Why I Oppose the American Tea Party Movement

I cannot offer anything but resistance to so reactionary and ridiculous a movement. I know that there are some people in a thrall to its libertarian elements, and if that was all that was going on with the Tea Party people I’d think it a healthy social phenomenon. But it’s not. The professed libertarianism makes for a respectable media front for otherwise authoritarian and reactionary political and cultural elements to gather: anti-gay theocrats, torture advocates, racists, conspiracy fanatics, Obama haters, science denialists, Birchites, and general isolationists. It is a movement in a thrall to its own simplicity, juvenalia, and aggression. And it’s a form of stupidity fueled by Far Right Big Media. In a complex, diverse, fast evolving, and interconnected global civilization facing enormous environmental and collective threats, the movement is little more than an indulgence in unicultural 1950s (white) nostalgia.

What the world needs is not more Glenn Becks and Sarah Palins whining over the loss of big car culture and hot running energy inefficient lightbulbs, but more young people studying climate science and biology in college. The future is not going to be shaped by Tea Party people reading Ayn Rand novels and proclaiming their intentions to separate themselves from civilization and “go Galt.” Nor does the future belong to anti-science young Earth creationists or anthropocentric climate change denialists.  These are all forms of social alienation and withdrawal from seriousness. Rather, the future will be formed by elite, university trained, young intellectuals figuring out such things as how to feasibly shift from an oil economy to a green economy.

The Tea Party movement imagines its very existence as a sign of the far right’s growing strength in the Obama era, but it’s the exact opposite. It is, in fact, the sign of a broken wheel squeaking ever louder before rolling off its axel into the grassy ditch of historical irrelevancy.

This is not to say that a catastrophe (like a nuclear bomb in the harbor of Long Beach) might not bring an authoritarian right-wing movement to power in America. I think it very well could. Bourgeois democratic and liberal institutions are fragile. But whatever temporary victories such a reactionary movement might achieve near-term, I still think that its broad historical curve is in precipitous decline. 40 years from now, I think it’s pretty safe to predict that the ugly way that the Tea Party people generally act toward our first African American president, and talk about science, evolution, gays, and the environment, will be seen as totally shameful and pathetic—even nearly incomprehensible. It will be as difficult for most people 40 years from now to understand the Tea Party people as we have difficulty understanding the mentality of the white South in the 1940s.

Why?

Because the movement is a form of reaction to large historical, economic, and demographic forces running away from it. If you are going to throw-in with such a movement, at least know what you’re joining, and keep your eyes open to the fact that these types of movements have demonstrated a long historical predisposition, especially in times of high global stress, of turning spectacularly malignant.

Here’s what the woman who ironically shouted in the above video—”Burn the books!”—said about her Tea Party experience this past summer:

When I lived in Fairlawn, Ohio, I attended a “Tea Party” inspired by Glenn Beck. A conservative friend I had once worked with suggested I witness the event. I went for shits and giggles and was deeply amused by the right-wing zaniness. After a man rants with a fiery passion about marxist conspiracies, education brainwashing our youth, and so on, I sarcastically chimed in with a loud, “BURN THE BOOKS!” The leader came over and asked if I was serious. With a shit-eating grin, I said something along the lines of “Of course! You know, those evolution books,” knowing full-well I was surrounded by right-wing religious zealots. He seemed content with burning those and gave me a fist-bunt of approval and a smile saying, “Right on.” I giggled as he walked away.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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12 Responses to Why I Oppose the American Tea Party Movement

  1. ice gal says:

    Well said! Even in this pathetic red state, the students are well aware of climate change. They tend to embrace science, and look for reason not religious nonsense.
    There could be hope?

  2. clay barham says:

    WHO VALUES LIFE MOST?
    There are only two different political systems in the world. One is the oldest which is where the elite few rule the many. That has been around since man first walked on the earth. These are the Chiefs, Kings, Emperors, Sultans, Caliphs and dictators, regardless of labels. The other has been around for almost 400 years in one place, America. Ayn Rand is one of the best describing how we work. It is where individual interests are more important than community interests, where the people rule themselves through constitutions, charters, elected representatives and law. The value of individual life is greater in the newer system, primarily because it rises out of religious beliefs, mainly Judeo-Christian teachings. Look at who gives the most help to Haiti, and who the least. For those nations that do not value individual life, the help provided is mainly for image, while America actually helps. America is condemned for it because that help is seen as unnecessary in saving lives deemed worthless. Claysamerica.com.

  3. santitafarella says:

    Clay:

    I agree with you up until you say that religion is the source for individual liberty. It can be in some circumstances, but it can also be a source of justification for oppression (I’m thinking of, for example, the current resistance of conservative religion to gay equality).

    Where Ayn Rand-style beliefs fail in the contemporary world (and Rand, I would remind you, was an atheist), is that it is a form of withdrawal from reality. The reality is that we live in a global civilization in which very large forces need to be balanced. Governments cannot be too weak lest global corporations exploit people and laws, and ruin the global environment. Like we have balances of power within our government, we have to have large balances of power among global forces. Libertarianism is a fantasy of regional capitalism in a world that is too interconnected for the model to function. It all sounds very good to be on the side of Lockean liberty against Hobbesian monstrosities, but the reality is that very large Hobbesian entities are here and must be balanced against one another lest one form of them dominate. Live in the real world. Democratic government functions as a break on Hobbesian Big Capitalism, and Big Capitalism sets a break on the full will of democratic government.

    As for Haiti, part of the tragedy is that people were permitted by a weak government to simply build structures of poor quality without earthquake code enforcement. A similar tragedy happened in Turkey. It’s a tragedy of poverty, and a poor government’s inability—due to lack of resources—to regulate growth intelligently.

    I’m not saying that the choices between balancing Hobbesian big structures and Lockean freedoms is easy. Adults have to balance goods and look at the world as it is, and work rationally with what we’ve got. The tea-partiers, in this sense, are juveniles—not serious people.

    —Santi

  4. andrewclunn says:

    This whole post is a false dichotomy. The political right is changing and embracing libertarianism as its new intellectual base. Clump us with the rest if you like, that’s certainly what the mainstream media wants you to think. But that’s only a tactic for attempting to belittle the real strength of our arguments by association and straw man arguments. Look back at the earlier comment I made (That I assume inspired this post.) Look to the other response that is there. See that hate and the desire to demonize and not understand our opposition. There are close minded hateful people on all sides of nearly every issue. Attacking the tagalongs is a sign of intellectual weakness, and you must know that.

  5. santitafarella says:

    Andrew:

    Why not just call yourself a libertarian then? Why be a tea-partier? And what makes you think that you represent the mainstream of the tea-partier movement, and the authoritarian religionists are going to be happy to ride in the back of your bus?

    In other words, who died and made you libertarian king?

    You said: “The political right is changing and embracing libertarianism as its new intellectual base.”

    Well, I doubt it. They had eight years to do it, didn’t they? I think it’s a pose, but better late than never. Tell me one government program that the tea-partiers can promise to cut if elected? Give me something specific that amounts to real money—two hundred billion dollars—and that you can also win on by promising to cut. Can you give me just one already existing program?

    I thought so.

    —Santi

  6. andrewclunn says:

    “Why not just call yourself a libertarian then? Why be a tea-partier? And what makes you think that you represent the mainstream of the tea-partier movement, and the authoritarian religionists are going to be happy to ride in the back of your bus?”

    - I do not label myself as anything other than an Objectivist. And I have been to a tea party demonstration, that is where my perspective comes from.

    “In other words, who died and made you libertarian king?”

    - Is that even a real question?

    And as to the rest of your comment, I wasn’t aware that the Tea Party movement was now a political party. The fact that the Tea Party movement has much more support than the Republican Party should give you a clue that those 8 years we supposedly had weren’t ours (Bush was no libertarian, I voted for Kerry in the last election.)

    In other words: I’m right, your wrong. Why? because I actually know what I’m talking about and also unlike you I haven’t put any words in your mouth, while your entire ‘argument’ is built around assuming what other people’s opinions are for them. We call that a straw man argument.

  7. santitafarella says:

    Okay, Andrew. Setting political pragmatism aside, what would you cut from the federal government—as a tea-partier enthusiast?

    Also, since you call yourself an Objectivist, does it follow that you oppose all of the social programs associated with the tea-partiers (anti-abortion, ant-gay marriage, pro-torture, authoritarian Protestantism)?

    Rand was for sexual freedom, abortion rights, and was an atheist, as is Piekoff. You’re not? Or do you just think the tea-partier group is okay because you think it matches your economic philosophy?

    And being practical, would you be comfy with Palin as president if she proved unable to cut the size of the federal government, but did manage to get her social and civil rights agenda going (no habeas corpus, anti-abortion, torture of terror suspects etc.)? You think this would represent progress?

    Could you support Palin for prez?

    —Santi

    • andrewclunn says:

      Keep in mind that the following only applies to me, and not the whole Tea Party movement:

      “.. what would you cut from the federal government… ?”

      - Quite a bit. Social security, welfare, a huge chunk of the military budget. Hell, I’m even against publicly funded schools.

      “Also, since you call yourself an Objectivist, does it follow that you oppose all of the social programs associated with the tea-partiers (anti-abortion, ant-gay marriage, pro-torture, authoritarian Protestantism)?”

      - Kind of a loaded question but, I’m pro-choice, for gay rights, my torture position would take a long tiem to explain (though the secret torture under Bush is not something I would defend,) and I’m a gnostic-agnostic.

      “Rand was for sexual freedom, abortion rights, and was an atheist, as is Piekoff. You’re not? Or do you just think the tea-partier group is okay because you think it matches your economic philosophy?”

      - The Tea Party movement is ONLY about the economics. It’s this idea that it’s about promoting anything other than restricted government spending that is the lie that I’m arguing about with you here.

      “And being practical, would you be comfy with Palin as president if she proved unable to cut the size of the federal government, but did manage to get her social and civil rights agenda going (no habeas corpus, anti-abortion, torture of terror suspects etc.)? You think this would represent progress?”

      - Huh? So now I’m a Palin supporter? Peter Schiff is more my style Republican.

      “Could you support Palin for prez?”

      - No. If presented with two lousy choices from the two major parties, I vote third party (which I have before.)

  8. santitafarella says:

    Andrew:

    You said: “The Tea Party movement is ONLY about the economics.”

    I think you are compartmentalizing here big time.

    As for everything else you say, I’m sympatico. I respect the libertarian positions you espouse, and have considered, at various times in my life, libertarianism as a default position myself.

    But my problem with libertarianism is that it is not practical, and doesn’t have a serious view of human nature. People are not nearly responsible or ethical enough for the forms of libertarian self-governance advocated by Rand. It’s utopian. And the world has large Hobbesian leviathans that need balancing (if they can’t be multilaterally disarmed). To unilaterally disarm the government side of the global power equation is akin to getting rid of the Supreme Court and the Legislative Branch from the federal system. It’s a way of concentrating tyranny, not reducing it. “Who will police the police?”

    That’s why, as a practical matter, I’m an Obama supporter and a Democrat. Somebody has to try to engage with the world as it is, and responsibly govern from the center, balancing as best that they can economic, communal, and civil libertarian interests. I think Obama is trying to do that.

    Rand long despised compromise and trade-offs, but that’s what adults in positions of responsibility do. Tea-partiers are thus engaged in an indulgence. It’s why I think that the tea-partiers, despite their libertarian sheen, are (in some cases like yours, unwittingly) enabling reactionary politics and authoritarian politicians. Governing from the right is different from sloganeering (as Bush’s presidency so painfully illustrated). And Palin is headlining the first tea-partier convention next month. You’ve got to look at the whole, not just the parts.

    —Santi

    • andrewclunn says:

      I would prefer not to discuss Libertarianism, Objectivism (or Rand for that matter) and the Tea Party movement as one issue. If (as you claim) they are all very much distinct, then it would appear not to be very effective to do so.

      Think of what could be said of Marxists and seeing any left-wing demonstration as simply a front for Marxism? This would be akin to what you are saying by clumping all individuals who favor right wing economic theories as being under one tent. Both views suffer from a false dichotomy. I would not claim that ever person who is registered as a Democrat is a Marxist. I demand the same respect be levied towards me if any real discussion is to take place.

  9. andrewclunn says:

    As to your call for soemthing that the tea party movement would get rid of, here’s a tea party inspired candidate who wants to run for a position only to eliminate it because it is unneeded.

    http://www.schullerfortreasurer.com/

  10. santitafarella says:

    Andrew:

    If a Marxist headlined a Democratic convention (as Palin is headlining the upcoming tea-partier convention), I’d see your point (and wouldn’t support the Democratic Party).

    —Santi

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