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The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party Is Not Being Held at Alice’s Restaurant

February 10, 2010

The Tea Party Movement – or at least a significant part of it – gathered in Nashville late last week for its first convention. Like an earlier assembly on the National Mall shortly after President Obama’s inauguration it attracted a large, angry, mostly white crowd. The Republican right’s effort to win over the movement’s adherents reflects the concern both major political parties have over its sudden emergence and their own unease about the future of conservatism (compassionate or otherwise).

Under ordinary circumstances, calls by the movement’s leaders for a new American Revolution might be seen as little more than a rhetorical flourish, a bit of hyperbole. Whether they imply something more sinister, even seditious deserves careful consideration.

As evidence of the nation’s deteriorating fortunes at home and abroad emerged from 2006 onwards, then-Senator Barack Obama tapped into the fuming sentiments of national disquiet he sensed on the campaign trail and vaguely if boldly branded himself the candidate of change. But now a significant number of Americans seem convinced that the change they got was not what they wanted. Did one or both of them mistake the other’s intentions or expectations?

Judging by the signs displayed at rallies around the country (and the firearms carried openly at others), the movement’s sympathizers seem concerned about more than taxes and deficits. They clearly see the election of Barack Obama as something more threatening, if not sinister, than a change in power from one major party to the other.

Before the election, the ill-conceived grounds for war in Iraq, the lingering threat posed by Al Qaeda and its confederates and the erosion of American prestige among the family of nations loomed large. As the election approached and economic fortunes flagged, jobs were lost, banks teetered on the brink and concern shifted to the home front. Not the homeland, but the home front; the one where families discuss their finances over the kitchen table and worry about their futures in both the short and long term.

As the depth and breadth of the financial crisis became clear, a rare, fragile and ephemeral bipartisan consensus bloomed around the idea that the situation required drastic action to avoid another Great Depression – or worse. Billions of dollars in cash and credit guarantees flowed into the fragile markets. Some banks lived, others died. Although many tears were shed, there was no time to mourn, and for some no time even to sleep. The crisis surrounding the risks posed by zombie banks produced zombie policy-makers who although aware of the unease created by their presence and actions were both unmoved by and unable to respond to it in any meaningful way.

Deep structural flaws persist in our economy. Not the least of these is the fact that the net worth of the top one percent of wage earners is more than twice that of the bottom 80 percent combined. Despite this yawning disparity and growing evidence of its adverse impacts on our health and national well-being, a large cross-section of the masses, now disabused of the notion that what’s good for General Motors is good for America, nonetheless sees no need for the government to level the playing field for the little guy. Indeed, laissez faire capitalism and democracy have become so conflated in the minds of Americans that a large segment of the polity seems content to live in poverty or at risk of entering poverty simply because it has become incapable of properly distinguishing it from liberty.

The invective directed at his two most recent predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, certainly got personal from time-to-time, as it does with all presidents, or, for that matter, leaders in general. But the broadsides directed at President Obama go beyond attacks on his personality, character or competence, and question his nationality, religion and patriotism, despite the ample evidence available to refute each element of the grand conspiracy theory.

Seemingly in defiance of reason, a surprising number of Americans believe the Office of the President is now in the hands of a Muslim terrorist with Bolshevik sympathies who favors the interests of fat-cat Wall Street bankers over those of Main Street merchants, family farmers and the hard-working, God-fearing Americans who believe they and their ancestors built this great and glorious country with their bare hands and innate ingenuity. This proposition would seem laughable on its face if were it not so firmly and fiercely held in whole or part by more than a select few Americans.

Like those afflicted by the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease, Tea Party sympathizers seem particularly incapable of retaining in their short-term memories salient facts about the conditions in which they find themselves. At the same time, what they take for long-term memories often emerge clouded in a fog of nostalgia that provokes a fondness and a fervor that betrays a misplaced faith that things are what they seem now as opposed to how they really were. This is especially true of their recollections regarding the beliefs of the republic’s founders and the circumstances of our nation’s revolutionary birth.

It might surprise more than a few Tea Party activists to learn that Adam Smith (1723-1790) was not among the Founding Fathers. He did have a powerful influence on their thinking, but probably through his earlier work The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) rather than his now more oft-quoted edition, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). The latter work’s publication coinciding with the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, it hardly seems likely it exerted any influence at all on Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton or their compatriots. Far from being a believer in unbridled capitalism and unrestrained free markets, Smith saw both a more sanguine and salutary side to human nature than self-interest alone could accommodate and a clear and complementary role to that of markets for government as both a provider and protector of the public good.

The more I see and hear from the Tea Party activists the less they remind me of our forefathers in Boston Harbor and the more they bring to mind the gathering of the Mad Hatter and his fellows in the 1865 Lewis Carroll classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Those in attendance have many and mixed motives, and nothing is as it appears.

As President Obama has discovered, appearances matter and one must take matters as they are not as we might wish them to be. Taking things as they come leaves little room for idealism. Governments have only two options when dealing with an economy. They can regulate or they can participate. Lofty principles and fine rhetoric do little or no good. (Perhaps this helps explain why the Supreme Court of the United States considers money spent advocating or opposing a political position protected speech.) In almost every instance, a delicate balance of both is required.

Those who cleave to former Republican standard-bearer, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater’s exhortation, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!” would do well to recall the other half of that prescription: “Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

Not so long ago, when the nation was mired in another war in a far-off land, great debates arose in all quarters about the country’s future. In his ironic masterpiece, which became a counter-culture anthem, Arlo Guthrie (Woody’s boy), sang about the tendency of authority and conformity to overwhelm common sense at every level of government. The long ballad was neither a call to arms nor a longing ode for a socialist utopia. It gently urged us to recall what was important, and suggested the answer might be found dining together at Alice’s Restaurant – “where you can get anything you want” (except Alice, of course).

I increasingly find myself isolated from the political views of my family and close friends with whom I grew up in the Midwest. The estrangement is real and growing, and makes me wonder whether it bears any resemblance to the feelings that divided families whose members found themselves on different sides in the Civil War.

The call for a new American revolution has affected me. I get it. People are angry.  But I am revolted.

If anyone from the Tea Party comes looking for me, they can find me at Alice’s. If they agree to behave themselves (and leave their guns outside), I’ll buy the tea (and leave the tip). I just hope they like chamomile with a bit of honey.

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