So did you take part in one of those teabag protests last week? They were held, in case you missed them, on April 15, and their purpose was to express outrage. Just what the outrage was aimed at depended on whom you spoke to.
The basic idea seemed to be to object to taxes, which gave validity to the metaphor of tea bags and the implicit allusion to the Boston Tea Party. But, of course, history isn’t exactly on point even in that reference, since the rallying cry in the 1773 rebellion against the tea tax was “no taxation without representation.” That cry certainly doesn’t work in a country where taxes are enacted by legislatures that are elected by the people who then pay them.
In other words, whether taxes are too high (as 46 percent believe according to a recent poll), just right (as 48 percent said) or just not high enough (a remarkable three percent), they are representative of the will of the people.
But the disconnect between the protests and reality doesn’t end with the difference between a monarchy seeking to control a distant colony and a fully-functioning republic based on a system of constitutional democracy.
The tea bag protests also failed to recognize another, even starker reality, which is that taxes have been lower for the last eight years than they had been for years before. In fact, since the Reagan presidency ushered in the anti-tax mania that swept through the land in the 1980s, federal taxes have been in decline.
What then were the protesters protesting last week? According to Dick Armey, the former majority leader of the House of Representatives, they were protesting the “likelihood” of higher taxes under President Obama. Since retiring from formal politics in 2003, Armey has been the principal spokesperson for an organization called “FreedomWorks,” whose credo is “lower taxes, less government, and more freedom.”
It’s an interesting slogan, suggesting that the three are inexorably linked. On closer inspection, however, as with most ideological statements, it raises more questions than it answers. Lower taxes, for example, might mean less freedom, if the loss of tax revenues resulted in fewer services and decreased health and safety. Likewise, less government could mean less military might, which could well put the most basic of freedoms, the freedom to remain an independent nation, at risk.
Of course, what Armey postulates is that higher taxes increase the spread of government and that the spread of government decreases individual freedom.
But that axiom is also highly suspect as the increased warrantless searches of the enhanced Patriot Act have clearly established. Only last week, leading media sources reported that electronic surveillance by federal intelligence agencies had violated the privacy of millions of completely innocent Americans. Freedom, it seems, is not so much a function of the size of government as it is of the attitude of a government towards the governed.
But to return to the thousands who protested last week, just what were they protesting? Again, it all depended on whom you asked. Fox News, which covered/sponsored the events as if they were the start of a revolution, proclaimed that the tea bag parties were historic. “Bring your kids and experience history,” the network’s Glenn Beck urged. He went on to warn that America’s children were being “sold into slavery.”
The equivalent fictional cry might be the one intoned by the crazed news anchor in Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning 1976 film, “Network.” In that classic, Peter Finch exhorted his viewers to shout to the world, “I’m mad as Hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” When he gets somewhat specific, Beck sounds much like the Howard Beale character Finch portrayed, claiming that “Washington, the media, Democrats, Republicans, politicians,” in other words, the usual suspects, are all to blame for the disaster that is coming.
And just what is that disaster? Once more, it depends whom you ask. According to another talking head, Cody Willard of Fox Business Channel, today’s politicians are “fascists.” To support his claim, Mr. Willard asserts that both conservatives and liberals are taking money from hard working Americans to “build up corporate America.”
One way to look at all the media hysteria would be to compare it to the yellow journalism of the late nineteenth century in America. The ability of the mass media, especially the cable news networks, to create news may never have been greater, and the turnout last week (estimated at 300,000 nationwide in some 800 separate events) might well be testament to that power.
But America also has a long-standing tradition (if that’s the right word) for no-nothing political views. The political party of that name in the 1850s opposed immigration and had little basis for the opposition it espoused other than an apparent animus towards the Irish immigrants who were then the majority of those seeking a new home in the United States.
Today’s no-nothings probably owe more allegiance to the campaigns of Ross Perot in the 1990s. Perot led a movement that opposed government corruption, government incompetence and government authority. It was comprised of folks who may not have understood much about the Constitution but knew what they didn’t like.
Much the same might be said of many of the protesters last week. Some undoubtedly fear the risk of runaway inflation in the Obama deficit budgets. And some may firmly believe, as Armey surely does, that the increased spending Obama seeks will inevitably lead to higher taxes. Others, though, just hate the idea that they pay taxes for anything other than the things they want for themselves.
These are the no-nothings in the crowd. They are epitomized by the protesters at Sacramento’s Capitol Park last week. There, on tea-bag day, the California Museum had set up a table in the middle of the throng of several thousand protesters. The museum’s employees were handing out copies of the state constitution.
Invariably, protesters were impressed with the educational value of the pamphlets. “How much do these cost?” they would ask. “Nothing,” was the answer. “They are free, paid for with your tax dollars.”
Ashley Robinson says
Hi – I am the Communications Manager at The California Museum in Sacramento and I just want to clarify that the Museum did not at all participate in the Tea Bag demonstration this last week. Not that I disagree or agree with the rally, I just want to set the record that the Museum is a private, non-profit organization that gets no direct funding or resources from tax-payer dollars and does not participate in partisan activity.
I guess it could be said that tax dollars were used to create the California State Constitution even if they weren’t used to print copies of the it for the public.
Glenn Beck is the Lyndon LaRouch of this generation – with a bit of Glenn Scott tossed in. No, I guess your comparison is better – Howard Beale. If I recall that movie correctly, the “Network” eventually teams Beale up with a psychic and some other doom sayer. Evidently Beck does a lot of similar panel discussions on his program.
Ed Telfeyan says
The reference in my column to the California Museum was incorrect as Ms. Robinson points out. The reference should have been to the Capitol Museum. The former is a private non-profit; the latter is the state-funded agency that handles the Capitol tours and provides copies of the constitution.
My apologies for the error.
There are certainly crazies on the right AND the left and some of the right-leaning ones showed up at these events. But MOST of the people there, I think, were hard-working Americans who feel they pay enough in taxes and see nothing but bailouts for corporations and nothing for them. It’s like “My hard-earned tax dollars which could be used to improve my home or put my kids through college are going to bail out AIG (or whatever company)!!” I know I am feeling a little outraged though not enough to take a day off work and go to one of these “Tea parties”. And we continue to see taxes and fees going up nonstop in CA and NO salary increase for many years for many of us. That is enough to cause a lot of people and businesses to pack it in and say enough! Like near me, a big JC Penny call center just closed, it employed over 400 people. There were 6 of them in the nation but they closed the one in CA. WHY? AAA is closing a major call center and moving out of state -another few hundred jobs gone – WHY? Taxes, regulations, etc. are driving them out of here. Legislators and officials need to look hard at the regs they impose on businesses, the long-term effect may do much more harm than good.
Ed, Ed, Ed, what in the world are you thinking. Your critique of the modern tea party, not “tea-bag” party is rediculous. But you do make a good point, that every since Reagan federal taxes have gone down. You say that like it’s a BAD thing??? I’m not a constitutional lawyer but man I don’t remember the constituton giving the authority to government to do a lot of the things it’s doing.
Here is one thing I always like to remind myself of, when you have to deal with people that are doing there “job” with decisions that affect your “life” you have to be very vigilant to make sure of the results because their life is not affectected it’s only their “job” (Government)…
You make a statement that the original tea party had to do with taxation without representation, well that does still happen in a representative republic. It doesn’t matter what party your believe in, if you are in the minority then you may very well have taxation without representation (can’t solve everything). But to belittle anyone that wants to protest and speak out about it is silly.
As far as I am concerned, and I do agree with them, your approach to the modern tea party is how every one should approach any of the global warming / climate change theorist that exists.
The tea partiest are, in my opion, saying governmen we are your boss not the other way around. And with regards to climate change / global warming, can you say “Earth Science”. All the kids of this country are thought about Ice Ages and how they affected the planet. That’s good for class, but what happened between the Ice Ages and why is the science different for school and the news????
Can’t wait to hear from you…
Ashley Hamidi says
Since I’m currently a research assistant/intern at the Capitol, I got to see the Tea Bag Protestors up close and personal. Upon my arrival, I didn’t know precisely what it was that everyone was there to bitch about. But thirty minutes of negotiating my way through the mob (just to get upstairs to my office) made me lose all patience with these protestors (or as I like to call ’em, “Tea-Baggers”).
But what struck me the most, was the seemingly random participants. Sure, there were plenty of people with their tea bags (I guess it was sort of cute) and their signs, but it didn’t seem like everyone was on the same page. Mixed in with all the anti tax slogans, were a few “Impeach Obama” signs. As well as a few anti Pelosi signs. Okay. . . so perhaps a lot of the people who would participate in this type of protest would be against Obama’s policies. But then there were also some signs/displays that I can’t recall now, but at the time I remember thinking, “The hell?”
I feel like best part of the protest was the theme. And the costumes. But no substance. As Professor Telfeyan reminds us, the point of the Boston Tea Party was “no taxation without representation”. Last week’s message was more like, “No taxation! Period.”
It seems like the “Tea Baggers” don’t really understand what it is they are protesting. Or our current reality. Stringing together a bunch of empty words (no matter how great sounding) does not solve the actual problem.
The people I bumped into (or more accurately, bumped into me) on my way to work gave me the impression that, had I pointed out concrete ways to lower taxes, they would not have been interested in hearing them.
I’m not claiming to understand all this stuff. To this day, I have no idea what my tax dollars pay for. With the exception of Federal Student Aid, I really couldn’t tell you. I know what taxes are supposed to pay for and I know what the fat cat politicians claim they pay for, but I don’t know what they actually pay for. I pay taxes, but I feel like there is just this black hole and that’s where my money goes. Whether taxes are used to pay for a war in Iraq or building more prisons and drug rehabs; I have no idea.
All I know is that I’ve been driving over the same goddamn pothole every day for the past 11 years.
And by the way, I am fiscally conservative. I don’t like paying taxes, either, but I know I’m going to pay them regardless of whether a Democrat or Republican is in office.
Joel Cornwell says
Indeed, the gravitational pull of the “black hole” becomes ever greater, pulling money from our pockets faster than the federal reserve can print it. Across decades and multiple administrations, our taxes have been dumped into a “war” on drugs, where the money fuels an exponential growth rate in a black market, overburdens our judicial and penal systems, and pushes neighboring countries toward anarchy. Now our money goes to reward auto industry executives for self-serving mismanagement, labor unions for unbridled greed, and regulatory bureaucrats for mandating that American companies produce “green” cars that no rational consumer is willing to buy. There is also an issue of fairness. The gravitational pull is curiously selective among pockets. The force is not, for the most part, in a direction that favors personal initiative.
Some people show up at a protest rally because they cannot resist being part of a crowd. The media covering the event will exaggerate, obfuscate, and over-analyze in order to fill air time and bolster ratings. Messages that begin as mixed end up as scrambled. Even so, something coherent results. The tea parties tell us that there are still people who distrust governments more than they distrust bankers. We should listen.