The media's enduring, and understandable, fascination with the Tea Party movement continues unabated, as this weekend's coverage demonstrates. Unfortunately, what appear to be false notions of objectivity—or perhaps a lack of interest in policy—is preventing that coverage from illuminating what the movement actually represents and what it would do if empowered.
Case in point: the Associated Press just published a 2,300-word stemwinder examining how and why a variety of individuals became involved in the Tea Party movement without once asking what precisely the platform consists of. It tells you the back stories of representative Tea Partiers, dutifully quotes their antipathy toward government, taxes, and deficit spending, and their horror at the accusation that they are motivated by racial animus. But the reporter seems never to have posed any serious questions about what tradeoffs they would make to achieve their stated goals.
There are only two ways to balance a budget in the red: raising taxes, which Tea Partiers vehemently oppose, and cutting spending. But what spending should be cut? Defense and veterans spending, which accounts for 54 percent of the federal budget? It would be pretty hard to merge that with the Republicans' foreign-policy-hawk wing. Entitlement spending such as Social Security and Medicare? Good luck winning elections with that platform. Discretionary domestic spending is the favorite target of fiscal conservatives. But when it comes to specifics, suddenly every program seems worthier than when demonized in the collective abstract. Which politician wants to cut spending on Homeland Security? Education for students with special needs? (Surely not Sarah Palin!)
"Concerned Americans trying to find their voices, and a way to channel their disgust," the AP earnestly reports. "To hear what motivates them is to begin to understand what's going on in American politics in 2010." But what if what motivates them is ignorance? A CBS/New York Times poll showed that 44 percent of Tea Partiers believe their taxes have gone up under President Obama, and only 2 percent believed they have gone down, even though, in fact, Obama has cut taxes. Might that be worth bringing to bear? Maybe we should even ask the Tea Partiers whether they are aware of the reality on taxes and if that changes their views?
Likewise, a University of Washington poll found Tea Partiers to be roughly twice as likely to have negative attitudes about African-Americans and immigrants as the general population. Might it be possible that the Tea Partiers who profess no racial motivation are, let's say, not entirely aware of their own visceral motivations? I'm sure if you asked the Southern voters who switched to Republican voting habits why they did so, many would say race had nothing to do with it. But why should journalists take that at face value? Isn't it more effective to interrogate Tea Partiers' views on race and where they might meet their stated concerns about, say, welfare or health care, than to just ask, "Hey, are you racist? No? OK, great. Thanks."
A terrific example of the contradictions and incoherence plaguing the Tea Party movement's platform, and the free ride they get from much of the media is epitomized by CNN's item on radio-talk-show host Mark Williams giving up his role as the chairman of the Tea Party Express. Williams wants to focus on two activist crusades, CNN reports: opposing the construction of a mosque near the site of Ground Zero in New York and "leading a recall effort against some members of the Sacramento City Council and running for a spot on the local body himself after the council voted to boycott Arizona over its new immigration law."
This strikes me as a very curious pair of causes for a leader of a movement dedicated to preventing government activism. If the government selectively asserts aggressive land-use regulation to prevent the construction of socially disfavored buildings, is that not a paradigmatic example of big-government market distortion? Would Williams support denying permits to an otherwise zoning-law-compliant church or synagogue near Ground Zero? And, as conservative commentator Matthew Lewis points out, shouldn't conservatives be opposed to laws that empower the government to stop and harass citizens and legal residents?
The closer you look, the more the Tea Party just looks like any other right-wing populist movement: it is motivated by fear of immigration, fear of new religious modes of expression, racial resentments, opposition to gay rights, and claims about taxes and spending that often don't add up under scrutiny. Isn't it time that we stopped treating the Tea Partiers like a curious sociological phenomenon and starting holding them to the same standards we should hold all mainstream politicians to?