitalists while spending money like there’s no tomorrow? Will the socially conservative wing reassert itself and dilute the important messages of fiscal restraint and personal responsibility?

Not if the Tea Party Patriots have anything to say about it. Even before the midterm elections, as the Wall Street Journal reported on October 25, the group was “gearing up both to fight Democratic efforts to pass legislation during the lame-duck congressional session and for a struggle with conventional Republican leaders over the loyalties of new members of Congress.” Mark Meckler, co-founder of the group, said, “We hope to get to the freshmen before the incumbents get to them, and start twisting their arms.”

Thomas Paine said, “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” The Tea Party movement has already won some victories. If these are not to prove ephemeral, the people who have taken to the streets these past months will have to want those blessings of freedom more than they want to rest their aching feet. In this time of economic trouble, those of us who believe in independence, prudence, and self-discipline in the realms of both personal and government finance need to keep working together to restore some semblance of sanity. If not now, then when?


"Of Tea and Taxes,"  Art Carden, Forbes, Nov. 1, 2010
"A Scientific Worldview Includes Economics," Art Carden, Forbes, Jan. 4, 2011
"On the Tempests in the Tea Cups,"  Art Carden, Forbes, Oct. 22, 2010

Bradley Doucet
About the author:
Bradley Doucet
Economics / Business / Finance
Regulation and Taxation