Thursday, September 30, 2010

Making Sense of the Tea Party Movement


You look into the eyes of these people when you talk to them and they genuinely don't see what the problem is. It's no use explaining that while nobody likes the idea of having to get the government to tell restaurant owners how to act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the tool Americans were forced to use to end a monstrous system of apartheid that for 100 years was the shame of the entire Western world. But all that history is not real to Tea Partiers; what's real to them is the implication in your question that they're racists, and to them that is the outrage, and it's an outrage that binds them together.
Matt Taibbi

Everyone who has a pulse on American politics is predicting a big win for the GOP in 5 weeks and the headliners are outsider candidates from the notorious Tea Party. What exactly is going on with this movement and who should we turn to in order to make sense of the complex and diverse motivations behind this loud protest? How 'bout Matt Taibbi who has dedicated this past calendar year to studying Tea Partiers, not from the couch or behind a computer screen, but by strapping on a Rand-Paul-For-Senate button and attending rallies to interview these passionate activists? Taibbi's cynical "loose" definition of the Tea Party is millions of pissed-off white people sent chasing after Mexicans on Medicaid by the handful of banks and investment firms who advertise on Fox and CNBC, but as he seriously reflects on the multitude of conversations he's had over the year, here's what he has discovered:

(1) Every single one of them was that exceptional Republican who did protest the spending in the Bush years, and not one of them is the hypocrite who only took to the streets when a black Democratic president launched an emergency stimulus program. ("Not me — I was protesting!" is a common exclamation.)

(2) Each and every one of them is the only person in America who has ever read the Constitution or watched Schoolhouse Rock. (Here they have guidance from Armey, who explains that the problem with "people who do not cherish America the way we do" is that "they did not read the Federalist Papers.")

(3) They are all furious at the implication that race is a factor in their political views — despite the fact that they blame the financial crisis on poor black homeowners, spend months on end engrossed by reports about how the New Black Panthers want to kill "cracker babies," support politicians who think the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an overreach of government power, tried to enact South African-style immigration laws in Arizona and obsess over Charlie Rangel, ACORN and Barack Obama's birth certificate.

(4) In fact, some of their best friends are black! (Reporters in Kentucky invented a game called "White Male Liberty Patriot Bingo," checking off a box every time a Tea Partier mentions a black friend.)

(5) Everyone who disagrees with them is a radical leftist who hates America.


In addition to countless conversations with these activists, Taibbi has done his homework. He documents the rise of the Tea Party in two waves, the first being the 2008 Presidential campaign of Ron Paul which was committed to purely libertarian doctrine, sweeping the government out of the room in regards to taxes and financial regulation, but also gay marriage, abortion and war. The creative Paul campaign was thoughtful and consistent, but could only muster about a million primary votes. What Taibbi calls Tea Party 2.0 is far more anti-intellectual and kicked off just a month after Obama was inaugurated when CNBC's Rick Santelli passionately called for a tea party movement to protest Obama's $75 billion aid to underwater homeowners. What was the attraction to Santelli's reaction? Taibbi's take:

While the big bank bailouts may have been incomprehensible to ordinary voters, here was something that Middle America had no problem grasping: The financial crisis was caused by those lazy minorities next door who bought houses they couldn't afford — and now the government was going to bail them out.

This simplistic call morphed into a frenzied series of well-organized rallies around the nation. Who was and is behind all of this? Again, Taibbi's research:

From the outset, the events were organized and financed by the conservative wing of the Republican Party, which was quietly working to co-opt the new movement and deploy it to the GOP's advantage. Taking the lead was former House majority leader Dick Armey, who as chair of a group called FreedomWorks helped coordinate Tea Party rallies across the country. A succession of Republican Party insiders and money guys make up the guts of FreedomWorks: Its key members include billionaire turd Steve Forbes and former Republican National Committee senior economist Matt Kibbe.

Prior to the Tea Party phenomenon, FreedomWorks was basically just an AstroTurfing-lobbying outfit whose earlier work included taking money from Verizon to oppose telecommunications regulation. Now the organization's sights were set much higher: In the wake of a monstrous economic crash caused by grotesque abuses in unregulated areas of the financial-services industry, FreedomWorks — which took money from companies like mortgage lender MetLife — had the opportunity to persuade millions of ordinary Americans to take up arms against, among other things, Wall Street reform.

Joining them in the fight was another group, Americans for Prosperity, which was funded in part by the billionaire David Koch, whose Koch Industries is the second-largest privately held company in America. In addition to dealing in plastics, chemicals and petroleum, Koch has direct interests in commodities trading and financial services. He also has a major stake in pushing for deregulation, as his companies have been fined multiple times by the government, including a 1999 case in which Koch Industries was held to have stolen oil from federal lands, lying about oil purchases some 24,000 times.


Taibbi's descriptive personal observations are always filled with comedy, but his complex-analysis-made-simple is where his voice really needs to be heard in our current season of political confusion. Taibbi claims, above all, that "the average Tea Partier is sincerely against government spending — with the exception of the money spent on them." At these all-white rallies, he constantly runs into elderly folks on electric scooters funded by Medicare who, in turn, hysterically scream obscenities at too-much government spending. Driven by a fearful realization that the United States in changing rapidly, they have to direct it towards someone or something. It has become extremely fashionable in these circles to rail against "too much government spending" or the "increasing national debt," without getting specific about who created the mess and what it will tangibly take to clean it all up.

EasyYolk does not fully align with Taibbi's tone or penchant for name-calling, but we do admit that reading his analysis is a cathartic experience. Take this for example:

It's not like the Tea Partiers hate black people. It's just that they're shockingly willing to believe the appalling horseshit fantasy about how white people in the age of Obama are some kind of oppressed minority. That may not be racism, but it is incredibly, earth-shatteringly stupid.

Yes, he absolutely does not pull any punches and, quite frankly, utterly refuses to talk out of his ass, as too many journalists and pundits seem to be doing these days, recycling and echoing tired catch-phrases and storylines. In short, Taibbi exemplfies the critical side of OT scholar Walter Brueggemann's prophetic coin. We need independent voices like Taibbi to tell it like it is by confronting those who are abusing their power and wealth and unveiling their various practices of hypocrisy.

We can count on Taibbi to fulfill this kind of vocation. But we desperately need the other side of the prophetic coin. Taibbi's voice alone will inevitably lead to cynicism and apathy. We need visionaries who will energize individuals and communities bold enough to work for the redemption of the world (what progressive Jews call "tikkun olam" and what progressive Christians call "the reign of God"). The healing of the world will not be led by a revved up herd of anger, fear and anxiety, but by those who critically engage with and weep over the vast income inequality and perpetual scape-goating of those confined to the bottom of the free-market-fundamentalist pyramid.

-Theological Autopilot

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