So did you take part in one of those teabag protests last week? They were held, in case you missed them, on April 15, and their purpose was to express outrage. Just what the outrage was aimed at depended on whom you spoke to.
The basic idea seemed to be to object to taxes, which gave validity to the metaphor of tea bags and the implicit allusion to the Boston Tea Party. But, of course, history isn’t exactly on point even in that reference, since the rallying cry in the 1773 rebellion against the tea tax was “no taxation without representation.” That cry certainly doesn’t work in a country where taxes are enacted by legislatures that are elected by the people who then pay them.
In other words, whether taxes are too high (as 46 percent believe according to a recent poll), just right (as 48 percent said) or just not high enough (a remarkable three percent), they are representative of the will of the people.
But the disconnect between the protests and reality doesn’t end with the difference between a monarchy seeking to control a distant colony and a fully-functioning republic based on a system of constitutional democracy.
The tea bag protests also failed to recognize another, even starker reality, which is that taxes have been lower for the last eight years than they had been for years before. In fact, since the Reagan presidency ushered in the anti-tax mania that swept through the land in the 1980s, federal taxes have been in decline.
What then were the protesters protesting last week? According to Dick Armey, the former majority leader of the House of Representatives, they were protesting the “likelihood” of higher taxes under President Obama. Since retiring from formal politics in 2003, Armey has been the principal spokesperson for an organization called “FreedomWorks,” whose credo is “lower taxes, less government, and more freedom.”
It’s an interesting slogan, suggesting that the three are inexorably linked. On closer inspection, however, as with most ideological statements, it raises more questions than it answers. Lower taxes, for example, might mean less freedom, if the loss of tax revenues resulted in fewer services and decreased health and safety. Likewise, less government could mean less military might, which could well put the most basic of freedoms, the freedom to remain an independent nation, at risk.
Of course, what Armey postulates is that higher taxes increase the spread of government and that the spread of government decreases individual freedom.
But that axiom is also highly suspect as the increased warrantless searches of the enhanced Patriot Act have clearly established. Only last week, leading media sources reported that electronic surveillance by federal intelligence agencies had violated the privacy of millions of completely innocent Americans. Freedom, it seems, is not so much a function of the size of government as it is of the attitude of a government towards the governed.
But to return to the thousands who protested last week, just what were they protesting? Again, it all depended on whom you asked. Fox News, which covered/sponsored the events as if they were the start of a revolution, proclaimed that the tea bag parties were historic. “Bring your kids and experience history,” the network’s Glenn Beck urged. He went on to warn that America’s children were being “sold into slavery.”
The equivalent fictional cry might be the one intoned by the crazed news anchor in Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning 1976 film, “Network.” In that classic, Peter Finch exhorted his viewers to shout to the world, “I’m mad as Hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” When he gets somewhat specific, Beck sounds much like the Howard Beale character Finch portrayed, claiming that “Washington, the media, Democrats, Republicans, politicians,” in other words, the usual suspects, are all to blame for the disaster that is coming.
And just what is that disaster? Once more, it depends whom you ask. According to another talking head, Cody Willard of Fox Business Channel, today’s politicians are “fascists.” To support his claim, Mr. Willard asserts that both conservatives and liberals are taking money from hard working Americans to “build up corporate America.”
One way to look at all the media hysteria would be to compare it to the yellow journalism of the late nineteenth century in America. The ability of the mass media, especially the cable news networks, to create news may never have been greater, and the turnout last week (estimated at 300,000 nationwide in some 800 separate events) might well be testament to that power.
But America also has a long-standing tradition (if that’s the right word) for no-nothing political views. The political party of that name in the 1850s opposed immigration and had little basis for the opposition it espoused other than an apparent animus towards the Irish immigrants who were then the majority of those seeking a new home in the United States.
Today’s no-nothings probably owe more allegiance to the campaigns of Ross Perot in the 1990s. Perot led a movement that opposed government corruption, government incompetence and government authority. It was comprised of folks who may not have understood much about the Constitution but knew what they didn’t like.
Much the same might be said of many of the protesters last week. Some undoubtedly fear the risk of runaway inflation in the Obama deficit budgets. And some may firmly believe, as Armey surely does, that the increased spending Obama seeks will inevitably lead to higher taxes. Others, though, just hate the idea that they pay taxes for anything other than the things they want for themselves.
These are the no-nothings in the crowd. They are epitomized by the protesters at Sacramento’s Capitol Park last week. There, on tea-bag day, the California Museum had set up a table in the middle of the throng of several thousand protesters. The museum’s employees were handing out copies of the state constitution.
Invariably, protesters were impressed with the educational value of the pamphlets. “How much do these cost?” they would ask. “Nothing,” was the answer. “They are free, paid for with your tax dollars.”