Tea Party: the American right’s political tantrum

Its demands for tax cuts for billionaires and an end to the tyranny of bicycle paths make the Tea Party seem nuts. So why is it so popular?

Wendy Kaminer

Topics USA

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In New York state, multi-millionaire real-estate developer Carl Paladino wins the Republican gubernatorial nomination and declares that he’s leading a ‘people’s revolution’ against the ‘ruling class’.

Running as an anti-establishment insurgent, Paladino naturally neglected to mention that under cover of various corporate entities, he’s contributed about half a million dollars to Democrats and Republicans over the past 10 years, receiving valuable tax incentives from state government. Instead, he railed against legislators who defer to lobbyists and campaign contributors, promising to ‘bring a baseball bat’ to the notoriously dysfunctional state capitol. His other policy proposals have included housing welfare recipients in state prisons. Of course, this populist poseur is a Tea Party favourite.

No wonder pundits struggle to make sense of the Tea Party movement; it’s a political nonsense, or, rather, a political tantrum, largely and quietly funded by the gazillionaire Koch brothers (as Jane Mayer recently reported in the New Yorker). Ordinary citizens who associate or sympathise with this movement may not know or care about the goals of its financial backers, and it’s a bit hard to generalise about the motives and agendas of so many loosely organised voters. Economic dislocation, cultural change (exemplified by the strengthening gay marriage movement), religious fervour and hysteria about Obama’s alleged anti-Americanism obviously contribute to the angst and anger that fuels the Tea Party. But its political allegiances – to conservative, anti-tax, free-market Republicans, who generally oppose unemployment benefits among other social programmes – serve the interests of its aristocratic backers (and surrogates like Carl Paladino), not the one-in-seven Americans currently living in poverty, or the millions unemployed, at a time of unprecedented income inequality.

So, the Tea Party is, in part, a movement of people organising against their own economic interests. Its success in winning senate and gubernatorial nominations is a testament to the fragility of reason and the irrelevance of reality to a significant minority of voters. Nearly one fifth of Americans and one third of all conservative Republicans believe that Obama, a practising Christian, is really a Muslim. One right-wing hack is spreading the word that he is an ‘anti-colonialist’, driven by the ‘inherited rage’ of his father, ‘a philandering, inebriated African socialist’. Fevered fantasies like this have generally been incidental to political discourse, circulating in its narrow, peripheral tributaries; now they pollute the mainstream.

How crazy are Tea Party Republican candidates for high office? In Colorado, gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes worries about Democratic candidate and Denver mayor John Hickenlooper’s promotion of bike riding, including an apparently nefarious public bike-sharing programme, which, Maes asserts, is ‘converting Denver into a United Nations community… This is all very well-disguised, but it will be exposed’, he promised. ‘This is bigger than it looks on the surface, and it could threaten our personal freedoms.’ In Nevada, Senate candidate Sharron Angle has condemned entitlement programmes as ‘violations of the First Commandment’ because they ‘make government our God… We’re supposed to depend upon God for our protection and our provision and for our daily bread, not for our government.’

So much for the view of Tea Partiers as libertarians who believe they’re supposed to depend on themselves; some even depend on both God and government. In Delaware, Republican Senate candidate, Christine O’Donnell, a Sarah Palin acolyte and Tea Party sweetheart, was not deterred by contempt for big government from complaining to the federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission about the sex discrimination she allegedly encountered on the job; nor did a belief in self-reliance, or tort reform, stop her from filing a $7million lawsuit against a former employer, citing the ‘profound humiliation’ and mental anguish she suffered after being demoted and fired.

Or consider the faux libertarianism of Kentucky Senate candidate, Tea Party insurgent and ophthalmologist, Rand Paul. Like last summer’s townhall attendee who famously shouted ‘Take your government hands off my Medicare’, Paul denounces big government but lives off Medicare, which covers 50 per cent of his patients. His professed concern for deficits has not undermined his opposition to cutting Medicare’s physician payments: ‘Physicians should be allowed to make a comfortable living’, he explained.

In an informed and rational world, Tea Partiers like these would be running as fringe candidates with no chance of winning high office. In our world, they’re wresting nominations from established, Republican conservatives who sometimes seem crippled less by incumbency or lapses into moderation and a little bi-partisanship than by sanity. Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, a creationist, pro-abstinence and anti-masturbation crusader who upset relatively moderate, nine-term congressman Mike Castle, initially proved too crazy and untrustworthy even for alpha-conservative political operative Karl Rove (primary architect of George W Bush’s election). She has said ‘a lot of nutty things’, Rove observed on Fox News immediately after she won the nomination. (O’Donnell told the Weekly Standard that people were following her home at night and ‘hiding in the bushes when I’m in candidate forums’, and admitted using her campaign funds to pay the rent on her legal residence.)

‘It does conservatives little good to support candidates who, at the end of the day, while they may be conservative in their public statements, do not evince the characteristics of rectitude and truthfulness and sincerity and character that the voters are looking for’, Rove suggested. Not surprisingly he was quickly attacked by Palin and a gaggle of right-wing bloggers, but he responded (before caving in and supporting O’Donnell) that she has some explaining to do: ‘why she had a problem for five years with paying her federal income taxes… why it took 16 years to settle her college debt and get her diploma while she went around claiming she was a college graduate.’ O’Donnell, who appeared on TV in the 1990s as founder of the Saviour’s Alliance for Lifting the Truth, once claimed to value truth-telling absolutely; asked if she would lie to Nazis seeking Jews who were hiding in her basement, she demurred, insisting that ‘God would provide a way to do the right thing’. Lying about your college education is apparently an exception to the categorical imperative.

But if these Tea Partiers are easy to mock, their chances of winning governorships or US Senate seats are hard to dismiss. O’Donnell is currently considered a gift to Democrats, but she is running only about 11 points behind Chris Coons, her moderate Democratic opponent, despite harsh attacks on her by the state Republican party and a torrent of very bad publicity. In Kentucky, Medicare-reliant ophthalmologist Rand Paul is leading his opponent, moderate Democratic state attorney general Jack Conway; and in Nevada, First Commandment crazy Sharron Angle is running about even with Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid. Far-right Senate candidates in Utah and Alaska, who upset conservative Republican incumbents, seem likely to prevail (although the recent decision of Alaska’s defeated Senate incumbent to run a write-in campaign is an interesting complication).

And, even if some of the more obviously nutty and ignorant Tea Party candidates lose, their supporters will continue to pull the Republican Party into a right-wing wonderland, where foes of big government enjoy entitlements and populists demand tax cuts for billionaires; where freedom fighters frolic in the shadows of the security state, standing firm against the tyranny of bike paths.

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer, writer and free speech activist. Her latest book is Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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