This post originally appears on The Moderate Voice.
The answer is, Alex — both, of course.
From the beginning, opposition to the tea party movement has sought to portray participants as a fringe element of conservatism; radical, anti-government protestors who never met a program they could support, or a Democrat who wasn’t either a communist or socialist. Racist, homophobic, rabidly partisan, and dangerously myopic, such analyses of the tea partiers was de rigueur in both liberal and major media outlets.
Why the caricature? In truth, opponents fear the tea partiers as the vanguard of a truly unique citizen’s movement; one based on the simple notion that the Constitution has relevance beyond how the Supreme Court interprets it and how Congress ignores its First Principles.
Indeed, its seems a quaint notion that any citizen can interpret the Constitution as they see fit. Not that such strikingly innocent and naive insights matter as far as the law goes. But it could very well be that for a great many people, it will matter as far as politics is concerned. We might judge the efficacy of tea partiers interpreting the Constitution as it relates to specifics like health care reform, and dismiss the effort as the well meaning, but flawed attempts by ordinary citizens to try and come to grips with the enormity of what government has become. But you cannot dismiss their seriousness, nor their earnest desire to bring Gargantua under some kind of control that would matter to citizens of this republic.
I have written previously that in many ways, the core of the tea party movement takes its cues from a 19th century view of how government should work. Would that at least at its most basic operation, and in gathering any inspiration, the government would pay heed to that notion. There is absolutely nothing wrong in preferring self reliance over dependency, less government interference in markets rather than more, and a strong federal system of states that would be more accountable to the people than Washington presently demonstrates.
The problem is that such a template does not fit over an industrialized, globalized nation of 300 million diverse people with even more diverse interests. The regional disputes of 125 years ago have been left behind for the most part, and we now have clashing interests with global implications regarding how they are settled. And while those First Principles should still inspire and guide us, the details are a little more complicated. Hence, the fingernail-across-the-blackboard grating whenever we hear a tea partier spout about this or that being “unconstitutional.”
Bruce Bartlett analyzed an unscientific survey of tea partiers taken by David Frum’s group that, not suprisingly, demonstrated how misinformed many tea partiers are about taxes:
Tuesday’s Tea Party crowd, however, thought that federal taxes were almost three times as high as they actually are. The average response was 42% of GDP and the median 40%. The highest figure recorded in all of American history was half those figures: 20.9% at the peak of World War II in 1944.
To follow up, Tea Partyers were asked how much they think a typical family making $50,000 per year pays in federal income taxes. The average response was $12,710, the median $10,000. In percentage terms this means a tax burden of between 20% and 25% of income.
Of course, it’s hard to know what any particular individual or family pays in taxes, but according to IRS tax tables, a single person with $50,000 in taxable income last year would owe $8,694 in federal income taxes, and a married couple filing jointly would owe $6,669.
Both Frum and Bartlett take this is proof positive that the tea partiers don’t know what they’re talking about. This is true — just as most Americans don’t know much about government; how it works, how a bill is passed, the importance of the bureaucracy, etc. I fail to see why it is an earth shattering revelation that tea partiers are uninformed when recent surveys show that high school graduates are so ignorant of our country’s history and workings, that anyone with half a brain should stand in terror of the future:
Only one in four Oklahoma public high school students can name the first President of the United States, according to a survey released today.
The survey was commissioned by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs in observance of Constitution Day on Thursday.
The Oklahoma City-based group enlisted national research firm, Strategic Vision, to access students’ basic civic knowledge.
Brandon Dutcher is with the conservative think tank and said the organization wanted to find out how much civic knowledge Oklahoma high school students know.
“They’re questions taken from the actual exam that you have to take to become a U.S. citizen,” Dutcher said.
A thousand students were surveyed by telephone and given 10 questions drawn from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services item bank. Candidates for U.S. citizenship must answer six questions correctly in order to become citizens.
About 92 percent of the people who take the citizenship test pass on their first try, according to immigration service data. However, Oklahoma students did not fare as well. Only about 3 percent of the students surveyed would have passed the citizenship test.
Misinformed? Yes. Shallow? An understanding of the Constitution that runs a mile wide and a centimeter deep. Fearful? Beyond being manipulated by the cotton candy conservatives on talk radio, the fear of change is so ripe you can smell it in many sections of the country.
I’m not talking about Obama-type change. I’m talking about the undercurrent of change that constantly runs through history and that occasionally, breaks ground in a flood that, when it ebbs, reveals a much altered landscape. Most people who inhabit such a place are not prepared for, nor can they manage the seminal changes that have made the familiar, unfamiliar.
America has been undergoing a radical change for more than 20 years. Our entire economy has flipped from being industrial-based to service-based, with the consequent changes in wages, lifestyle, and mores occurring faster than many can absorb. The old moorings by which most of us clung have been torn away and some have been let adrift — strangers in their own land.
The catalyst that revealed this was the financial crisis and the growing realization that recovery will be a slow, painful process no matter whether we stupidly try to spend our way to prosperity or cut taxes and risk even higher deficits, thus stifling growth. Millions of jobs are gone and it will take years to recreate the kind of economy where anyone who wants a job can get one.
With all of this happening, can you blame the tea partiers for grasping at the one talisman that has served as a steadying influence on America for 222 years? The Constitution as legal document and patriotic connection to our past is as a life buoy tossed to a drowning man. Given that there are far worse symbols upon which citizens could tie themselves — including the Communist Manifesto as some of the anti-war protestors appeared to have embraced — you would think that critics would grant tea partiers a little slack in their choice of iconic American notions to idolize.
Further, the notion that a few yahoos who scream the “N” word at a Civil Rights icon like James Lewis, or yell an equally hurtful epithet at Barney Frank is representative of the vast majority of tea partiers is absurd on its face. It might be comforting to try and smear the entire movement in this manner. After all, employing the race card has a long, dishonorable history among tea party critics. And taken in the context of the super-intensity of the health care debate a day before the vote, one can easily understand why opponents of the tea partiers would drag the old saw out of the closet and try and brand the entire movement as “fringe” or “hateful.”
True, many tea partiers appear not to have a clue about manners — as they proved during last summer’s health care town halls. In fact, I would argue that this type of behavior has hurt the cause of reform opponents more than the tea partier’s importunings have helped. But you can’t dismiss them as “rabble” or “racists” based on the actions of a pitifully few louts. To do so is to act as shallowly and as ignorantly as any tea partier you accuse of behaving badly.
Bad manners or not, the passion of these ordinary folk has caused the fear factor among Democrats to rise substantially. It doesn’t matter why they are angry; some of their reasons may be bogus, others are spot on. The point is that they are aroused enough to vote against Democrats — and even some apostate Republicans — in November in huge numbers.
And this fear is driving the actions of the tea partier’s opponents as much as it is driving the movement itself.