The Mad Tea Party

They’re proud; they're loud; they are selfish in the extreme, and simple in their thinking. And none of those traits is inherently bad or stupid. Within the extremely generous confines of American political discourse, at least when it comes to the rightward end of the spectrum, the Tea Party Movement is just another outbreak of self-righteous me-first I-want-my-country-back ideology. It’s the thinking of people who believe a mild and flawed health care reform law imperils their very way of life.

This isn’t intrinsically bad or wrong, although it’s bad and wrong in some ways. We are all entitled to our views, especially if we don’t expect them to prevail for all mankind.  What is bad about the Tea Party is really two things, one of which is good/bad, and the other bad/bad.

What’s bad/bad is the extremism of many of the views espoused by its adherents.  Not just the nut cases like the Senate wannabe in Delaware, who in past years badly mismanaged her own finances and now wants the federal government to shape up fiscally. (She also came out forcefully against masturbation;  Delaware Democrats should sport bumper stickers that proudly proclaim: “I masturbate and I vote.”)

What’s bad/bad, rather, is the intolerance -  not just of masturbation but of whole swaths of society, like illegal immigrants. (Ship them home, or just make them feel really unwelcome so they leave, and watch Arizona’s economy collapse.) Bad/bad is the extremism that tends to breed, reflect, and encourage intolerance of others. The Tea Party is rife with it. At worst, it dismisses the rights of others; and at best, it disparages their dignity and their values and the right to be different. The Tea Party, like conservatism in general, is all about me and mine. 

What’s good/bad is the inherent right of the right to espouse libertarian, small-government views on the economy. This is a healthy antidote to liberal dogma that I, for one, espouse.  It reminds us that the stimulus package (which every reputable economist has said was about half as large as was necessary to revive the economy) kept us from having the kind of depression we really needed. Market orthodoxy, upended by the recent crisis, simply becomes more extreme.  Voting more Republicans into office should fix everything and smack us back down into a severe recession.  

Economic conservatism may be wrongheaded, but it isn’t undignified. That’s why it’s the good/bad part of the Tea Party.  Eight years of Republican rule and deregulation  let  Wall Street run amok, and the rest was history. (And let’s not exempt Bill Clinton from some blame, for adding 22 million jobs to the economy and balancing the budget). 

The theory that returning to Bush era economic policies will actually lift us out of the huge mess that Bush-era economic policies left us in is an interesting one and it deserves an airing.  Republicans who complain about Obamanomics are a little bit like Germans in 1947 complaining about the administration of the Allied Occupation, but never mind.   Let’s face it, the economy is a heck of a complex thing, and from any point of view (except that of radical free marketers) a bit of a mystery; no one really knows exactly how to run the thing, although there are good recipes for things like creating or destroying jobs, raising or lowering interest rates, etc.   Economics is one of the things we ought to be able to argue about civilly.  Unlike morality, religion, or sex, for example. 

So the Tea Party is a mix of good/bad and bad/bad strains of American conservatism. Its salutary aspects, as the midterm elections approach, become harder and harder to discern.  But a dose of this tea seems to be heading our way, like it or not.  It’s one party that will give this nation a whopper of a hangover, and possibly even the broad Democratic resurgence that the me-firsters so desperately fear.

 Originally posted on