Drinking the tea, ignoring the facts

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Listening to members of the Tea Party movement on KQED’s Forum this morning, I and many callers to the show were struck by the basic inaccuracy of their core beliefs, these revanchist delusions about what’s in the U.S. Constitution and how this country really operates.

There’s a lot of justifiable anxiety out there over the state of the country, and the Tea Party movement has tapped into that with bumper sticker slogans that are just broad enough to capture alienated Americans from across the political spectrum. One recent poll shows that 41 percent of respondents are sympathize with the movement, stronger support than either major political party now enjoys.

But facts should matter, and they just don’t to many teabaggers or their high priestess, Sarah Palin, who is headlining the current national Tea Party convention in Nashville. For example, the two self-described “patriots” on this morning’s show railed against all the unconstitutional actions of the runaway federal government in ways that reveal an astonishing ignorance about the document they claim to prize so highly.

An East Bay woman from Bay Area Patriots, Heather Gaas, complained that the “government takeover” of the health care system is specifically prohibited by the constitution, seemingly unaware that there is no takeover, and even if there was, the federal government is specifically empowered to “regulate commerce” and see to the country’s “general welfare.”

North Bay teabagger Gary Hahn claimed that a free market system with minimal government is enshrined in the Constitution, another false claim. The words “capitalism” or “free market” aren’t in the Constitution, which doesn’t prescribe an economic system for the country and would even allow socialism to exist if we had to votes to approve it.

Luckily, while host Dave Iverson did little to correct the teabaggers’ inaccuracies on the first half of the show, a series of callers did that work on the second half. One caller, who was a self-described Tea Party member and Ron Paul supporter, criticized the hypocrisy of the guests’ for criticizing “big government” while supporting its wars and imperial overreach, sounding the anti-war position that is also an element of this broad and unfocused movement.

And that’s really why we shouldn’t read too much into this movement’s power and its implications (check out this interview for an insightful take on why conservatism no longer contributes anything useful to American politics). The Tea Party is best understood as a primal scream rather than a political movement. I’m a big government progressive, yet I share the teabaggers’ outrage over the Wall Street bailouts and the corruption and unresponsiveness of the two major political parties.

We may even share a few revanchist impulses, concerns that powerful forces have steered this country away from what it once was. But my concern is with Big Corporations that have eroded basic egalitarian principles expressed from the Declaration of Independence (the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” talk about radical!) to the New Deal, not with Big Government (except for its biggest and most wasteful element, the bloated military budget).

But the revanchist fantasies of most tea baggers long for a time that is no longer possible, when there was still a frontier on which rugged individualists could stake their claim, for that “shining city on the hill” that their god, Ronald Reagan, once conjured up in the national mind’s eye. They want to smite their liberal enemies and restore this country to a position of deserved greatness, an attitude that frankly scares the crap out of me, with its echoes of 20th Century fascism.

The realities of today are much more complex than the teabaggers’ simplistic beliefs. They want to deeply cut government spending, despite the damage that would do to the fragile economy. They want us to get tough with the terrorists, unaware that every bomb we drop has the potential to create new enemies. They want more power for the “real Americans,” however racist and divisive that judgment is made.

Yet their primal scream shouldn’t be ignored because it is the manifestation of frustration that cuts across a wide swath of the country that is fed up with politics as usual. But in the teabaggers’ ignorance of the Constitution and the basic social contract on which any country or government is based, we can see just how much work there is to do before we have an educated and engaged citizenry that is even capable of participating in a democracy. So this is still a party worthy of our attention.