The Tea Party movement is famous for its persistent expression of rage. It has been elevated by partisans who want to channel that rage to harm their opponents, and it has been misinterpreted by progressive politicians as a result of ignorance and poor anger management. Those superficial qualities are symptoms; the movement is an alarm bell that neither party seems equipped to respond to.
The alarm is clearly about the erosion of the influence of the individual, the small organization, local culture. The alarm is not about taxes or liberalism or spending or immigrants; those are all targets of convenience. The alarm is an attempt to alert us to our own reduced importance in a world not run by us or by our representatives, but by powerful, impenetrable interests.
Democracy is supposed to be about each person having a say in his or her own destiny. It’s supposed to be about having the freedom to choose one’s own path. But the policy trend has moved, over several decades, to the levers of convenience, the sweeping interests who can move money, move minds and move events. Good policy that works at the human scale is often overlooked or shunned, in favor of policies that seem to suggest legislative priorities can be more “efficiently” carried out by large private-sector organizations.
Republicans, of course, see an opportunity. They hear the cry of a group that wants less power among the powerful and answer with severe cuts to government “social spending”. But that solution does nothing whatsoever to address the problem. When the problem is underrepresentation of the individual, it is counterproductive to eliminate funding for those social services where people have priority and the powerful interest —government— is accountable to ordinary people.
As Christopher Hedges points out: the non-union workforce is asking why public employees should have certain benefits or job security if they don’t have the same, but that’s the wrong question. They should be asking: why am I not able to obtain fair treatment, pension security and stable benefits? Why am I told I have to accept that these things are impossible? When did a society rooted in the ideal of fair treatment and the rule of law become a place where powerful interests are no longer accountable to ordinary people?
Maybe as a follow-up to that question, it would be wise to ask when it became the invariable rule of capitalism that even powerful market players are “helpless” to do anything but to cut benefits, lay off workers, and harvest profits from a process that cuts and rolls back investment instead of cultivating investment and innovation?
The Tea Party movement raises the very crucial question, albeit often clumsily: what happened to the idea that hard work and civic engagement were noble activities, where basic human-scale priorities took precedence over the impossible search for better work? Inherent in this demand that we face the corrosive socio-economic dynamics of our times and force a turning point is the need to reexamine why a great democratic society is not able to promise that every individual’s dignity will be honored.
Of course, it is unhelpful when powerful interests, and the politicians they back, seek to answer this alarm call with an attack on those elements of our society that do provide a dose of dignity for the individual, the family, small businesses and local communities: education, local first responders, job training, medical insurance assistance, Social Security, the arts and energy reform, to name a few.
While one weapons program not vital for national defense might cost more than the education budget for an entire region, it is thousands of schools that should see cuts, not the defense contractor lining its pockets with taxpayer money. It’s libraries and post offices that close, public transit that sees massive price hikes, even as oil companies see self-appointed populist conservatives fight to protect their multi-billion-dollar subsidies.
I’m not saying the Tea Party has the story straight. In many ways, due to ideological bias and the populist impulse being co-opted by deregulatory interests, the Tea Party has the wrong end of the stick and winds up attacking the very people laboring to make sure their future economic security remains viable. But the movement is an alarm bell sounding from a visceral place, where economic unfairness, the erosion of individual priority and waning opportunity, hit hardest.
The Republican budget plan is now reported to be building an economic decline into our economy, a return to recession. It is not adequate to the task of righting the wrongs so many Tea Party members are upset with. What we need is a plan that says “deficits matter, but solving the economic imbalances that make deficits happen matters more”.
What we need in terms of firebrand political reform is not an attack on policies that favor working Americans but rather a democratic dismantling of regimes of all kinds that invade the everyday lives of citizens to rob them of their power and their right to choose a destiny that corresponds to their dreams, their drive and their character.