Family, Faith, and Flag
by Sarah Palin
HarperCollins, 2010, 304 pp., $25.95The Tea Party Goes to Washington
by Senator Rand Paul with Jack Hunter
Center Street, 2011, 272 pp., $21.99Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto
by Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe
William Morrow, 2010, 272 pp., $19.99
As with the Beatles and the Roman Empire, there are contending versions of when the Tea Party movement began. It is most likely, though, that had it not been for a televised outburst by CNBC financial analyst Rick Santelli on February 19, 2009, the Tea Party would never have become a household name. Santelli flew into a rage over President Obama’s plans to help distressed homeowners. In the thick of a crowd of commodities traders on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, whom he absurdly described as “a pretty good cross section of America”, Santelli proceeded to whip them into a frenzy against Obama’s market intervention: “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage?!”Ironies abound. For one, you would really have to go a piece to find a stranger location than the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for the birth of a movement that relentlessly characterizes itself as being worried that “the little guy no longer has a fair shot in America”, as Sarah Palin puts it in her book, America by Heart. Earlier populists of both the Right and the Left would have seen the Merc floor as a den of elitist privilege and financial intrigue. Never has an American populist movement been launched by so many who fart through silk.Another irony is that the gross iniquity responsible for sparking Santelli’s rant never happened. Very little government money actually went to the “losers”, to use Santelli’s charming sobriquet for those who could not meet their mortgage obligations. Instead, most of the funds eventually ended up safely gathered to the bosoms of the financial institutions that employed these frenzied Merc floor minions. Santelli’s rant failed to include the tens of billions of dollars his own network’s then-parent company, General Electric, received from the government. The average folks whom Santelli was so concerned might receive some of his hard-earned money, he should be comforted to know, are still struggling in an America of high unemployment and rampant foreclosure. Meanwhile, the profits of banks and Wall Street firms have rebounded nicely; compensation levels for their putatively blameless executives are at record highs.Finally, Santelli was and remains a member in good standing of the media elite, another typical target of populist ire. It was an elite political activist group, FreedomWorks, funded by some of the wealthiest corporate interests in America, that quickly set up the iamwithrick.com website, whose declared purpose was to rally citizens to attend tea parties across the country. In short, this is not your father’s populism, and its books are remarkable mostly for their avoidance of these and other truths about the Tea Party, if the three under the microscope here are a representative sample.It may seem particularly condign to attempt to understand this movement via its books, since the chief brewers of Tea Party energy purport to base their views on careful readings of the founding documents of the American nation. Reading these books transports one back to an eighth-grade civics class lorded over by a particularly earnest and naive teacher. It quickly becomes clear these books aren’t meant to give a full, rich picture of the founding documents, America’s revolutionary leaders or the times in which they lived. Rather, each book, in its own way, is a self-servingly selective interpretation of the Founding in service to what its author wants those documents to mean today. Perhaps the best that can be said about my chosen textual approach to understanding the Tea Party is that it will save many readers the unenviable chore of reading these books themselves.And it is not just a chore but also a disquieting one. While we cannot expect politicians on the make to write with the care and nuance of professional historians, none of these books even mentions that the Founders were not united on many key topics, or that they kicked many a can down the revolutionary road to bedevil future generations. Not a single one of these authors finds history or constitutional interpretation difficult. Now, the Tea Party is not precisely the Christian Right in new wineskins, but there is enough overlap in membership to suggest an explanation for the strong tendency of some of the movement’s leaders to adopt a flatly literalist style of textual interpretation coincident with that of the least sophisticated Christian fundamentalists. Sarah Palin is a case in point.Sarah Palin, perhaps the highest profile figure associated with the Tea Party, has put her name on a book that is quite well written in the sense that it reads smoothly. It is lamentably disjointed, however, lurching from topic to topic with very little perceptible order or logic. There are also priceless moments of obvious contradiction whose birth evidently did not even require softball questions from Katie Couric. Americans like herself, she writes, “are not saying we’re better than anyone else” by exclaiming how exceptional America is. It’s just that America is a “model to the world” as well as the “light of the world.”Palin opens her book with a speech she gave to a rally of “rowdy patriots” shouting “USA! USA!” She pauses to say, “If you love your freedom, thank a vet. . . . God bless you guys! . . . We salute you!” Her second chapter is devoted to “Why They Serve.” Palin repeats the common delusion that numerous Vietnam veterans were “spit on” when they returned home, and cites no lesser source than dimly remembered childhood perusals of issues of Readers Digest collected by her mother.Palin questions the patriotism of nearly everyone who works in Hollywood, pausing after uncharacteristic praise of Steven Spielberg to ask, “But can you imagine any Hollywood types personally putting themselves on the line for freedom the way Stewart, Fonda, and [John] Ford did?” It’s not enough, Mr. Spielberg, to make Saving Private Ryan to earn Palin’s respect; you have to enlist. The only celebrity who earns full praise from Palin for his respect for the military is country music star Toby Keith, who wrote “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” in response to 9/11. Palin quotes her “favorite part”:And you’ll be sorry that you messed with the U S of A’Cause we’ll put a boot in your assIt’s the American way.Palin includes a poem, too, in which all that is good about America is attributable not to politicians, preachers, poets, lawyers, teachers and the rest, but to veterans. She then highlights her understandable pride in her eldest son, Track, who served in Iraq, by including an anonymous, maudlin prose tribute to the American soldier:Not yet dry behind the ears, not old enough to buy a beer, but old enough to die for his country. . . . He feels every note of the National Anthem vibrate through his body while at rigid attention, while tempering the burning desire to ‘square-away’ those around him who haven’t bothered to stand, remove their hat, or even stop talking.So, we should be grateful to the military not just because they single-handedly provide everything good about America but also because they somehow manage to restrain themselves from “squaring us away.”No one who has spent time with American soldiers, sailors and marines doubts their patriotism, honor, courage and integrity. But that’s really not the point. It never seems to occur to Palin that the Founders she claims to revere above all but Jesus would be stunned to behold the modern American national security apparatus. While many things the Founders thought are difficult to ascertain, they manifestly believed in a tiny peacetime army and navy. And if the gigantic size of our permanent military establishment would stun the Founders, the idea that a professional soldier is somehow inherently superior to an average citizen would have driven them up the wall. As Hamilton says in The Federalist (No. 8):The violent destruction of life and property incident to war . . . will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights . . . by degrees the people are brought to consider the soldiery not only as their protectors but as their superiors.Palin’s misconstrual of the historical record knows as few limits as does her regard for the military. At a time when most Americans have concluded that the Iraq war was a mistake, she has no regrets for her support because “America doesn’t go to war for big business or for oil or for the sake of imperial conquest. The reason, inevitably, is freedom.” As I recall, the main reason we went to war in Iraq was interlaced concern about weapons of mass destruction, a rogue regime and terrorism, with freedom on the side like parsley at a Texas steakhouse.Even if the war in Iraq had been conducted principally in the name of freedom, as Palin believes, it was done on behalf of freedom for Iraqis, not freedom for Americans. Early American leaders were opposed not only to large standing militaries, but also to foreign wars fought on behalf of the liberty of others. One can find marvelous quotes from Jefferson, Madison and John Quincy Adams making these points in The Tea Party Goes To Washington, by the new Senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul. Paul bravely lambastes figures in his own party who talk like Palin on such issues:Many Republicans treat war like Democrats treat welfare . . . no matter how long we fight the War on Terror—how many billions we spend, what kind of results we get or how many unintended consequences arise—Republicans have typically insisted we must do more.Paul’s adherence to limited and small government requires him to boldly advocate “seriously reducing, substantively reforming, or even abolishing much of the national security state.” Pace Palin, Paul does not see good in everything American power has ever done abroad. And pace Toby Keith, not every American boot was deployed in a foreign ass on behalf of freedom. Paul quotes approvingly a Bush critic who argues the Iraq war was “based on a series of lies” and argues that the war was part of a neoconservative conspiracy rooted in liberal ideas. Paul believes Islamic extremists attacked America not because of our liberties but because of our Middle Eastern foreign policies. He even suggests that paying Israel $4 billion and its neighbors about $6 billion annually to not kill each other might not be money well spent. This might come as a shock to the sage of Wasila, Alaska. As Paul recounts, Palin had just two questions for him before she decided to back his Tea Party challenge in Kentucky: Did he support Israel? And was he pro-life?Despite the subsequent endorsement that Paul received, Palin and Paul symbolize the most important split within the Tea Party movement at the elite and presumably the mass level. It goes far beyond foreign policy. Palin’s primary theme, if her disconnected set of anecdotes and quotes may be said to have something as elitist as a theme, is that God blessed America, and we must bring God back into public life. Paul, while at pains to establish his Christianity, does not dwell on how God chose America for greatness. He’s most excited about reducing government to the smallest possible size. Just as Palin believes the Founders were practically Bible-thumpers, Paul believes they were all libertarians at heart. Both prove it with selected quotes. In essence, Palin and Paul are resurrecting within the Tea Party a division of long standing among Republicans between moral majority conservatives and libertarian conservatives. If you substitute Jesse Helms for Palin and Barry Goldwater for Paul, you have more or less the same dynamic, only catapulted back in history 40 years.Palin and Paul may disagree on matters of substance, but not, apparently, on matters of style. The Tea Party, as understood through its own literature, holds that the trump card in every argument is a pithy quote from a Founder that serves as the functional equivalent of an infallible constitutional I Ching. The answers to all political questions are to be found in short bursts of brilliance, almost randomly organized, as with these two Jeffersonian gems Paul serves up:My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.A government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have.What a prescient guy that Jefferson was, to anticipate that 200 years later the most important debate would be about the size of government. Except that there is zero evidence that Jefferson wrote or said either of these things. One-sided history isn’t always enough; sometimes you have to make stuff up.1I doubt that Paul knowingly included falsehoods in his book, but a U.S. Senator might at least do an Internet search on the attribution for the quotes that supposedly undergird his beliefs. There are many gaps and conflicts between the 18th-century political philosophies of the Founders and the 20th-century free market economics of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek; there simply must be, given the divergent historical contexts. You would never learn that from reading Paul, however.Still, unlike Palin’s book, which is mostly self-serving pablum and patriotic pathos, Paul’s does contain actual ideas, some of which merit full baking. For example, Paul proposes multiyear health insurance with fixed rates, like term life insurance. He suggests that we tolerate a little more risk of terror attacks in the name of personal privacy and smaller government. His foreign policy heresies include questioning why neoconservatives believe in individual responsibility at home but not for Iraqis and Afghans who, for all practical purposes, must rely on us. Yet he cannot help but repeat some of the worst canards in current American politics. He finds “some truth” in the death panel claim made by Palin, and he avers that the health insurance crisis isn’t so bad because everyone can just go to the emergency room, and so on.The great no-show in The Tea Party Goes to Washington is one he shares with the Palin’s book: race. According to Paul, racism in the Tea Party is “virtually non-existent.” Calling the Tea Party, or any element within it, racist is simply a calculated tactic by the Left to discredit the movement. He lambastes the NAACP for passing a resolution asking the Tea Party to repudiate some statements by self-avowed Tea Party leaders and members, but he fails to remind us of the ugly rhetoric that prompted the resolution. Instead of pondering what various alleged Tea Party race incidents might mean about the movement, Paul simply states that the NAACP can be justifiably ignored until it repudiates the racism of Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the New Black Panther Party.While Palin and Paul are divided on foreign policy and God moving about in public spaces, they are one when it comes to avoiding questions about race. Palin concedes that ending segregation in the South was a rare example of the Federal government doing good—the exception that somehow proves the rule that most things should be left to the states. Worse, however, she blames the suffering of blacks in New Orleans during the Katrina disaster on their weak family structure, since whites in other parts of the Gulf Coast fared better, presumably because of their family values:Hurricane Katrina revealed . . . a population of Americans dependent on government and incapacitated by the destruction of the American family. . . . An astonishing 70 percent of African American babies were being born to single women in 2004, [and] fatherlessness among poor African Americans in New Orleans was estimated at between 60 and 80 percent. . . . Americans all along the Gulf Coast were victimized by Hurricane Katrina. And yet those in New Orleans seemed to be the most vulnerable. . . . What was the difference? In many cases, the difference was strong, intact families. It wasn’t Bush’s fault, nor was it black families’ fault, she implies; rather, welfare left blacks without the rugged individualism to escape New Orleans before the storm hit. Pity the poor blacks who drowned because of the wicked liberals who caused their fatherless dependency. Seldom have the innocent dead been so cheerfully and ignorantly insulted—all in just a few sentences. Coming from someone who throws around the phrase “blood libel” as casually as Palin does, it’s an infuriating passage, and it’s almost the only thing she says about race.Avoiding race also means avoiding the Civil War, even on this, its sesquicentennial anniversary. While these books are not works of history, each throws around selected thoughts from the 1775–89 period as if that were a sure guide to the ways things ought to be. The Civil War, however, fundamentally altered American constitutionalism and government, even as it resolved some key ambiguities left behind by the Founders. In these books, it’s as though it never happened.The most glaring absence in the contribution by Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe is not the Civil War but the name Koch. FreedomWorks, the organization from which they both earn their salaries, is chiefly bankrolled by Koch Industries, the largest privately owned petroleum services corporation in the world. Kibbe has been lapping up Koch dollars for years now as a leader of the organization that became FreedomWorks, Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE). Jane Mayer has suggested in the New Yorker that CSE had no actual members at all, and the authors concede that CSE was an exercise in astroturfing (that is, fake grassroots). Its use of direct mail and television ad buys to attack carbon regulation were overpriced and less effective than their current tactic, mass action. But the authors never mention who paid those high prices for CSE, or for the much more “real” FreedomWorks. The name Koch never appears, even in the acknowledgements. FreedomWorks is just a bunch of Americans who care about liberty and limited government, funded by…nobody.Armey and Kibbe, like Paul, scarcely mention God at all beyond pro forma references to the Creator who gave us the inalienable rights we must cherish. The crux of their beliefs is that the “human condition” is “self-interest.” “We know that public officials act in their own self-interest, like everyone else”, so government cannot be trusted when it claims to be interested in helping us. But if this is so, it applies not only to Armey and Kibbe but also to the Kochs and their armies of followers in local chapters. What then, have the Koch brothers gotten for their millions of dollars? What have our two authors gotten? And what, pray tell, are the Tea Partiers getting?The authors tell us, inadvertently, what Koch Industries gets when they describe the alleged opponents of the Tea Party:For the big money contributors we’re fighting . . . . Washington lobbying is currently the best return on investment going. . . . [T]he federal government controls the spending of trillions of dollars each year. So big business, big labor, trial attorneys, and other well heeled interests spend lavishly on lobbying with the expectation that it will more than come back to them in the form of government handouts and subsidies.Now, all this happens to be true. But big businesses like Koch Industries also use lobbying to secure tax breaks and to weaken or defeat laws that regulate labor or pollution. It is no accident that CSE’s main focus in its early years was stopping carbon taxes and environmental regulation.Social science joins aphorism to make what is going on here a bit clearer. The late Mancur Olson, a founding father of the public choice school of economics that the authors adhere to, wrote of privileged groups as being those in which at least one member would be willing to pay all the costs of a group endeavor because the benefits of its achievements to that one member would at a minimum make up for its entire cost. A privileged group thus gets around the inevitable problem of “free riders” who seek benefits for doing little or no work. Despite numbering in the millions, the Tea Party is a “privileged” group precisely because the billionaire Koch brothers, David and Charles, would willingly underwrite its entire budget, if that were necessary, in order to prevent the body politic as a whole from solving collective action problems (for example, determining who should pay for pollution remediation) whose continued non-solution benefits them immensely.If, in the end, all the Tea Party does is elect dozens of hyper-conservatives to Congress and scare other Republicans away from supporting compromises with the Obama Administration, it will have been money well spent. Given the level of wealth the Koch brothers possess, their donations will be more than repaid during the years in which the Tea Party delays or prevents a return to even Reagan-era tax rates on income, wealth and estates. And that doesn’t include what they have already reaped in preventing oil industry taxation and regulation.So what to make of the hundreds of thousands of Tea Party activists who work so hard at FreedomWorks rallies and chapters? Are they simply chumps being had by clever manipulators in the service of the plutocracy? Not according to the authors of Give Us Liberty. Armey and Kibbe see these Americans as heroes, some of them unemployed and struggling, who pour countless hours into citizen activism. They are not free riders; in Olson’s definition, the free riders are those who sit at home and enjoy the lower tax rate and regulatory burden that the Kochs and the Tea Partiers provide them. Nor are they getting handsomely paid for their activism, like Armey and Kibbe. What motivates them, if the “human condition” is really one of pure self-interest?Armey and Kibbe’s version of the Tea Party rallying call to the unpaid masses is, in effect, “unselfishly join with me in my (paid) fight on behalf of selfishness!” It bears an odd similarity to the problem faced by early Marxist organizers, who, thanks to the absurdity of a tautology they called a dialectic, were forced to argue that a proletarian state was both inevitable and in desperate need of activists to bring it about. FreedomWorks argues simultaneously that self-interest explains almost all behavior, but that its followers are the epitome of selflessness. Unlike their opponents, they actually care about the country, and about the difference between right and wrong. Talk about your ironies.Here we arrive at another point of difference between economic Tea Partiers and social/military Tea Partiers like Palin. Palin’s “Kick Ass, U.S.A.” Teapartyism respects the emotional and communal motivations of its followers. At its core, Palin’s populism, however misguided it may be, is genuine. It certainly makes much more sense on its own terms than the FreedomWorks brand. A common hero for Paul and FreedomWorks is Ayn Rand, the avowed atheist, self-appointed philosopher and author of truly terrible books. In her two main novels, it is no accident that the heroes neither join political movements nor engage in mass activism. They just give leather-lunged speeches on behalf of selfishness in courtrooms or over the radio. Ayn Rand could not come up with a way to credibly motivate unselfish mass behavior on behalf of selfishness, even fictionally.In the end, Palin is right to see the Tea Party rank-and-file as normal Americans who are afraid for their country and for what is happening around them. Paul believes it was mostly the sudden increase in the national debt that brought the masses out. Armey and Kibbe point to “years of broken budgets and wasteful spending.” Only Palin’s more diffuse and emotion-centered explanation hits the mark.Consider: If the national debt led to mass populism, we would have seen some of it in 1946, when the debt hit an all-time high as a percentage of the GDP. And while Ross Perot talked about the deficit endlessly in 1992, his remarkable popularity had more to do with what turned out to be a brief recession than with a widespread conviction that Treasury bonds were being issued too promiscuously. American history gives up little to no evidence of concern about debt at the mass level, as distinguished from the elite level, where banking and investment are daily concerns around many a breakfast table.As with earlier populist outbursts, the Tea Party’s rise stems from sudden, deep economic upheaval. Unemployment in America has not been as bad as it is today for this long since 1938. Some research has established a relationship between Tea Party activism and home foreclosures at the county level. Entire communities have undergone an extraordinary few years in which the most important asset most Americans hold, their home, has become either unreliable or near to worthless. Americans in the middle and at the bottom are less secure now in a downturn than ever before. Those with defined benefit pensions are a vanishing breed, and the pensions themselves are far less reliable.That a downturn as severe as this one would lead to a populist outburst was as predictable as thunder following lightning. Adding to this outburst are broader changes in the American economy of which average citizens are more aware than ever before. As charted by Jacon Hacker and Paul Pierson in Winner Take All Politics (2010), while the American economy has grown, sometimes rapidly, during the past forty years, for the first time since the 1920s almost all the income growth has gone to the top tenth. A rising tide isn’t lifting all the boats, just the yachts. In the past, Carnegies and Rockefellers could justify their vast wealth by pointing to obvious evidence of shared prosperity and the permeable nature of the upper class. But as the same authors note, the probability that an American born poor will die poor is now higher than for a similarly situated West European, and the same is true for the rich. The American dream of social mobility and a better life for the next generation mocks the overwhelming majority of Americans today, who have seen the virtual stagnation of their real income (if not necessarily of their living standards) since 1973.Why, then, did Tea Party populism emerge in a form that advocates policies that would, at best, do nothing about the underlying causes of mass anxiety and anger and, at worst, exacerbate them? Why do so many rage against the “fat cats” in ways that help no one so much as those same fat cats?One cannot give too much credit for this to Fox News (although none of these authors gives any). Fox did not create the rage, but it gave it an easy narrative. More than any social movement in American history, the Tea Party is a media creation. Consider the earliest FreedomWorks event linked to the Tea Party’s birth, a tiny Florida demonstration outside an appearance by President Obama on February 10, 2009. The organizer of this handful of sign-waving Floridians, Mary Rakovich, was subsequently interviewed on Fox. Rakovich, fresh from a FreedomWorks training seminar, had rocketed from complete obscurity to national news by dint of just a few signs. It was working out just as her trainer had told her: “You only need the two of you and a few signs to make your voices heard.” Oh, yes, that and Fox News.In truth, no social movement emerges entirely from the bottom up. Rosa Parks, working class seamstress, did not wake up one morning and decide to take a stand against segregation. She was trained by civil rights activists much as Rakovich was trained by FreedomWorks. But Parks did not get on a national news broadcast the very first night of her protest and arrest. Nor were subsequent civil rights rallies promoted the way Fox News trumpeted every Tea Party event. Nor were civil rights demonstrators encouraged to show more enthusiasm for the cameras, as a Fox News producer did in a widely circulated clip.Finally, while it would be absurd to claim that the national media was, as a group, entirely unbiased in the conflict between freedom-seeking blacks and racist Southern whites, civil rights rallies did not feature journalists giving full-throated support to the movement. Not even Palin, now a paid Fox News personality, gives any credit to her friends at Fox for fostering the Tea Party. Like the absence of the word Koch in the Armey-Kibbe book, this is ingratitude with intent.Is Dick Armey right when he proclaims the Tea Party “a permanent force in American politics”? Is this a movement comparable to its perceived enemies, the progressives, who over more than half a century of activism successfully altered the nature of American governance? Hardly.The surge in populism that became the Tea Party was right-wing almost by chance. By January 21, 2009, the national government was largely in the hands of the Democratic Party. Potential left-wing populists, furious about financial shenanigans at the top, sat on their hands, waiting to see if the party ostensibly devoted to their interests would address their concerns.2 If the economy recovers in, say, a year’s time, the Tea Party will rapidly recede into the swamps where the John Birch Society has somehow managed to eke out an existence since its brief heyday in the 1960s. However, should the economy continue to spiral downward, Obama is likely to be a one-term President. A Washington run by Republicans committed to slashing social spending during a double-dip recession may produce a left-wing populism so powerful as to make the Bonus Army of the Hoover years look like the League of Women Voters.We may have already seen a hint of this at the state level. When a Tea Party Governor working with a Republican legislature attacked unions’ collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin, tens of thousands descended on the state capitol and literally camped out. Tea Party supporters who counter-demonstrated were dramatically outnumbered. While the subsequent recall election efforts of the labor movement ultimately failed to take the Senate from the Republicans, two incumbents were defeated, and the governor still faces a likely recall effort next year. The Wisconsin movement, unlike the Tea Party, more closely resembles classic populism in American history.Indeed, new research based on an impressive panel study by distinguished political scientists David Campbell and Robert Putnam suggests that the Tea Party is little more than the most socially conservative wing of the Republican Party. Further evidence for this is that the greatest electoral successes of the Tea Party have come in intraparty contests. The Tea Party has collected far more scalps of Republican moderates and mild conservatives than it has of Democrats. And its greatest policy success, the remarkable partisan unity of Republicans in opposition to reasonable compromise on the debt-ceiling negotiations, shows the limits of its influence. It scares Republicans and empowers Democrats; it cannot create new policies, it can merely, at the moment, contribute to unprecedented gridlock.Thus, unlike progressivism, the Tea Party is probably not a political hurricane capable of altering the coastline of national governance for decades into the future. It is more likely akin to a fierce summer storm with tempestuous winds and loud thunder, but with little significance for the long term. That assessment, not surprisingly, is the final no-show in these three books. 1The first quote was written by John Sharp Williams in a 1913 book about Thomas Jefferson; the second was uttered by President Gerald Ford in 1974, according to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.2For more on the dearth of left-wing populism, see Francis Fukuyama, “Left Out”, The American Interest (January/February 2011).