Tea Party Populists Should Demand Progressive Outcomes

The Tea Party movement, which claims it is driven by a resistance to taxation, is really motivated by a widespread sense of economic disenfranchisement, that is now reaching everyone except the superrich. The populist urgency that underscores all of the Tea Party’s energy is not inherently linked to Grover Norquist’s anti-American “Club for Growth”, but the movement has no leader honest enough to openly demand progressive policy outcomes.

Instead, the popular movement has been co-opted by the establishment crowd that caters to corporate interests, foreign and domestic, and which seeks to shift the tax burden away from wealthy multinationals and billionaire investors, and toward the average American middle class and working family. While many Tea Party adherents say they are independent voters angered by corporate greed and government spending, they have routinely and unquestioningly signed up for rapacious budget reform that continues the pattern of transferring most Americans’ hard-earned household wealth to mega-corporations.

There is a deeper problem that has not been extensively discussed in the mainstream media and which seems to be entirely off the rhetorical radar screen of Tea Party activists and adherents, which is the increasingly unsustainable revenue model being embraced by major corporations. Instead of competing on a level playing field, where quality of service and security of organizational infrastructure are hallmarks of a top competitor, highly profitable corporations are demanding unfettered “growth”, without actually competing to earn their new revenues.

Some of this unearned revenue comes in the form of massive tax credits and subsidies both direct and indirect. Some of it comes in the form of spending policies specifically designed to prop up narrow corporate interests—a good reference here is the corporate “fundraising” conferences (really about profit-seeking, but very much in the mode and mood of fundraisers) held for American corporations looking to see profits soar during the Iraq war… or the grossly unnecessary and inexplicable oil subsidies… or the banks’ recent win on the issue of SEC doubling swipe fees.

All of these practices repulse the conscience of the typical Tea Party adherent, yet the Tea Party has not made a serious effort to support progressive efforts to reverse these corrosive economic trends. Though the inspiration is a resistance to wasteful redirections of the wealth of the American people, the very movement caught up in this populist mindfire seems entirely committed to opposing the progressive outcomes its rhetoric suggests it would demand.

There is a very real-world result to this rhetorical conflict: The populism of the Tea Party movement resonates as half-baked and devoid of real solutions, and the same interests whose unprecedented success, during the years 2001-2008 prompted this defiant outside attack on the Republican leadership, are benefitting from the distorted budgetary rhetoric of the supposedly populist movement.

Independent voters have to take this seriously: the United States of America is strongest when the middle class is growing, spans the society, controls the purse-strings and the rate of innovation, and when the space for genuine opportunity and enterprise is open to as many people as possible, from as many diverse places and interests, and the virtues of democracy can play out in a civil and constructive manner.

If the influence of the middle class is eroded, if new entrants are barred by the slashing of education, healthcare and job-training programs that make it possible to expand the reach and influence of the middle class, if our democratic process is rigged to undermine the aspirations of most Americans, then our democracy is cheapened and the resilience of our economic prosperity is degraded.

Ideological biases are so deeply ingrained in our nation’s political discourse, however, that our media often report less the truth of the matter and more the hot-button words that seem to tell the story with color and energy. This subtle distortion divides people who might otherwise come together to deal with real problems in a pragmatic way. And what so many citizens, especially among independent, or unaligned, voters, feel is missing is some non-partisan, non-ideological way to address the populist complaints of most Americans, about having lost influence in the overall terrain of our politics.

To get there, whether one is a true-blue Obama progressive or a Tea Party activist, independent voters need to recognize that there are commonalities in their inspiration and in their aims, and that a pragmatist approach to dealing with the nation’s current position, in terms of shaping a sustainable future of American prosperity and liberty, may mean coming together outside the narrow bounds of ideological language.

Should the wealthy and the poor be so far removed from one another’s sphere of interest that they view the nation and its government as fundamentally different entities, and must be at war with one another’s interests? Neither pragmatic progressive independents nor Tea Party adherents who profess displeasure with the Republican party think they should be. So there is no reason for them to work from opposite ends of an ideological spectrum to undermine efforts to reverse that trend.

But there are many in Congress, at this moment, who have committed their political fortunes to the idea that the other side must be opposed, undermined, even sabotaged, even where the public good is at risk, at all costs. For them to reverse course, or to admit that there is a common sense of populist urgency, regarding basic principles of democracy, spanning the political spectrum, may seem to them too risky a transition.

The Tea Party says it is not committed to furthering the fortunes of such figures, says it is not ideological, says it only wants to make sure the American people remain free from oppressive and inefficient patterns of economic waste. Its rhetoric suggests a popular demand for pragmatic progressive outcomes, carried out through a non-partisan coalition of common-sense-minded public servants.

It is time for the more creative and sincere Tea Party adherents to stop being co-opted by the RNC and the Club for Growth, and to speak for the shared interest of all of the American people—not through rapacious budget cutting that only worsens the wealth divide, but through smart, pragmatic progressive policies that build community and honor citizenship and the future our children will actually have to be prepared to live in. It is time to stop pretending that tax cuts for the superrich make everyone else free, when in fact they only bind our hands, our voices, and our children’s future.

2 responses to Tea Party Populists Should Demand Progressive Outcomes

  1. Once again J.E. I find us in significant agreement. The more I read your writings the more I find we share many of the same views. We may disagree on nuance or the ideal solution but by and large I truly appreciate your logic, reasoning and cogent arguments.

    Related specifically to this post, one aspect of it is a point I cover in my On Tolerance article. If you have not read it, I would love to have you read it and see what your opinion is.

    Keep up the great work, I enjoy your articles immensely.

    • J.E. Robertson

      Dear Thomas,

      Thank you for your informed commentary and your support. I will take a look at “On Tolerance” and let you know my thoughts, of course. Thank you for helping to build a more reasoned landscape of discourse; my sincere hope is this is how we make democracy work.

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