Friday, February 26, 2010

The Tea Party Seeks Definition

(News-Herald, February 25) The President of the United States has announced that political factions are threatening the government’s ability to function. A group of dissatisfied citizens decides that the federal government has over-reached its authority and it’s time for citizens to stand up and take radical action.
The time is the 1790s, the President is George Washington, and the radical citizens of Western Pennsylvania are the heart of the Whiskey Rebellion. That rebellion involved actual shooting and killing, and in the end Washington became the only President in history to lead an army against US citizens.
For people who look at DC and the Tea Party movement and declare that Things Have Never Been This Bad, my point is this: from the very beginning of US history, it has almost always been this bad.
The Tea Party movement has interesting days ahead. As fractious a herd of cats as ever took the political stage, the Partiers have suffered a parade of wannabe leaders, some with a sincere desire to help and some desiring to harness power for their own purposes.
The Tea Party movement is a patchwork of dissatisfied Americans, many with widely divergent goals and beliefs. Often this adds up to a somewhat garbled message (the government does too much, except during the banking mess, when it didn’t do enough).
In particular, the movement offers another uneasy alliance of social and political conservatives. This match is less solid than a three-shotgun wedding.
If I’m a political conservative, I believe government should do as close to nothing as possible, including not telling my neighbors what they can or cannot eat, drink, smoke, sleep with, or worship.
Social conservatives fail to grasp one simple truth—a country with true small government is a country where bunches of people will be freely doing things that you don’t approve of. (Of course, some nastier folks believe that this will include freely beating on evil-doers until they behave and/or go away.)
It is easy to find ways to dismiss the Tea Party. It has cast a big net and drawn in among its supporters a variety of wingnuts, from defiantly anti-fact birthers to that guy protesting government-run health care while sitting in the wheelchair that government-run health care bought him.
Many partiers are hamstrung by a basic principle of factional politics: everybody On My Side is always right and everybody On The Other Side is always wrong. You have to agree with the dopes on your side. This is how you end up taking the position that the guys who flew planes into the twin towers are America’s enemies and the guy who flew a plane into the IRS building is an American hero.
Anyone who wants to dismiss the movement can cherry pick sound bites from Tea Partiers who are, in a word, idiots. This is also not new. I don’t care if your organization teaches blind orphans to sing the Hallelujah Chorus while rescuing drowning puppies—I can still find someone in the group who will make you look stupid.
But it’s a mistake to dismiss the entire Party. Many many many Americans are fed up with the federal bozos, and if some folks are about a decade late noticing that DC has its fat clumsy paws in too many pies, their lateness doesn’t make them wrong. There are plenty of reasonable people who would have voted for Barry Goldwater and now can’t see any good choices.
Locally, the Tea Party emerged last year with the AFA, infamous local social conservatives, apparently driving the bus. That wave waned by Thanksgiving, but the Venangoland Partiers have recently re-emerged as Tea Party Patriots. The “Patriots” signals sympathy with the Patriot movement, political conservatives who go back to the John Birch Society and include a few militia types, but who are also tied to the Contract from America, a political item attached to Newt Gingrich.
The Venango group appears to be loosely headed by Kent, a FHS grad I know of a Certain Age who is articulate, intelligent and reasonable in ways that some lefties don’t expect from conservatives (and some rightwingers don’t expect from liberals).
It remains to be seen what the switch from social to political conservative party labels may mean. I’m betting the Party is not done defining itself, splintering into various wings, and shedding the loons and opportunists. It may be more interesting than fun, but at least there’s historical symmetry in having a chapter here in the cradle of America’s first citizen revolt.

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