The Tea Party Is As Depressing As It Is Predictable

This is long and ranty, you might want to skipThe Times does a bang-up job on answering the question of who makes up the “Tea Party.” There’s a ton of information to parse, but your short answer is wealthy older conservatives who hate the idea that poor people might ever enjoy any of the benefits of the state. Also, they are not fans of Barack Obama. Let us first get this out of the way. It is the opinion of a 67-year-old retiree.

I just feel he’s getting away from what America is. He’s a socialist. And to tell you the truth, I think he’s a Muslim and trying to head us in that direction, I don’t care what he says. He’s been in office over a year and can’t find a church to go to. That doesn’t say much for him.

Okay, fine, you’ve got a certain element of craziness in every movement, and cherry-picking the more outrageous quotes is probably too easy. Still, it does seem indicative of a large part of the Tea Party’s animosity and resentment. This is always a subject that evokes angry dissent, but it is hard not to concede that there is more than a small element of the movement that can be traced back to the difficult subject of race.

The overwhelming majority of supporters say Mr. Obama does not share the values most Americans live by and that he does not understand the problems of people like themselves. More than half say the policies of the administration favor the poor, and 25 percent think that the administration favors blacks over whites – compared with 11 percent of the general public.

They are more likely than the general public, and Republicans, to say that too much has been made of the problems facing black people.

This would, of course, come as news to blacks, whom the President has gone out of his way to seem not to be helping. If we were somehow able to dispense with the racial component to all of this-which is impossible, but let’s give it a shot-we might generously say that it’s purely a coincidence that the massive deficits racked up by this country over the last eight years, many of which went to pay for wars and bailouts of the financial system, only became a concern once an African-American entered the Oval Office. It was just serendipitous timing, really. Even so, there seems to be a fundamental disconnect between what these people think the government is doing for the poor and what it does for everyone else. Gail Collins, who has been on an amazing streak for so long now that one routinely expects excellence when turning to her column, captures a small bit of this in her piece today.

Discussing a recent study showing that only 47% of American households pay federal income tax last year, a number which has been trumpeted all over the place as an example of how we are forcing our hardworking rich people to subsidize the poor, Collins notes of the figure that:

Even the Tax Policy Center, which came up with it, doesn’t seem all that thrilled with the attention it’s getting.

“That viral number,” sighed Bob Williams, a senior fellow at the center. He is worried that the country is getting the impression that the bottom 47 percent is not paying anything for government services. But there are, of course, a lot of other taxes, particularly the big whoppers that are taken out of paychecks to pay for Social Security and Medicare, the programs everybody seems to like.

“This is looking only at income tax,” Williams said. “If we toss in payroll tax, only 13 percent are exempt from both – almost all low-income elderly.”

Social Security and Medicare are indeed the programs the Tea Party people favor, a contradiction discussed in the first article. “Maybe I don’t want smaller government. I guess I want smaller government and my Social Security,” a member of the movement tells the paper. “I didn’t look at it from the perspective of losing things I need. I think I’ve changed my mind.”

Another fact worth keeping in mind, from Collins: “The after-tax income of the top 1 percent more than tripled since 1979, while the bottom-dwellers barely moved an inch.” And there’s the crux of it. We have spent the last thirty years enriching the very highest caste in this country at the expense of everyone else, even the relatively wealthy who are now so upset that some money may wind up in the hands of poor black people. We’ve been fed a steady diet of vitriol and fear regarding the terrible manipulation of labor unions, which are ostensibly running this country into the ground with their all-powerful grip on the government when, really, they cannot even organize their own offices. We always hear about the pension obligations that are draining our budgets, but there are rarely any discussions of the various subsidies and tax breaks given to major corporations which find ways to effectively avoid contributing altogether. But, yes, by all means, let’s let a bunch of angry older folks with good incomes and decent educations set the tone of the debate. It’s probably the last chance they have to raise their voices in protest before we’re living in a socialist Islamic dictatorship.