They’re tea(d) off
Tea Partiers say they want to take back their country. From whom?
They gathered two weeks ago, on tax day, April 15, and stood shoulder to shoulder in the downtown Chico City Plaza, where they listened to speakers and politicians praise their beliefs and efforts, as they put it, to “take back this country.” The Tea Party has landed.
Who are these people, and what do they want, exactly? The Boston Tea Party, from which they take their name, was a protest against taxation without representation. What are the modern-day Tea Party people protesting?
We asked Bill Cross about that. He was at the tax day demonstration wearing a three-cornered Minuteman hat and holding an American flag, having driven in from Oroville on this sunny day.
“I’m here to support the group that supports limited government, low taxes and less regulation,” Cross said. “That’s what brings me here. I really don’t belong, but I do support them.”
“The debt. We are greatly in debt, and we have no way of digging out unless we do something really fast. In fact, even if we do our best we are still in trouble.”
Cross says the citizenry doesn’t want costly government programs.
“I really don’t think society expects the government services that they are being offered. I think it’s just politicians trying to get elected, and that if you ask the people if they could get by without it, they would say, ‘Gladly, if you’ll cut my taxes.’ ”
Across the plaza, Owen Stiles stood with a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag. He, too, wore a three-cornered hat.
What does the Tea Party mean? What’s the idea here?
“Just like what it meant back in the Boston Tea Party,” Stiles said. “They didn’t like the way King George was running his country; they don’t like the way King Obama is running our country now.”
What does that mean?
“It is everything,” Stiles said. “It is the government takeover. Instead of having federalism, we now have what some people call it: statism. I call it democratic socialism. The government controls everything, including capitalism and private enterprise. That isn’t what our founding fathers bled for.”
What is the purpose of this gathering on tax day?
“We need to continue to keep the fires burning,” Stiles said. “Once that fire goes out in your belly, they’ve got control of you. We’ve got to continue to keep up the good fight. And the good fight doesn’t mean racism, hatred, anything like that. The good fight is we take the Constitution back.”
How do you accomplish this?
“At the voting booth, if necessary. But to get people to the voting booth, people have to show up like we are doing today and let people know that there is an America that needs defending.”
Michael Perelman has a Ph.D. in economics, which he teaches at Chico State. He’s written 19 books, including Manufacturing Discontent: The Trap of Individualism in a Corporate Society and Railroading Economics: The Creation of the Free Market Mythology.
Tea Party fears that the country is headed to European-style socialism are pretty much unfounded, he said.
“This fear of a socialist trajectory might have had some slight basis in reality, but certainly not in the contemporary United States,” Perelman said in a recent e-mail interview.
“Every Republican president since Eisenhower has been more conservative than the last, with the single exception of George H.W. Bush. Every Democratic president since Roosevelt has been more conservative than the last. In fact, many of Obama’s policies are virtually indistinguishable from those of [George W.] Bush, just as Clinton never made a sharp break with the policies of Ronald Reagan.”
Perelman says the idea of an economy built only on a free-market system is folly.
“No successful economy has ever been built solely on free-market capitalism,” he said. “Alexander Hamilton, the first economic administrator of the nation, emphasized the importance of the tariff to stimulate the domestic economy. He also used subsidies to promote new industries. The railroads, which were so important in tying the economy together and making possible mass production, were not the product of free enterprise, but rather massive government subsidies.”
Indeed. One of the speakers at the tax day gathering was Doug LaMalfa, former state assemblyman now running for state Senate. The LaMalfa family owns a rice farm in Richvale and over the years has received millions of dollars in federal government subsidies to support the farm. On tax day, LaMalfa limited his government criticisms to the state rather than the federal government.
The tax day demonstration in Chico also attracted a silver-haired woman from Oroville named Carlene. She said what beckoned her was simple: “Oh, the Tea Party!” she fairly yelled. “I’m a patriot. I believe in the Constitution.”
What does it mean to take back America?
“That means go back to our founding fathers, to our Constitution; stop becoming a socialist nation,” she explained. “I’m worried about my children and my grandchildren, what this country is going to be for them. It is a lot of things like Obamacare, cap-and-trade, taxes and everything.”
How does this effort bring about change?
“We’re gonna get out and vote,” Carlene said. “We’re gonna vote Obama out next time. We’re gonna vote for conservative people. They don’t have to be Republican or Democrat or independent, but they are going to be conservative.”
The Oroville Tea Party Web site explains it this way: “concerned citizens fron (sic) any party that are not liking the direction which this president is taking this country.”
A middle-aged couple, Suzy and Johnny, had driven down from Concow.
“We want our country back from the socialism it is becoming,” Suzy said. “I’m tired of being taxed so highly.”
Johnny was a bit more detailed in explaining why he had come.
“Basically to see what the Tea Party is all about,” he said. “I’ve heard about it on the radio stations and so forth. I am totally disenchanted with the Obama regime and the elitist government that we have.
“Our republic has turned into an oligarchy,” Johnny explained. “It’s just run by the elite. I think we need to change that and take our country back.”
Johnny continued: “The difference between a democracy and a republic is something a lot of people don’t understand. Democracy is governed by all the people, and a republic is governed by law. What that means essentially is that if a bunch of people get together and form a democracy, which we have now, and they decide to take your home or take your children to another school, well, they can do that, that’s democracy.
“But a republic says we rule by law, and those laws aren’t necessarily good, and the people don’t vote on them, so then in a republic that wouldn’t happen, see, because the people would have a chance to make the laws that govern themselves, so that’s why I’d like to see us get back to a constitutional form of government where our leaders actually uphold the oath of office that they swear to take and uphold our Constitution.”
Mike Wacker lives in a comfortable ranch-style house in south Chico with his wife, Jan. The yard is well landscaped and borders Comanche Creek. A graduate of UC Berkeley, Wacker drives a Toyota Prius. He owns Mike Wacker Realty. And he is a Libertarian. He came to Chico 35 years ago from Yreka, which he notes, is in the State of Jefferson.
He, too, attended the Tea Party gathering on tax day, and held aloft a sign that said “Give me Liberty, Not Debt.” Wacker sat down last week in his living room and talked about the local Tea Party movement, of which he’s been a part from its beginnings.
“I am basically a Libertarian at heart,” explained Wacker. “As an example, my son, who is now 35 years old, I named him Rand, after Ayn Rand.”
Rand is the Russian-American author known for her unflagging support of property rights, laissez-faire capitalism and constitutionally limited government.
“I’ve been involved in small-‘l’ libertarian stuff for a long time,” Wacker said. “When the United We Stand stuff was happening, we had 3,500 people just in the Chico area involved in that.”
United We Stand America was a grassroots group formed by Ross Perot supporters during the 1992 presidential election. It lasted through the 1994 mid-term elections and has been compared with the current movement.
Wacker describes the Tea Party movement as a combination of libertarian and constitutional philosphies.
“We are disparagingly called the goo-goo guys—you know, the good-government people,” he said.
The goo-goos moniker comes from the 1890s, when the original Libertarians began fighting the urban political machines. Then, in the latter part of the 20th century, Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko revived the saying when writing about that city’s political machine, a system some have connected to President Obama.
Wacker says the local Tea Party chapter has three principles: fiscal responsibility, limited constitutional government and free markets. For the most part, he says, the movement stays away from social issues like gay marriage, abortion and legalization of drugs.
However, most in the party, he said, are strongly against illegal immigration. And, he said, there is no consensus within the group on the country’s war efforts.
“[James] Madison said it well when he said, ‘If we were all angels we wouldn’t need government.’ But we’re not. There are bad guys around. The basic underlying thing I think the Constitution wants is to protect our life, our liberty and our property. And protect us from fraud and those who would take things by force.
“The only other thing is to have the government do for us what the free market can’t do for us.”
He suggested the U.S. Postal Service could be replaced by private operations.
The Tea Party’s members, Wacker said, come from a diverse background. “I’m amazed at the characterizations; you know, that the people in it make $200,000 a year or more. There were a lot of young people at the tax day gathering. And they didn’t look like a lot of wealthy people.”
Perelman said the emergence of the Tea Party phenomenon results from a combination of factors.
“The Tea Party movement combines ignorance, anger, and justifiable indignation. For what may well be a small minority, this ignorance reflects a degree of racism and ethnic hostility.
“The anger has been nurtured by the demise of journalism, along with a cynically crafted rhetoric of hate. The Tea Party, crafted by Republican interests, cleverly managed to whip the resulting anger into an Astroturf movement. At the same time, the Tea Party anger made sense, although it was misdirected. Damn right people should be angry—but not at the poor immigrants or racial and ethnic minorities, who are made out to be causing all the trouble.”
It wasn’t immigrants and ethnic minorities, after all, who caused the financial meltdown of 2008-09. That was the product of a casino culture on Wall Street combined with inadequate and ineffective oversight on the part of the federal government. And they didn’t cause the deficit, either: It’s largely the product of the Bush administration’s massive tax cuts combined with unfunded wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have consequently been paid for with borrowed money, as well as the Obama adminstration’s stimulus funding designed to forestall a full-blown economic depression.
At the tax day event, two men were standing on the sidewalk next to Main Street holding signs for the passing motorists to ponder: One sign said simply “Birth Certificate,” the other, “Obama—Chains you can Believe in.”
Accompanied by a dog in a red sweater, the men said they had come down from Butte Meadows but didn’t want to give their names.
“I don’t really want to identify myself,” said the man with the birth-certificate sign. “I work, I have a job, and I don’t want people to twist what I say.”
What had brought him down the hill?
“I’m here because I think the government overtaxes us, for one, and the responsible person for that is the president. So I feel that by coming down here and expressing my opinion, however small that might be, I’m making an impression on the people that are driving by. That’s why I’m down here; I feel like I’m overtaxed.”
As for the birth-certificate reference, the man said he does not think Obama is a citizen of the United States. “Therefore he is not qualified to be president of the United States based on what the Constitution says,” the man explained. “If he is a citizen of our country, prove it, show me a birth certificate. He hasn’t done that yet.”
The other man said he was there because a lot of voices aren’t being heard.
“The people like you see here are just average, kind of normal people,” he said. “It’s a good thing for people to come out and say, ‘We have a point of view and we should be heard in Washington as well.’”
And so it went, frustrated people trying to explain why they were frustrated, echoing each other or what they’ve heard on talk radio or seen on Fox News. None was aware that President Obama has lowered taxes for all but the richest Americans, and that one-third of his stimulus package—more than $250 billion—took the form of tax cuts.
A CBS/New York Times poll published just before tax day showed that 18 percent of Americans who identified themselves as Tea Party supporters were above average in income and education. Most are male, white and conservative. And more than 60 percent support Social Security and Medicare, both government-run programs. A majority send their children to public schools and say what they paid in taxes this year was “fair.”
The Chico Tea Party members meet every other Tuesday at Scrambles Grill in north Chico. Wacker says he isn’t sure of the total number of members, as there is no roster or sign-up involved.
“The last couple of meetings you couldn’t hardly get in the door it was so crowded,” he said. “We started meeting at Outback Steakhouse, but it got too crowded, and so they moved the meetings to Scrambles. I don’t know where they will go next.”
Wacker said he thinks the Tea Party movement is here to stay.
“The current political parties are so corrupt,” he said. “Most of the politicians are all about the party. It is, ‘My tribe is going to beat your tribe.’ I think [the Tea Party] really is going to endure, because people I’ve never seen before are out there, and they really get it. They talk to you at those rallies, they really do know what’s going on; they are getting informed. It seems like before they didn’t have the time, but now they realize they are going to have to take the time to change things.
“I think it’s really important to support people who want to improve our government. How in the world, if you took the oath of office, can you force someone to buy health insurance? That and the cap-and-trade thing, in addition to the taxes and the Wall Street bailouts. This is what has brought the people out.”
As for President Obama, Wacker has some worries.
“He says a lot of great stuff, but it’s like he’s trying to take over a hell of a lot of stuff in this country. He is certainly taking over the health-care system. [The government] owns the two biggest auto companies, they’ve taken over student loans, they’ve taken over most of the mortgage markets.
“He does a lot of things that make it seem like he wants to have a socialist country. But more than that, it’s fascist.”