The Tea Party movement on the Right in the United States has gathered a lot of press over the past year or so, a populist protest against the Obama administration. Yet, at its core, it conceals its utter pointlessness, for it is a violent protest in favor of the economic status quo. To steal a phrase from web comic Mammoth and Mastodon & Friends, the Tea Party is aggressive-passive (as opposed to passive-aggressive): “the aggressive-passive person acts really angry and agitated to cover the fact that they don’t want anything to change.”
Numerous commentators have pointed out the historic parallels with other white American movements in response to black civil rights gains—from the Know Nothings to the Dixiecrats. Yet it is arguable that the movement is also a response to the traumatic stock market crash of October 2008 and the global financial crisis.
It is for this reason that the galvanizing issue, indeed the very name of the movement, is the apparent raising of taxes under the Obama administration. On one level this is counter-intuitive. CNN reported this year that American tax levels are comparatively low worldwide, and are at all time lows for middle and lower class people. Obama’s modest proposals effected only the wealthiest elite of this country. Why therefore would there be any kind of a popular working-class movement aimed at lowering taxes for this country’s obscenely wealthy?
My suggestion is: because neoliberalism itself is under threat. The Tea Party was necessary partly because institutionalized neoliberalism has so utterly failed, at a historical juncture when even dyed-in-the-wool neoliberals from Barack Obama to former Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan have come to recognize that some form of state regulation of the financial markets is necessary. Among many economists, there has been a surprising turn towards long-disdained Keynesian economics, where the social democratic state creates the stability necessary to absorb the volatility and unpredictability of the financial markets.
The near-theological faith in the self-corrective power of the market from economists like Greenspan through the 90s and the early part of this decade has been irrevocably shown to be a sham. In response to epoch-shaking decline of economic orthodoxy, the Tea Party is a hysterical denial of concrete reality, suggesting instead that the solution to crisis is its cause and that only scorched-earth post-government libertarianism will fix the very problems it created.
To understand why this, we need some historical perspective on the American economy and its slow change from a social democratic state in the Roosevelt era to the current neoliberalist one. “Cut taxes” has been the mantra of neoliberals from Reagan onwards, Republicans and Democrats alike, one of a slew of policies (deregulation, privatization, downsizing, outsourcing, cutting labor costs) that over the 30 years of the long Reagan revolution have made the American economy vulnerable and heavily reliant on the volatile financial sector. As a result of that turn towards financial speculation, the comparative income share of the top 1% of the country has increased exponentially, shown graphically in a recent report from Berkeley economics professor Emmanuel Saez. [PDF]
The point is, the financial crisis was a long time coming, and when the bubble finally burst once and for all, the American economy had been made immeasurably weaker by white-anting neoliberalist policies. Business Insider recently listed twenty-two staggering statistics that show the middle class is being systematically wiped from existence in the US. These included: 83% of shares being in the hands of the top 1% of the country, 66% of income growth going to the top 1% of the country between 2001 and 2007, only the top 5% of the country earning enough income to match the rising housing costs since 1975, record job search times, 40% of the country working in low-paying service industry jobs, the top 1% of the country owning twice as much of the country as they did only 15 years ago, and the bottom half of the country only earning 1% of its assets.
And yet the Tea Party rails against the evils of Big Government, against a backdrop in which the social democratic elements of government have been immeasurably weakened, with socially and economically stabilizing government programs steadily downsized over the years (except in the military/intelligence arena) and expenditure on public infrastructure has become reduced and politically unpalatable—and a widening gap between rich and poor in which more of the general population need government assistance.
The New York Times reportedly recently on America’s substandard infrastructure, with mediocre health and education systems, sidewalks crumbling to dust, and electricity blackouts increasingly common. At the same time, the $700 billion Bush tax cuts for the country’s wealthiest citizens are being fiercely argued for by the Right, especially the Tea Partiers.
Ronald Reagan’s infamous 1981 Inauguration statement “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” statement has been thus taken to its logical conclusion. Nevada Tea Party candidate Sharon Angle has said that
[social security] entitlement programs…make government our God. And that’s really what’s happening in this country is a violation of the First Commandment. We have become a country entrenched in idolatry, and that idolatry is the dependency upon our government. We’re supposed to depend upon God for our protection and our provision and for our daily bread, not for our government.
For a government to have any social functions, for some Tea Partiers, is idolatry itself. Julie Ingersoll, associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Florida points out the religious roots of this critique of institutions, saying:
“Angle’s criticism is Christian Reconstructionism in a nutshell.
As Reconstructionists see it, there are three spheres of institutional authority established by God: the family, the church and that civil government. Each of the institutions has specific responsibilities and when “men” look to the State to meet needs the State was not intended to meet, they are looking to the State for salvation and making the State God.
This is the source of their views on helping the poor (it’s the responsibility of families and churches) and education (a family responsibility). For them the civil government has no legitimate role in either function so they advocate dismantling the welfare system, eliminating the Department of Education, and ultimately “replacing” public schools.”
It is clear, then, that the Tea Party is nothing more than the bastard child of Ayn Rand and R.J. Rushdoony. But doesn’t that accurately describe the Republican party anyway?
The Tea Party’s approach to institutions is nothing more than bog standard neoliberalism taken to its conclusion—destroy most of the functions of government except the military. This is, again, far from new, former President Bush proposed to privatize Social Security, and mainstream Republicans have attacked the unemployed (primarily victims of the crisis) by looking to deny extending unemployment benefits in the crisis and characterizing them with undisguised contempt. New York Republican Tea Party candidate Carl Paladino recently proposed housing welfare recipients in prison dorms.
In summary: the economic crisis is a crisis of capitalism at its core. Over the last 30 years, inequity in the United States has stretched towards the breaking point. Recently, the Washington Post found compelling evidence that the much-mooted economic recovery is essentially a jobless recovery, with profits among the 175 companies on Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index up 43.3% last quarter. And yet, as columnist Harold Myers pointed out, “today, wages are still down, employment remains low and sales revenue isn’t up much, either. But profits are the outlier. They’re positively soaring.” Profit without workers, without revenue, is not a sustainable system.
There is something fundamentally wrong with an economy so dependent upon the financial speculations of its top 1% that it requires a trillion dollar bailout, above and beyond the subprime mortgage crisis. Yet the Tea Party response to the bailout was, once again, a simplistic denial of both crisis and the necessity of government intervention, leavened with a hearty dose of American “bootstrapping” individualism and racial paranoia.
Since the collapse of the communist alternative in the late 1990s, we have been told that there is no alternative to exploitative, inequitable job-cutting wage-cutting tax-cutting program-slashing capitalism, and that any alternative will mean that ordinary citizens will lose everything, especially to cheaper migrant workers (hence the revival of racial xenophobia among the Tea Party in places like Arizona). Yet this conceals the way that low minimum wages and weak labor laws have weakened the system from within, so much so that Indian companies are beginning to look to the United States for cheaper call center workers.
With the miserable failure of neoliberalism in promoting widespread prosperity in the US it is unsurprising that some people would come forward to argue ferociously for its continuation as a dominant reality principle, despite the overwhelming evidence that such policies have centralized wealth in the hands of but a few.
This is nothing more than a “radical” movement advocating that things stay the same, a collective bout of magical thinking in which only repeating the behavior of the past will bring back the boom. Sadly, life is more complicated than that, and only a true change in economic policies will bring a true cure for the country’s ills. For the Tea Party, however, it is undoubtedly better to have the devil you know.