Monday, September 23, 2013

The TEA Party's Self-Destruct Button

In 2009 I attended a Southlake TEA Party rally. It was fun, in a sort of, “So this is how wealthy white people protest?” kind of way. Even the handful of counter-protesters were, let’s say, charming. One guy, dressed like a clown, held a sign that read, “Ignorance is underrated.” I agree, metaphysically. After all, the Gnostics were the first Christian heretics. But I digress. The rally was a fun-and-games type cheerful environment that balmy April morning. But 2009 seems like so long ago now. The movement has evolved since then. In many ways I relate to the TEA Party’s critique of the fiscal excesses of the Federal government. I agree with the best American instincts that the movement represents – freedom, self-reliance, and limited government. But now they have a problem. Inevitably, the rebels become the authority—eventually. What then? There seems to be a civil war of sorts happening within the Republican Party. Ted Cruz represents a flashpoint in that struggle, and it’s latest front has “establishment” types lined up against TEA Party types like Cruz vis a vis a government shutdown over defunding Obamacare.

I remember the logical contradictions of those early days (2009). “Keep Govt out of my Medicare.” “Don’t Steal From Medicare to Support Socialized Medicine.” Really? When I first saw those kinds of signs I laughed out loud. What else can one do? It’s what I call a “piƱata of asininity.” But over the course of the past few years, those signs got me thinking. The inherent weakness of the TEA Party is that it rests ideologically on the fault line of a logical contradiction. During the 2012 campaign much was made over Romney’s “47 percent” comments, and people like Sarah Palin bemoaned the fact that 47 percent of Americans pay no Federal income tax at all. I scratched my head. The “TEA” stands for “Taxed Enough Already,” so isn’t it good that 47 percent of pay no income tax? And that’s INCOME tax. The 47 percent actually pay PLENTY taxes—social security, property, gas, sales, etc. To say that they are not taxpayers violates an essential rule of honest debate—first tell the truth, then give your opinion.

Those kinds of statements and anecdotes won’t destroy the movement; they just make the spokespersons look stupid. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since this kind of populism feeds on anti-intellectual sentiments and the eschewing of “elitism.” (notice the picture above?) So what contradiction will destroy the movement? There are two separate ideological strains running through the heart of the TEA Party. The first is Libertarianism. As a political philosophy, Libertarianism is pure. It believes in limited government. Period. Government exists only to protect the life, liberty, and property of the individual. Nothing else. In Ayn Rand’s Libertarian epic “Atlas Shrugged,” the hero, Galt, an inventor disgusted by creeping collectivism, leads the country’s capitalists on a strike. “We have granted you everything you demanded of us, we who had always been the givers,” Galt lectures the “moochers” who make up the populace. “We have no demands to present you, no terms to bargain about, no compromise to reach. You have nothing to offer us. We do not need you.” “Atlas Shrugged” was published over fifty years ago, but in the Obama era, Rand’s angry message is more resonant than ever before. At TEA party rallies and other conservative protests, you will find signs reading “Atlas Shrugs” and “Rand Was Right.”

The second strain is social and religious conservatism. These are evangelicals who have become politically active. I know these people. They are my “clan.” And trust me, they do not want limited government—they want government to enforce their brand of morality in what they believe is a “Christian nation.” These are the people who supported George W. Bush. And there lies the problem. Libertarians will readily say that “W” is the worst President this country has ever had!

So let’s run through the issues: War in Iraq? Social conservatives generally supported the war, and continue to support our military intervention in other countries. They love the military, and will lash out at anyone who does not “support the troops,” apparently giving no thought to the logical contradiction of supporting the troops while opposing the mission. Libertarians do not support the war, have a quasi isolationist view of military intervention, and generally see our invasion of Iraq as a military and diplomatic blunder. What about drugs? Social conservatives support the “war on drugs” and seek even tighter laws and crackdowns. This is a moral issue to them. Libertarians support the legalization of drugs, particularly marijuana. For them it’s cut and dry—it’s none of the government’s business what you put into your own body. Speaking of your own body, what about abortion? This is the hallmark issue of social and religious conservatives. Overturning Roe v Wade is a crusade. In the meantime, they attempt every way possible to make abortion more restrictive. There is no issue bigger than the rights of the unborn. Libertarians are pro-choice to the extreme. Its’ the woman’s body—what she chooses to do with it is between her and her doctor. Period. And then there’s the ubiquitous issue of gay rights, particularly gay marriage. Naturally, social and religious conservatives abhor the idea and fight it on every front. They claim to protect the “institution of marriage.” Well, not them, but the government. Again, libertarians do not balk. Their understanding of limited government says that it’s not the government’s business, and thus gay marriage is perfectly okay. Social and religious conservatives and libertarians are like oil and water—they do not mix!

The only thing keeping this alliance together at the moment is an irrational, fact-free hatred of President Obama. Social conservatives and libertarians must have a common enemy, and that enemy must be as insidious as possible. He has to be a “socialist.” He’s “the most radical president we’ve ever had.” He’s “anti-American.” He wasn’t even born here! Hatred of Obama is the glue that holds the movement together. But it’s a weak bond. I have seen this time and time again. Ultra conservative movements eventually self-destruct in an ideological explosion of bitter wrangling and in-fighting. This is not the new American Revolution. The Revolution happened when the majority of Americans twice elected Barack Obama.