The Tea Parties: We’ve Seen It All Before
by Ryan McMaken by Ryan McMaken
As I wandered through the crowd at the Denver Tea Party protest last week, I was struck by just how paper-thin is the movement’s opposition to government power.
The Tea Party movement is clearly a "Conservative" movement in its membership and core philosophy, and therefore it is not surprising that many of the very same people who now loudly claim to oppose government spending and taxation, were the very same people who, for the last eight years, had been cheerleaders for one of the most profligate administrations in American history.
And yet, here they were at the Tea Party, pretending to be principled opponents of government power.
Indeed, the existence of the Tea Party events only raises the question of why such events hadn’t ever been organized at some point during the Bush years. After all, for the last eight years, the government has spent record sums of money and all the time, the national debt barreled toward 10 trillion dollars.
Unfortunately for this column, I was too polite to ask any of the protestors questions like "How exactly is it that you just suddenly realized that tax rates are high and that government spending is out of control?"
Or perhaps: "I like your little sign that says u2018Stop the Spending!’ How ’bout we save hundreds of billions immediately by bringing all the troops home?"
For a Conservative, of course, the answer to that last question is always "no." Spending taxpayer money is always fine as long as it’s spent on killing foreigners.
The real reason that Conservatives have suddenly discovered a distrust of government, of course, is that they’re out of power. It’s not as if the deficit wasn’t outrageously large last year, and it’s not as if the Bush administration wasn’t out-spending even the LBJ administration on all its pork projects, endless wars, and prescription drug programs for eight long years.
The GOP, the Party extolled by Conservatives every two years as mankind’s last great hope for civilization, racked up deficits and spent sums of money far greater than that ever suggested by Clinton or Carter, and yet now, all of a sudden, Conservatives turn out and would have us believe that they’re opposed to big government.
For those of us who remember the Clinton years, the faux libertarianism proffered by the Conservative movement these days is a depressing re-enactment of the anti-government populism that was common during the nineties.
Back then, prominent Conservatives actually used phrases like "jack-booted thugs" to describe federal agents, and Clinton’s wars were commonly condemned by Conservatives as unconstitutional, illegal and immoral. The militia movement was increasingly popular, and the Clinton administration’s anti-terrorism act of 1996 was criticized by Conservatives for the broad police powers it afforded to federal agents.
Clinton’s "humanitarian" wars in Haiti and Serbia were condemned as adventurism, and Clinton’s budgets, fantastically restrained by today’s standards, were condemned as being much too large and irresponsible.
During the nineties, portraying the government as a malevolent force became a national pastime. Shows like The X-Files were popular and movies like Enemy of the State made millions at the box office. Conservative publications and writers noted with approval such skeptical visions of government power, and the Waco massacre and Ruby Ridge became symbols of victimization at the hands of government agents.
Yet, after the Republicans took control of the White House, Conservatives dutifully performed an about-face on all of these issues.
After 9/11, any war, anywhere on earth, was acceptable to the Conservatives. Even "humanitarian" wars became acceptable after it became apparent that the Al-Qaeda connection and the Weapons of Mass Destruction wouldn’t hold up as rationales for the Iraq invasion. Saddam was removed as a great humanitarian act, and that was enough for the Conservatives.
The massive expansion of police powers for federal agents increased at a gallop under Bush, but the conservatives who had condemned Waco and Clinton’s anti-terrorism power-grabs defended far more drastic expansions of government police power under Bush.
And then there was the runaway government spending under Bush. The crushing cost of the Iraq and Afghan wars were ignored by Conservatives as they all rushed to find another endless military conflict to replace their precious Cold War.
The massive burden of Bush’s prescription drug benefit, and even Bush’s 800 billion dollar bailout were not enough to precipitate anything like the Tea Parties of the Obama era.
And Obama is indeed the reason that Conservatives have suddenly realized that they’re supposed to be opposed to big government.
Lacking any type of consistent intellectual framework, the Conservative movement instead fixates on personalities rather than policies.
The Tea Parties are really anti-Obama protests masquerading as protests against the size and scope of government. As the last eight years have made crystal clear, calls for cuts in taxes and government are just a Conservative ploy, and what really drives Conservatives are issues like nationalism, immigration, abortion, and sticking it to the undeserving poor.
Given the Conservative movement’s performance during the last eight years, the Conservatives can’t possibly be opposed to Obama’s taxing and spending policies on principle. No, Conservatives start from a personal and emotional disdain for Obama, and then search for policies to oppose. If John McCain were president, and the government were bailing out its friends at the same rate that it is now (which it almost certainly would be), would the Conservatives be protesting with nearly as much vigor? Only the most nave among us could claim such a thing with a straight face.
No, Conservatives oppose Obama because they despise him on a cultural level. Obama represents the culture of the urban coastal leftists who promote social policies the Conservatives loathe, and since he’s a Democrat and not their man, they’ve taken to the streets. On matters of war and fiscal policy, Bush and Obama differ only to the slightest degree, but culturally, the two are worlds apart.
Egged on by Conservative talk show hosts, the Conservatives, who believe that the country is being taken over by Muslims and illegal aliens, have done what they’ve always done. They’ve made the centerpiece of their campaign the ever-popular and libertarian issue of tax-cuts and small government.
Conservatives have been doing this since the fifties. In order to enhance the popularity of their cause, they pretend to be the ideology of low-taxes and decreased spending, espousing the many benefits of austere government.
Then, as soon as they are in power, they quickly forget all about the ideals of small government and focus on what really matters to them: nationalism, war, and doling out the spoils of political victory to their friends.
So yes, the Tea Party protestors are right that Obama is spending recklessly, and they’re right that deficits are out of control, and they’re right that taxes are outrageously high.
But their inconsistency on these issues is embarrassingly obvious. And for those of us who can remember the last time the Conservatives pretended to oppose big government, we’ll just unhappily wait for the next time a Republican is in office and all the Conservatives suddenly realize that big government is fine as long as their guy is in charge.
Ryan McMaken [send him mail] teaches political science in Colorado.