My First-Hand Experience with the TEA Party

My First-Hand Experience with the TEA Party (with comments)

            I’ve been grading some of my student papers.  I teach community college:  my students don’t generally have the leisure of a full-time retreat from the world of work and wages.  And they don’t take the leisure of just working and ignoring all that hard thinking stuff, either.  They are generally working hard at low-paying jobs, and then working hard in my classes as well.  They are learning to think critically, to examine their own beliefs and those of others, to apply abstract principles and philosophical theories to real-world life experiences and to the social/political debates that rile the news cycle.  They are health workers, they are soldiers, they are law enforcement, they are victims of violence and domestic battery, they are every sort of person.

One thing that struck me this semester is how diverse they are politically.  This is nothing new; but this year, while the political debates have been so cutthroat and virulent, it was the politically conservative papers that struck me.  My students simply do not vote their “class interests.”  They are poor to middle class and swimming for shore with all their might as the economic tides recede.  If anyone should be out occupying Wall Street, it is them.  Instead, I read time and again how they live, working sometimes two jobs while attending classes just to stay off welfare while taking care of their children.  Others may be accepting food stamps or other aid, but still they are working as hard as they can to get to the day when they can support themselves and those who depend on them.  But if they express any frustration, it isn’t for the hedge fund managers and investment bankers who make billions of dollars while millions of little people lose their jobs and their savings.  The only impatience they express is for those who are lazy, and particularly the lazy people who live in government housing that is better than what they can rent on their own, who buy food with food stamps so they can afford cigarettes and beer, and who seem to have the time to just hang around on their taxpayer-subsidized front porch.

Marx would say my students have been co-opted:  they have bought the lie that if they just work hard, they too can be rich, so they accept the system instead of seeking to change it.  In other words, the Left would say my students are selfish but deluded; they act against their own selfish interests unintentionally, while meaning to be just as selfish as any corporate raider, inside trader or war profiteer.  I wonder, though, how many of the people who would say that have read student papers like the ones I read?  I wonder how many of them actually know any real working stiffs?

I think this is why so many have so much trouble understanding the TEA Party movement.  The assumption is that people will act in their own interests, as best they can understand them; so they must simply be deceived by corporate masters and billionaire-funded propaganda.  Once they are informed of the facts and see that the rich are getting richer, that this “grass-roots” movement is funded by the rich, and so on, they will all throw off their Uncle Sam costumes and go join the protestors in Zuccotti Park.  But instead, the many people who call themselves “tea party” seem strangely immune to “facts” and appeals to self-interest.

Could it be, perhaps, that the so-called deluded, co-opted masses are not immune to facts, but are instead deaf to arguments based on selfishness?  I have three friends in particular who identify themselves with the TEA party in one way or another.  Now, I have seen the video footage and news reports, and I have read the e-mails people have sent me touting the TEA line.  I have seen plenty to reinforce the stereotype of TEA partiers as paranoids, ignoramuses, xenophobes, and so on.  But I have to say, my first-hand experience has not backed that up, generally.  None of them are stupid people; I know what jobs they hold and I’ve seen them engaged in mental activities.  They are not greedy weasels who would cheer the death of some poor schmuck if it saved them a few dollars; they are generous, at times to a fault.

They are patriotic and conservative Christians, which I don’t think comes as any great surprise.  But they are not “co-opted” or otherwise stupid.  If there is any one quality they share, and which explains their immunity to appeals to class interest, it is this:  they are all hard workers.  They do not work just because they have to; they go beyond the minimum required.  They want to work, they want to work well, they want to overcome and achieve and accomplish and fulfill whatever is there for them to overcome and fulfill.  They want to feel that they are contributing to their world and they are supporting themselves.  When they hear the typical argument “Let’s tax the rich, redistribute the wealth and close the wealth gap,” they are first of all offended that anyone thinks they would succumb to this bribery.  Next, they assume that anyone who would try to appeal to their laziness and selfishness in this way must be lazy and selfish.  By contrast, when they hear about “job creators” and “it’s unjust to rob those who worked hard to earn great wealth,” this has great appeal.  They are being asked to give up easy advantages they have not earned, and to sacrifice for the sake of justice.  It is precisely the call to take on the extra burden in a just cause that appeals to them.

As long the TEA party hears that they are dupes, that they are astro-turf instead of grassroots, or that they are racists or selfish, they simply become defensive.  And why not?  The TEA partiers I know are not racists or selfish, and they are sincere in their allegiance to their cause.  If the TEA party will call them to sacrifice and strive for the good of their nation and to earn whatever rewards they can honestly, they will answer that call.  And if they believe the Left wants them to take from others what they themselves have not earned, they will reject that easy way with scorn.  They want work worthy of themselves.  Some know the past, and perhaps Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War; some may know the future as depicted in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers; some may know the eternal truths as described in Plato’s Republic.  These all agree on one basic principle:  democracy is destroyed if the people believe they can simply vote for whatever they want, and get it without sweat or blood or tears.  The conservatives that I know believe that they have earned what they have, or perhaps more accurately, that they have worked for what they have.  They want to work; they want to be challenged.  They believe that this is how they preserve society.  And this is how they know they are alive, how they feel the life that was given them as a gift, but which they renew by their efforts.

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2 Responses to “My First-Hand Experience with the TEA Party”

  1. Heather K Says:

    That’s a very good article, and I’m not just saying that as your daughter, but as a “relatively poor” person in this society trying to understand why there is such a movement in American society to disenfranchise their own selves! I do think, though, that there has been a great deal of propaganda on the part of the Right, which has subverted the honest and respectable desires of the Tea Partiers you discuss. No doubt that the different sides are speaking completely different languages. From someone of my point of view and background, it’s just obvious that higher taxes on the super rich (which from a global standpoint, is all of the US!) in order to do more good in a wider area just seems to make sense. Those arguments are so rarely made with purely neutral terms, and if they were, everyone would, of course, agree I think.

    It’s all very frustrating, and I don’t feel like I’m being overdramatic or unrealistic when I say that I really worry about and almost fear what would happen if the Tea Party were put in charge of the United States.

    • philosophicalscraps Says:

      I think there is a real disconnect between many of the would-be leaders, who appeal to selfish motives. Many people do respond best to pandering, but many others want to be challenged. One reason the Tea Party movement has been successful is that it does both. On the one hand, it panders by blaming “immigrants” who “steal jobs Americans should have,” or the free-loading poor, or otherwise stigmatizes “others.” When we are blaming others for what is going wrong, we aren’t taking responsibility; and too often, the others are at most partly responsible. For example, in Alabama they passed tough new immigration laws to get rid of “illegals” who were supposedly sapping public resources. Now there’s no one to pick the crops; Americans won’t do the job for what’s being paid and can’t do it as well as people used to the work. It actually does take skill to pick produce quickly and well, and the so-called freeloading illegals were actually hard-working skilled laborers. Scapegoating outsiders for the economic troubles facing Alabama has only increased those troubles.

      But the Tea Party also appeals to the desire of people to be part of a bigger project. People are told they have to work, they have to help “take America back.” Presumably, the idea is that America has been conquered and now true Americans have to enter into a military spirit, if not actual armed resistance, to save their country. That message reaches many people who feel there is something wrong in the world and want to make the world a better place. From that perspective, what they hear from the other side sounds like “Join us occupiers and we will reward you.” I don’t think the opposition to the Tea Party has properly recognized that part of its appeal is precisely the extent to which it doesn’t pander. When it calls people to a higher struggle, asks them to put their shoulders to the wheel, and lets them think their efforts are meaningful and will help the wider nation and not just themselves, people respond to that.

      Occupy Wall Street seems to be catching on because it is offering a negative message, in the sense that it negates that Tea Party narrative. OWS says the conservative agenda is not, in fact, helping America, that hard work is not rewarded, that criminality and laziness are rewarded with golden parachutes and massive bonuses, and that something new needs to be done. But it has no positive message—again, not in terms of pessimist or optimist, but in terms of concrete suggestions. No one has put forward a solid, practical plan to actually fix what is broken; or perhaps more accurately, no plan has caught the people’s attention. None of the Republican plans being put forward will work, according to every independent and informed analysis; in fact, all the proposals from the Right to fix the deficit will just make it worse. No one seems to be listening to the Democrats at all, and the solutions they have put forward have been largely rejected by the protesters as simply more of what’s been done. And what’s been done, for more than ten years, has been to support, subsidize, coddle, trust, serve and defend the interests of the super-rich criminals, allowing them into the White House to write the very regulations that were supposed to insure that the rest of us were not robbed and hoodwinked.

      A movement that could offer something genuinely new, a positive plan to negate the errors of the past and replace them with pragmatic solutions—–that could really catch on. My point here was, though, not to bash the Tea Party—-I do enough of that, true, My point is to respect the nobility I see in the people I know who are sincerely conservative, not out of any naked self-interest or paranoid delusion but rather out of a deep desire to be part of something bigger. You know, that was a major part of Obama’s early appeal too: a desire by people, other people, to be part of something bigger, to be the change we’ve been waiting for. That “change” did in fact terrify many who came to call themselves “TEA.” But the spirit is the same. And the fall-off of enthusiasm for the Tea Party may reflect the same disillusionment as befell many progressives. While both were following different banners, they were all waiting for a clarion call to make things better. Instead, the progressives got compromise and negotiation and stonewalling from those they were told they had to somehow reach consensus with; and the conservatives got impasse and shouting and above all a lack of results. TTFN

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