What’s in a name? When it comes to the “Tea Party,” a distortion of history.
As a student of history, and a former longtime resident of Boston, I am very troubled by the so-called “Tea Party” movement’s actions and its current misappropriation of the term.
The original direct action protest on December 16, 1773 by British American colonists was the culmination of longstanding grievances against the British government under the battle cry of “no taxation without representation.” According to the British Constitution, only Parliament could levy taxes, and since colonists were prohibited from voting for members of Parliament or of sending their own representatives to serve in Parliament, they considered the series of taxes, including the tea tax, a violation of their rights as citizens of the British realm.
The current movement contains no well-developed political philosophy other than extreme hatred of what they consider “Big Government,” which they view as the cause of the nation’s troubles.
Speaker of the House, U.S. Representative John Boehner (R-Ohio), referred to Tea Partyers as “great patriots,” and stated:
“It’s not enough, however, for Republicans to simply voice respect for what the Tea Partyers are doing, praise their efforts, and participate in their rallies. Republicans must listen to them, stand with them, and walk among them.”
Unfortunately, that is exactly what Boehner is doing.
The Tea Partyers with their Republican allies have very deftly used the rhetoric of fear verging on paranoia to exploit people’s anxieties about their economic well being and, quite ironically, even to vote against their own economic interests.
In Iowa, for example, the local Tea Party affiliate fronted funds for a billboard poster depicting Obama as the “Democrat Socialist” alongside Hitler as the “National Socialist” and Vladimir Lenin as the “Marxist Socialist” all above the ironic caption “Radical Leaders Prey on the Fearful and Naïve.” This is a recent example of how the political Right distorts and misuses the term “socialist” not only by conflating German Fascism and Soviet Communism (contradictory and oppositional political philosophies), but also by demonizing the notion of collective responsibility and communitarian values.
Tea Party leaders espouse all forms of dire warnings, and Boehner asserted that the Affordable Health Care Law “is Armageddon” and “it will ruin our nation.” To the contrary, the law, while unfortunately severely neutralized over the past few years, actually serves middle class and working class people by limiting insurance companies from restricting coverage to people with previous conditions, it increases the rights of parents to continue covering their adult children on their policies until the age of 26, it provides greater choices in health care coverage, and as projected by the National Budget Office, it will reduce the deficit over the next decade.
I do see, however, a clear parallel between the protestors aboard the ship on Boston harbor and the recent Tea Partyers. Through a collective mythology, many of us were taught in school that the protesters donned Indian clothing and face paint for their tea dumping actions. In actuality, while the majority did not dress as Indians, some did. I find this problematic since they were acting out racist stereotypes of the so-called “thieving heathens.”
While I would hope that the vast majority of current Tea Party Members would not personally condone oppressive actions, a number of followers have engaged in racist, homophobic, ableist, and misogynistic name calling and other acts of violence.
For example, at a rally held in front of the U.S. Capitol shortly before the House was to vote on the impending health care legislation, a protestor spat upon Representative Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), another called Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.) a “ni—-,” and someone called gay Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass.) a “fa–ot” through distinctive lisppy intonations. And supporting the protestors, Representative Steve King (R-Iowa) held up and physically swatted a picture of Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) from atop the Capitol balcony. Protesters carried posters of President Obama represented as an African medicine man replete with feathers and loin cloth and bones pierced through his nostrils.
In 2010, protestors throughout the country hurled bricks through windows of some Democratic representatives and a Democratic Party office, sent death threats and racist faxes, and even delivered a coffin to one congressperson’s office.
At a Tea Party rally held in Columbus Ohio, some protestors heckled a U.S. veteran who sat on the ground holding up a sign “I Support Health Care.” Screamed one Tea Partyer: “If you’re looking for a handout, you’re in the wrong damn town.” Another threw five-dollar bills in his face shouting: “I’ll decide when to give you money!”
In a March 23, 2010 tweet, in reference to the passage of the Congressional health care bill, Sarah Palin commented: “Commonsense Conservatives and Lovers of America, Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!” In addition, on her website, she constructed a page listing vulnerable Democratic Party elected officials projected through the cross hairs of a rifle. While I do not connect the current spate of violent actions to Palin’s words, I wonder how her statements constructively contribute to the debate.
I actually agree with Tea Party follower’s contention that great economic disparities exist and are widening in this country, though not for the reasons they assert. So-called “Big Government” is not the cause of the problem. The relatively unregulated and unfettered Wall Street, banking, and “free market” systems constitute the actual threats.
According to the organization, United for a Fair Economy, by 2004, the top 10% of the population owned 71% of accumulated wealth in the country. Subdivided even further, the top 1% owned 31% of the country’s wealth. The wealthiest 1% own approximately 45% of all stocks and mutual funds. In addition, the very rich pay less in taxes than at any point in recent history. Overall, the concentration of wealth is even more extreme today than during the Great Depression.
I find it unbelievable that one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world failed previously to provide quality health care to an estimated 47 million of its citizens. I also find it unbelievable that a majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives are so beholden to the Tea Party and their followers that they are holding the government hostage to defeat the health care law.
While tea leaves contain multiple anti-oxidants beneficial to the human body, the Tea Party, conversely, pollutes the body politic. Therefore, collectively, we cannot allow the merchants of fear to distort and manipulate the facts and divert our attention away from the genuine problems we currently face.
–Photo: Stephen D. Melkisethian/Flickr