At The Root Of It
As with my last post, this started out as a comment on this post and then grew beyond comment size.
If most Tea Party members feel their tax burden is fair, then why are they protesting? Could it be that they see the Health Care law as simply the vanguard in a series of new laws (cap and trade, for example) that will raise that burden to an unacceptable level?
Or could it be something else?
While I would agree with the notion that most people don't know where their tax money goes, I would take it a step further and say that most people don't care to know and it's not because they're ignorant or stupid. Most people have lives which do not revolve around politics or the government. In fact, one of the joys of being an American is that you can often go for extended periods without thinking about the government at all.
Government is a necessary component (if not necessary evil) in our lives and along with government comes the taxes required to support it. When you pay taxes, I think it's a given that some of that money is going to go for things you approve of and some of it isn't. For most of us, when it comes to accounting for just how the money is spent, that's where it stops.
Two reasons: first, as mentioned above, most people have busy lives and they don't involve the government. Second, the people who run our government have taken the relatively simple concept of self-rule and, over the last two hundred plus years, grown it into such a gargantuan Gordian Knot of laws, regulations and agencies that even Alexander would throw down his sword and say "Fuck it! Go ahead and keep your country." William Goldman may have said "Follow the money" but that only involved one branch of government and even that proved damned elusive.
In short, most people's response to government is "Look, I'll make you a deal. Don't take too much of my money and I promise not to look too hard at how you spend it." And, to get back to my original point, since most Tea Party members are not political in nature and seem to feel that their tax burden is reasonably fair, why are they protesting? That, I think, is one of the reasons why they're getting so much attention.
Time will tell what, if anything, the Tea Party will accomplish. At this point, the movement does not seem to have a clear goal (beyond the general idea of government being fiscally responsible and the repeal of Obamacare) and it certainly does not have a leader or figurehead for the political establishment to point at and discredit. I think that's part of the movement's effectiveness and also part of its charm. The Tea Party's Army of Davids approach to grass-roots politics gives it the flexibility to influence elections at the local and at the national level, the fruits of which we've already seen in Massachusetts.
Taxation may be their main vehicle of protest, but I believe the roots of the unrest go much deeper than just taxes. And the roots have a well established place in our history. It's certainly not far fetched to compare the Tea Party to the Committees of Correspondence formed by the colonists of the 1770's. Unfortunately, the parallels continue with the response from the current administration ("You would think they should be saying thank you" is the patronizing remark of a monarch, not an elective official). And while President Obama may claim to be "amused" by the protests, I think that underneath his public facade he's wondering the same thing that many others in government and the media are wondering right now:
"Just what do these folks want?"
Some seem to equate the movement with "anti-government, right-wing extremism" as though the Tea Party members are an army of Timothy McVeigh's, each of whom is convinced that the only way to defend the Constitution is to blow something up, preferably with a lot of innocent people in it. Others, while declining to come out and call Tea Party members "stupid", merely point out that everything the "educated class" is for, tea partiers are against and leave you to draw your own conclusions.
Of course, if being hateful and stupid isn't enough, there's always being racist.
The Tea Party is more easily defined by what it's against rather than what it's for; big, centralized government, higher taxes and unresponsive, out of touch representatives who don't share their interests head the list of things on the anti side. If the Republican Party of the past year has been the party of "No", then the Tea Party is the party of "No Mas". And, unlike Republicans, the Tea Party is growing in strength and popularity, attracting scores of independent voters who, for one reason or many, appear to be feeling a strong sense of buyer's remorse towards our current President.
But that still doesn't answer the question, does it? Just what do they want?
Well, in a word, I think they want Happiness. Happiness in the sense that Thomas Jefferson meant when he said, "I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them. "
I think right now a good portion of America - maybe not most, yet - is un-happy. They feel that our current political class, starting at the top, has forgotten the words of another great American: that this is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. All the people. Not just the ones who supported the President in the last election. 52 - 48 may seem like a mandate to some. But if enough people in the middle - people who don't automatically identify with either party - decide to switch their vote, the political landscape can change pretty quickly.
Happiness, or at least the pursuit of happiness - which is all any of us have a right to - does not stem from more government oversight or intrusion into our lives. And it certainly doesn't come from a government that feels it can dictate not only how much money we are allowed to make but also be the arbiter of how fairly we've made it. Perhaps the Tea Party's best role in the coming elections will be to re-frame the debate: instead of asking how much more government we want (and can pay for), the question should be how much less government we're willing to accept.
Seen in that light, and getting back to our question of just what does the Tea Party want, perhaps the answer that should worry President Obama the most is:
"Nothing you can give me, Mr. President."