Thursday, February 10, 2011

Thoughts on the Tea Party

I started reading The Patriot’s Toolbox today, a “tea party activist public policy guidebook” I picked up when I wandered into the Conservative Political Action Conference. I was not meaning to attending the CPAC event; I was actually participating in the “Good Jobs, Green Jobs” national conference hosted by the Sierra Club and the International Steelworkers Union, which is about as far removed from Tea Party ideology as conferences come. At another point in my life, I might have scoffed and disparaged the Tea Party, perhaps even engaging in debate with some members of the CPAC conference in order to “prove” that my beliefs were superior. But instead, I decided to learn more about the Tea Party and its ideas.

“Hold on,” you may be thinking. “Aren’t you some radical liberal who thinks that we need to institute near socialist policies in order to avert impending climate-driven disaster?” Yeah, that sounds about right. But those are just my beliefs. In a class I took this past fall, my illusions of possessing any amount of real truth were utterly shattered. So even though I like to think my own views are forged from logical thinking, scientific research, and a benevolent outlook towards humanity, I cannot say with any distinct certainty that I’m not just as full of shit as anyone else.

I’ve also recently been listening to Tibetan Buddhist philosophy from the Dalai Lama. His holiness teaches that true wisdom is derived from meditation, which can generate love and compassion for one’s fellow beings. The Dalai Lama also teaches that anger is never a productive emotion, and that we must realize that all humans share the common desire to seek happiness and alleviate suffering. With this in mind, I realized that my hatred of the Tea Party is not productive in improving the world. I can still adamantly disagree with Tea Party political philosophy, but I should at least try to understand their views instead of attacking something I have not even considered. And maybe, just maybe, reading something from The Heartland Institute will help me to better understand the bitter polarization that exists between American politics and American society.

The full title of the Tea Party book is The Patriot’s Toolbox: Eighty principles for restoring our freedom and prosperity. So far I have read only the introduction to the book and a small section on the “exaggeration of alarm over global warming.” Obviously, with my personal beliefs about the issue of climate change, I fervently disagreed with much of what the book claimed; namely, the book contained many unexamined “scientific” statements that directly contradict what I have read in many peer-reviewed studies and reputable reports. However, since I have yet to read the entire chapter on energy and environmental issues and seen the overall context, I will not yet comment on the book’s climate change component.

As for the introduction to The Patriot’s Toolbox, I must say that it makes some very interesting points. I was not surprised to be shocked, and sometimes angered, at some of the statements made in this section. Some arguments seemed completely illogical, such as the argument that perk-filled government jobs should be reduced in an economic downturn. “At a time of record unemployment, many taxpayers are wondering why the government sector isn’t reducing workforces or trimming generous benefits.” I think I understand the sentiment of injustice (why are government employees not suffering during the recession?), but the conclusion of cutting the government workforce still seems very strange.

Some other key points from the introduction:

1. The federal debt is rising wildly out of control, and threatens our future stability.

2. Raising taxes as a way to raise new government revenues will cause jobs to be outsourced to other nations. This is the main reason why jobs have been moving to Mexico, China, and India.

3. Raising taxes have slowed economic growth: “The steady and substantial increases in taxes in the past few decades have made American economic growth, at around 3%, approach the slower rates of Western Europe, in contrast to those of China and India of up to 10%. Eastern Europe and Latin America have prospered with lower taxes, with economic growth rates up to 5% in recent years.”

4. The public is outraged at the ever increasing government debt, redistributive tax policies, and government interference in people’s lives.

5. The Tea Party is a response to this outrage, and is “radical” in the sense that it is “echoing the ideas of American Founders including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington.”

6. The Tea Party has gotten very little media coverage because of an underlying liberal bias.

I’m resisting the urge to comment on these statements, and have done my best to not twist their words in any way. I think that it is very important to understand the Tea Party and its policy proposals, if we are to truly understand what may happen over the next two years. It is also interesting to see the points where Tea Party ideology intersects with my own fairly leftist philosophy. For even in the introduction, I find some small signs of a common ground:

1. We agree that the rising federal debt is not sustainable in the long term.

2. We agree that people have a good reason to be angry that the government spent billions to bailout big banks and other large corporations, but has not shown great concern for most Americans (although I would say because of the lack of increased assistance to the unemployed and poor struggling through the recession).

3. We both agree that today’s children, or my generation, will grow up worse off than the present generation in power. (I believe this because of impending climate impacts and a lack of focus on engaging and empowering career choices for young people).

4. The government is very often inefficient, and could be reorganized to create more benefits with less public money.

5. We should strive to preserve America’s prosperity and freedom in the future (although I suspect we may have very different definitions of freedom).

So even with the broad ideological divisions between the Tea Party radical right and the radical liberal left, there are still some commonalities. These by no means trump the differences, but our shared beliefs are rarely, if ever, acknowledged. Maybe if we actually attempted to talk to one another, and have rational and respectful discussions, we might even learn that we share core values.

I’m confident that, just like me, Tea Party members want to live in a way that increases their personal happiness and decreases their personal suffering. I suspect that they have some concept of the original four cardinal virtues: courage, justice, wisdom, and moderation. And I hope that they hold a belief that helping others is central to the meaning of life.

I am almost certain that I will vigorously disagree with almost anything the Tea Party says. But instead of lashing out and engaging in a war of rhetoric, I want to at least try to understand the reasons for their position. And my effort must not be done from a patronizing perspective of superior intellectual ability. Instead, I will try to understand the Tea Party through a lens of love for my fellow human beings.


  1. This is awesome. Very cool stuff! It's a good reminder that I need to branch out and get my information from more sources (especially if I do not generally agree with them). I love the points that you made about the commonalities. We're all human, so of course we have a lot of similar beliefs! I think that all too often we focus on differences instead of commonalities, which can sometimes really delay action and change. However, I also think that it's important to not completely ignore the differences because a lot of the time we can learn so much through sharing differences and hashing things out.

    I think the biggest thing that I am reminded of by reading this blog post is the need to take time to listen to each other. It's so easy to embrace what we think we know (haha, what do we actually know? I'm now getting pretty confused on this as well because of my classes this term) and try to convince others of it before we hear them out and really truly try to see where they are coming from.

  2. I think that makes sense for understanding many of the members of the tea party. However, it's a little dangerous to make this type of idealistic assessment of the movement without acknowledging the history of how the movement actually formed and what type of tactics they use. The tea party was bankrolled by billionaires and pushed by Fox News, and they engaged in fundamentally dishonest tactics to try to attack everyone they disagreed with (such as misleadingly edited video, misrepresentation of facts, etc.).

    So yes, I agree that we shouldn't demonize people simply because they are members of the tea party, and agree that the *stated* ideas of the group are based on things that make sense on some level, but I also think it's important to understand that much of the criticism of the tea party comes from the specific types of behavior they've engaged in, and the cynical way that their leaders have taken advantage of certain ideals.

  3. Hey Adam, I agree with you on the importance of positive energy. Fundamentally, I believe the in the amazing human capacity to do ......things. Good things and bad things. With the right outlets and information, people are incredible of doing amazingly good. And, if you're willing to reach out, most people will give you a fair shake.

    I just wanted to make a brief comment about these tea party points:
    2. Raising taxes as a way to raise new government revenues will cause jobs to be outsourced to other nations. This is the main reason why jobs have been moving to Mexico, China, and India.

    This is pretty simplistic. A large part of the reason jobs are being shipped overseas is simply a function of how capitalism works. Countries work on developing their comparative advantages. If you have many many people, and low standards of living, your comparative advantage is going to be geared towards labor intensive industries--like manufacturing. It gets much more complicated of course...

    3. Raising taxes have slowed economic growth: “The steady and substantial increases in taxes in the past few decades have made American economic growth, at around 3%, approach the slower rates of Western Europe, in contrast to those of China and India of up to 10%. Eastern Europe and Latin America have prospered with lower taxes, with economic growth rates up to 5% in recent years.”

    A large part of this is simply due to the law of diminishing returns.

    When a country first starts industrializing, there are much larger gains to be made, percentage wise, in development indicators (wages, infrastructure, technology, etc.) As a country becomes more and more industrialized, there's "less" gain to be made, relative to how big you already are. It's like if you were learning a subject. You would start off with huge gains in learning that slowly taper off--percentage wise--as you know more and more.

    I know you said you were resisting commenting on these points, and I understand that. I guess I couldn't resist.

    I think also that, while it is nice to imagine that most people are Tea Partiers (or hippies, for that matter) for perfectly rational reasons, much of what determines a person's political leanings is not all that rational. A lot of it is simply cultural, and how a person perceives himself. For example: "I am a conservative. Climate change is liberal. Ergo, I do not believe anything related to climate change." I've debated climate change with many conservatives, and for many of them, you can actually tell that's what it comes down to. Check out this Matt Taibbi article . I'm not a fan of the tone of the article, but I think it makes interesting points.