5 Ways the Tea Party Agenda Screws Tea Party Supporters
If people could be counted on to vote in their own best interests, there would be no Tea Party movement, for if the economic agenda embraced by Tea Partiers -- a vastly pro-corporation, government-killing plan -- were ever to be enacted, Tea Partiers would find themselves among the people most hurt by it.
As George Lakoff and Drew Westen remind us, people don't vote on the facts: they vote on emotion, according to Westen, and their notion of morality, according to Lakoff. The resentment of Tea Partiers toward liberals, East Coast elites, the poor and people who don't look like them has been effectively marshaled in service of a "free market" ideology cleverly packaged as "freedom." Never mind that free markets are anything but free for ordinary people. The packaging strikes the necessary emotional and moral chords: Free markets = freedom = liberty = endowed by the Creator, as written in the Declaration of Independence by the founders. It's the perfect exploitation of the worldview of conservative middle-class white people -- all in the service of enriching the super-rich at the expense of their unwitting, patriotic ground troops.
Casting themselves as an organic uprising in opposition to a federal government they see as the greatest threat to their freedom, Tea Party supporters conveniently look past the likely consequences of the no-holds-barred, anti-regulatory aims of Rupert Murdoch and David Koch, the billionaires whose dollars grease the skids on which the Tea Party movement rides. Murdoch leads News Corporation, the parent company of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, the movement's evangelists. Koch is a principal in Koch Industries, the second largest privately held corporation in the U.S., and heir to its fortunes.
The billionaires give the activists lots of entertainment to distract them from this reality, especially in the form of sideshows, such as Glenn Beck's travesty at the Lincoln Memorial, designed to fan the flames of racial resentment while making Tea Partiers feel holy about it. At other times, the demonization or infantilization of the nation's first black president serves up the same charge of adrenaline to the fearful, angry throngs who seek to blame their troubles on anyone other than the corporatist manipulators in whom they've placed their trust.
How else to explain the embrace of the billionaires' agenda by the middle-aged, middle-class folks of the Tea Party movement -- the very ones likely to find themselves screwed by it? Here we examine five positions advanced by Tea Party leaders, and what they would mean for Tea Party supporters.
1. Ending Social Security.Rep. Michele Bachmann, doyenne of the congressional Tea Party Caucus, has outlined a plan for an abrupt phase-out of Social Security. Speaking before an audience of Tea Party supporters at the RightOnline conference convened in July, Bachmann referred to Social Security and Medicare as "welfare" that had seen its day. The event was convened in Las Vegas by the Americans For Prosperity Foundation, whose board is chaired by David Koch. There, more than 1,000 Tea Partiers -- the majority of whom are over the age of 45 -- sat in rapt silence as Bachmann outlined a plan to end Social Security for all those who will be under the age of 65 at the time her potential dream Congress enacts the legislation.
The growth of the federal debt and deficit require a drastic cutback in federal spending, Bachmann said. "Spending comes first, so we have to cut it first," she explained, speaking of her plan to devastate Social Security. "And in my opinion, it'll take us about a long weekend to get that done, and then we'll be fine."
For those between the ages of 55 and 65 at the time Bachmann's Kill Social Security Plan hypothetically passes into law, there would be a means-tested program for "those who truly need it -- the truly disadvantaged, those who truly can't go forward." For everybody else, there would be unspecified "alternatives and adjustments." Those under the age of 55 would apparently be squat out of luck, regardless of how truly disadvantaged they are. From the assembled Tea Partiers, not a discouraging word was heard, even as Bachmann outlined a plan to essentially rob them of the money they've been putting into the system all their lives.
According to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in April, 46 percent of Tea Party supporters fall into the 45-64 age group. (Untouched by the Bachmann plan would be the 29 percent of Tea Party supporters the poll cited as being over the age of 64.) The same survey revealed that among 47 percent of self-identified Tea Party supporters, either they or a member of their household was receiving Social Security retirement benefits. When asked whether the outlay for programs such as Social Security and Medicare are worth the taxpayer expense, 62 percent said they were.
What to do with all those freed-up dollars? Why not give them back to the corporations and wealthy individuals who bankroll the Tea Party movement? Segueing out of her nuking of the social safety net for the nation's elderly -- and stealing the payroll taxes of all those Americans who paid into Social Security over the course of their lifetimes but would never see a dime of their contributions come back to them under her plan -- Bachmann launched into a pitch for a corporatist agenda that began with her call for a roll-back of the corporate tax from its current 34 percent to 9 percent, which, according to Bachmann, would make it "one of the lowest in the industrialized world."
Actually, make that possibly the lowest in the world (excluding the handful of mostly broken nations that have none), never mind "industrialized." I mean, even Kazakhstan and Burkina Faso have higher corporate tax rates than 9 percent. And India, where all the good jobs are said to be going? Try 43 percent.
Bachmann also called for zeroing out the estate tax -- even for the very wealthiest Americans -- and repeal of the Sarbanes-Oxley law, a bill passed in the wake of the Enron scandal that sets standards for corporate accountability. What would that mean for Americans under the age of 64 whose retirement savings would be entirely invested in the private sector after the demolishing of Social Security? That the same kinds of accounting tricks and corruption that destroyed the retirement savings of thousands in the Enron caper would become standard operating procedure. Sorry, Tea Partiers -- you're screwed.
2. Ending Medicare: See No. #1, Ending Social Security."Within seven [years], Medicare is dead, bankrupt, broke -- broke," Bachmann told the Tea Partiers. Her solution? End it for everybody but "the truly needy and the truly disabled." (I shudder to think what constitutes "truly needy" in the Bachmann moral universe.) Her solution? You can buy your own health insurance policy on the private market with pre-tax dollars. Sure, you're 70 years old: How much do you think an insurance company is going to charge you for your coverage? Pre-taxed or not, you're going to need a whole lotta dollars to make that one work for you.
But Bachmann's fans likely found comfort in her sunny optimism. "It is possible for every American to be able to retire a millionaire," Bachmann told the Tea Partiers. "It's entirely possible to do that if you plan early and you put away money -- and there are alternatives that we can put forward." Just what those "alternatives" might be were left to the audience's imagination.
3. Opposition to Internet Freedom (aka Net Neutrality). Earlier this month, news media, ranging from mainstream to righty to lefty, breathlessly reported that leaders of 35 "Tea Party" groups signed a letter to the the Federal Communications Commission in opposition to any efforts made by the FCC to "regulate the Internet." At issue is Internet freedom and potential regulations that could prevent Internet providers from saddling small-time Web sites unable to pay for an added jolt of Web juice with slower loading speeds for their sites than, say, big-money players like Google. (This is the crux of the issue in the Google-Verizon deal.) Now, Tea Party supporters fancy themselves to be rugged individualists, dedicated to the preservation of individual freedoms. But it wasn't until the big-money groups that bankroll the national organizing of the Tea Party movement began garnering opposition to Internet freedom that you began to see any of those quaint, homely signs carried at Tea Party rallies dedicated to the subject.
Tea Party activists pride themselves on their movement's apparent leaderless state, reveling in the homegrown, local character of ground-level Tea Party groups, which often organize on hastily organized listservs and homemade local Web sites. But should they succeed in halting the FCC's net neutrality plan, they may find themselves with no decent option for Web-based organizing other than the big networking sites built by the national money groups that form the Tea Party Inc. uberstructure. So much for self-agency.
And what of those "35 Tea Party groups" whose leaders signed that letter to the FCC? Well, 24 of those entities are either part of or affiliated with Americans For Prosperity. Among the signatories was AFP president Tim Phillips, as well as the directors of 22 state chapters of Americans For Prosperity -- each counted as a separate "Tea Party group." In addition, the signature of AFP policy director Phil Kerpen (who is also a columnist for Murdoch's FoxNation) appears with the affiliation, "director, NoInternetTakeover.com." Also present was Linda Hansen, who leads the Wisconsin Prosperity Network and is the author of a "worker education" program that is a project of the Americans For Prosperity Foundation, and promoted by John Fund and Stephen Moore of Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal.
Others signatories aren't leaders of Tea Party groups at all, but heads of the old corporatist, anti-government groups such as Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and David Keene of the American Conservative Union. There are even a couple of stalwarts of the old New Right: Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum and Morton Blackwell of the Leadership Institute.
Bottom line for Tea Partiers: deviate from the AFP/Ayn Rand line on any issue, and you could see your little homemade Web site begin to load verrrry slowwwly.
4. De-Funding Public Education.While it's common knowledge that Tea Partiers hate all things government (except their personal Social Security checks and Medicare reimbursements), they hold a special contempt for public school teachers. This stems from a number of causes, but mostly from the fact that teachers are unionized government workers who have authority over one's children for a good chunk of the day. The very fact of their unionization implies a different value system from that of the Tea Partiers, who fear that value system having an influence on their children. Teachers tend to be more liberal than the general population. And to the worker wed to the private enterprise system, a teacher's deal can look pretty sweet by comparison: It generally comes with a pension, tenure and the prospect of early retirement.
That's why even candidates like Sharron Angle, the GOP/Tea Party contender for Nevada's U.S. Senate seat, can call for the elimination of the Department of Education and still be taken seriously by the Tea Party faithful. And that's why calling the federal jobs bill passed last month a "teacher bailout" was an effective means of summoning Tea Party opposition to the bill that provided $26 billion in aid to cash-strapped states to maintain all manner of services and programs, including money to prevent some 300,000 teacher lay-offs.
For the billionaires of Tea Party Inc., gutting public education is just another way to grab more marbles for themselves by marginalizing unions and shrinking the overall size of government -- not to mention the convenience of having a gullible and uneducated population to snooker down the road. They have little need for an educated workforce in the U.S., since they'll offshore whatever jobs they can.
Yet, according to the New York Times/CBS News poll, 65 percent of Tea Party supporters with children under the age of 18 have those children enrolled in public schools. And although parents of school-age children account for only 20 percent of Tea Party supporters, it's safe to assume that a sizable number of the older people who comprise the bulk of the Tea Party have grandchildren in public schools. The education those children receive will clearly suffer if schools are forced to lay off significant numbers of teachers but, for Tea Partiers, that fact pales beside the prospect of sticking it to the teachers they've been taught to resent. Better to short-change one's own kids than to keep one more teacher employed, despite all the rhetoric about the Tea Party movement being the guardian of the legacy owed to those yet unborn.
5. Opposition to Wall Street Reform and Financial Reform.Perhaps the most confounding aspect of the Tea Party agenda is its opposition to reform of Wall Street and banks. Even as Tea Party leaders and activists rail against the bailouts of U.S. automakers, and the minimal assistance offered homeowners with underwater mortgages, Tea Party leaders and those who follow them voice hostility toward any and all measures that would demand increased accountability from purveyors of financial instruments or the credit-card industry, like those contained in the financial reform bill passed by Congress in July (a bill that liberal critics regard as rather toothless).
In her speech to Tea Party supporters at the RightOnline conference, Michele Bachmann described the recently passed financial reform bill as nothing more than a punitive measure against Wall Street, when the real culprit in the nation's financial woes was the Housing and Community Redevelopment Act passed in 1977. Another particular object of scorn by the Tea Party set is the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection created by the bill.
Financial reforms such as those signed into law by President Barack Obama last month are designed to benefit the middle class, where 50 percent of Tea Party supporters locate themselves, according the the New York Times/CBS poll. The reforms are expected to be especially good for small businesses, whose fortunes Tea Partiers often claim to care most about.
Failure of Logic, Rule of Emotion
So, how do they do it, those unscrupulous billionaires? How do they get everyday Americans to embrace an agenda that runs counter to their own interests? Their mouthpieces -- people like Bachmann and Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck -- couch it all in the language of heroic patriotism, with the Tea Partiers cast as patriots at war with people set to defile the founders' dream of America. Do that, and a billionaire will find himself the general of an army of ground troops ready to do battle in his service, despite his unwillingness to share the spoils of his war on everyday Americans.
In her speech to the Tea Party faithful in Nevada, Michele Bachmann neither began nor ended her speech with her plan to rob the Tea Partiers (and the rest of us) of their Social Security. She began with a sustained attack on the nation's first black president (who was portrayed as immature, greedy, incompetent and corrupt). Her plan was explained just before she wrapped up the speech, which she ended with the truly poignant patriotic story of the sinking of an Army transport ship, the Dorchester, in World War II. Bachmann recounted how four Navy chaplains went down with the ship after giving their life jackets to younger soldiers. She made a point of citing the last names of two of them: Washington and Goode.
In Bachmann's telling, the brave chaplains gave up the lifeline that was rightfully theirs in order to save the younger generation. Kind of like giving up your Social Security to save your country for your grandchildren -- except that your sacrifice is more likely to line the pockets of a billionaire than save your grandson from a life of debt, a possibility you just don't consider.