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Tea Parties for All

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The New York Review of Books (not to be confused with the New York Times Book Review), has an excellent dissection of the recent conservative protest movement in this week’s issue. In it, Michael Tomasky attempts to answer the questions: Who were those protesters outside Capitol Hill on Sept. 12? Where did they come from? What are their aims? And perhaps most important: Should they be taken seriously?

Tomasky’s superb analysis yields some very dismal conclusions. According to him a new coalition has arisen, reactionary and corporate-funded, which comprises approximately 25% of the population. While opposition to “big government” and “bailouts” forms a strong part of their ethos, the movement’s greatest demonstration – the September 12protest – focused its denigration upon one piece of one issue ( the public option and reform in genral). They are heavily patronized both by rich benefactors and the entire conservative media apparatus, most notoriously, Fox News. With manufactured outrage and serious financial support, they give the distinct impression of populism on issues where very little popular outrage exists.

The article is valuable for its discussion of the underlying philosophy of the protest movement: the Ayn Rand – Objectivist viewpoint that has compelled so many to act against their material benefit. The financiers of these protests and the party theorists behind them seek little more than the removal of the programs many of those overwhelmingly middle-class protesters enjoy. Concepts such as the minimum wage, social security, medicare, unemployment benefits and many like them simply cannot coexist with the de-regulated “small government” the protesters apparently wish for. The wealthy capitalists behind this movement seek a government with their wealth in mind – not that of the middle class.

Tomasky makes the astute observation that the sentiments expressed betray a nostalgia for the Bush administration, and that their adherents likely comprise the 24% of Americans who viewed President Bush favorably as he departed. However he spends little time discussing a major hole in the protest’s ideology. There is a distinct difference between the protester’s stated aims of “smaller government” and their tacit support of our wars abroad. Their paragon, President Bush, expanded government almost beyond recognition, with his “Department of Homeland Security”, his 3 Trillion dollar wars, warrantless  wiretapping, politicization of the Justice Dept, employment of mercenaries, and many, many other actions. That these protesters choose such a minor manifestation of “big government” shows the divestment between their ideology and practice.

The problem, then, is not so much with the size of government, but the ends to which the government works. Government spending in the direct interest of Corporate America – no-bid contracts, costly wars, so-called “privatization”, etc. – comes under no scrutiny. Instead the objection comes mainly to the public manifestations of government spending, to government in the public interest. Hence, there was no specific opposition to a government mandate that all citizens must carry health insurance (a major goal of the health insurance industry), merely opposition to a public option (which would cut into industry profits.)

It is clear to see why our nation’s most wealthy citizens should wish to curb government spending on items they don’t purvey. But their ability to foment a purely artificial movement (Tomasky calls this phenomenon “astroturf” – corporate-funded grassroots) and  manipulate a public, with the major media complicit, into protesting against their tax-paying interest serves as a dismal reminder of the sheer power moneyed interests hold in our country.

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Written by pavanvan

October 3, 2009 at 12:59 am

7 Responses

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  1. […] More here: Tea Parties for All « The Reasoned Review […]

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  4. “The problem, then, is not so much with the size of government, but the ends to which the government works.” – very well said.

    since in relatively free societies, propaganda is needed to keep the population in line, it looks like the “astroturf” that Tomasky mentions is one logical extension of this. do you expect to see more of it in the future? (fake social movements funded from above, which attack the very people they purport to fight for)

    Aditya

    October 3, 2009 at 6:27 am

  5. Aditya –

    It’s difficult to tell what larger significance this “movement” holds, and Tomasky’s essay is somewhat ambivalent over that issue.

    Since the moneyed interests already control the legislative and executive branches to a great degree, I think we can expect demonstrations such as these to crop up whenever Corporate America feels its campaign donations are not being obeyed.

    Once the public plan fails, (as current reports indicate it will) I think we’ll see a dilution of this movement, only to have it come together the next time our “business interests” are threatened.

    The next flash point might be the overhaul of Financial Regulation Obama is proposing. Currently the proposed regulation resembles a toothless tiger; it carries almost no provisions to halt the reckless casino capitalism that caused this crisis and instead just tacks on an extra regulatory body with few new powers.

    So Wall Street is pretty happy about that. But if Obama should change his colors (unlikely), and demand more rigorous reform, or an end to “securitization” and “CDO/CDS” derivative instruments, I think another artificial protest movement against “big government”, funded again by the banks and insurance companies, would be pretty likely.

    pavanvan

    October 3, 2009 at 3:30 pm

  6. I think you’re really misrepresenting this movement with this account of them. While I’ll admit and regret that there are factions that bow before the alter of Rand, and others which use this as a front to promote their “birther”ness or other social issues, this does not make up the majority of these tea parties and town halls. I truly believe that the majority of people taking part in these demonstrations have probably never read Atlas Shrugged and although they may be Republican at heart they are usually moderate Republican and not blow up your local abortion clinic Republican.

    These are middle class, middle aged Americans with extra free time. The average tea party supporter most likely acknowledges that they couldn’t survive in a lassiez-faires environment. What they’re opposing, as I understand it, is unchecked spending and the national deficit, two things which make the average American worry for their wallets and security.

    I also wonder why they’re being admonished for taking money from rightist think tanks. From my experience and the accounts of friends who work at these places (FreedomWorks and Americans for Tax Reform specifically) think tanks often lend moral support at most and the majority of them do not spend their precious donation money to bus these people around. If they did, would it be so wrong though? I’m sure many similar groups funded the peace movements that were prevalent throughout the Dark Ages of the Bush era. Are they to be considered politically corrupt also? Or merely accepting help from those able and willing to allow them to express their political opinions. I think both are innocent.

    These are just some reactions to your post. I’m not a die hard tea partier, but I do agree with their most fundamental ideals of a balanced budget and more responsible spending. I’d advise critics not to emphasize the underlying philosophy of these movements since most of these protesters are more worried about getting their kids to soccer practice than with objectivist arguments and monetary policy.

    Mike M.

    October 10, 2009 at 5:51 pm

  7. You’re definitely right in that trying to generalize the movement is pretty difficult. I read an argument that the September 12th protests collected 5-6 distinct interest groups, all of whom have their own reason to oppose Obama’s agenda (or character).

    However, I definitely think you can be influenced by the ideas of people you haven’t read yourself. Especially since opposition to ‘big government’ has its roots in objectivism and many of the demagogues uniting these protests openly subscribe to her ideology, I think many of these protesters, assuming they have heard of Ayn Rand, would view her favorably.

    I really wish these protests were actually against the deficit, which is totally out of control, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on. Our wars and defense spending add orders of magnitude more to our deficit than the proposed health care legislation. Likewise with the bailout, which, if our government keeps its promises, could run into the tens of trillions of dollars (all together, it’s just about hit three).

    But instead, we’re hearing a lot of fluff over something which, relative to the deficit, is a somewhat minor issue. Most of the signs I saw in the pictures were of anti-healthcare or anti-obama slogans. Others disliked the concept of a “czar” or, in the most general terms, “bailouts” or the deficit. But the largest symptoms, our $117 Billion per month in Iraq and Afghanistan or our $800 Billion Executive compensation package, failed to arouse. I would argue that the source of this protest’s funds (Boeing and Lockheed also advertise with Fox) implicitly directs their outrage.

    I think it’s right to admonish so-called populist movements for taking money from right-wing think tanks. Many of these (notoriously, the RAND corporation and Cato), derive much of their funding from large corporations, and are paid, in essence, to draft favorable policy and legislation. One of the major instigators of this so-called popular movement, Glenn Beck of Fox News, draws major revenue from major insurance and pharmaceutical corporations.

    So while I agree that these are generally middle-class (overwhelmingly white) Americans who are upset for a variety of reasons, I think their outrage is being concentrated and diffused by interests who do not wish for a change in the status quo.

    pavanvan

    October 11, 2009 at 6:00 pm


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