Tea Party Doublethink

I may throw up if I hear one more pundit refer to the Tea Party Republicans’ supposed demand for “small government.”


Like the broader business-shaped right wing Republican agenda it reflects, advances, and re-brands, “the Tea Party” is not actually opposed to “big government.” Yes, the new right-wing “super-Republicans” (as Bloomberg News recently and accurately described Tea Party activists and supporters [1])attack welfare for the poor, Social Security, the Department of Education, Civil Rights enforcement, labor law reform, health reform, and government regulation of industry and finance[2]. 


But they say nothing against the gargantuan Pentagon system (which bills taxpayers at least $1 trillion a year to account for nearly half of the planet’s military spending), the nation’s globally unmatched and racist prison-industrial complex, the border patrol and the broader war on immigrants.  The Ron Paul libertarians who oppose militarism and the drug war prison state have been marginalized in the Tea Party.  They were buried long ago under the wave of more traditionally nationalist authoritarians like Sara Palin, Dick Army, and Glenn Beck[3].



Starve the Left Hand of the State, Feed the Right


There’s no paradox here. Reflecting the influence of its reactionary-business class sponsors, including most notably the far right oil billionaires Charles and David Koch[4], the Tea Party hates (with some interesting exceptions noted in the final section of this essay) what the left French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “the left hand of the state” – the parts of the public sector that serve the social and democratic needs of the non-affluent majority. It wants to starve and crush those branches of government that reflect past popular victories in struggles for social justice and democracy. But the portions of the state that serve the opulent minority and dole out punishment for the poor are not the subject of its ire. The repressive “right hand of the state,” comprising the big sections of “big government” that distribute wealth upward and attack those who resist empire and inequality at home and abroad, is not its enemy. It can in fact be expected to grow in according with the slashing of left-handed social protections and supports, as the increased insecurity that results can be expected drive ever more disadvantaged people into the clutches of the military and the mass incarceration state[5].


The Tea Party is the same old standard corporate sponsored neoliberalism dressed up in the rancid fake-populism of an ever more rightwing and now somewhat deceptively re-branded Republican Party. And, as Noam Chomsky observed four years ago, the neoliberal project is about the top-down “abuse of power and the assault on democracy.”  Neoliberal “reforms,” Chomsky elaborated: “are not designed to shrink the state, as often asserted, but to strengthen state institutions to serve even more the needs of the substantial people.  A dominant theme is to restrict the public arena and transfer decisions to the hands of unaccountable private tyrannies. One method is privatization, which removes the public from potential influence on policy…[so that] …formal democratic practices are largely reduced to a device for periodic mobilization of the public in the service of elite interests…”[6] Consistent with the reigning neoliberal doctrine, the  Tea Party is pushing to strengthen the capitalist and authoritarian nature of the American state.


Super-Republican Big Government Free Pass


Along the way of course, the “super-Republican” Tea Party is also acting on behalf of the Republican Party, which the nation’s plutocratic controllers see as more reliably dedicated than the Democrats to the rightward tilting of the state. Where were the angry, fake-populist Republican Tea Party hordes and their crusade against “big government” and “deficits” when the George W. Bush administration was dramatically expanding both by combining messianic militarism with tax cuts for the wealthy Few? Nowhere to be seen, for under Dubya (who remains immensely popular among Tea Party supporters) as under the Gipper Ronald Reagan (a bigger Tea Party icon than even the arch-paranoid neo John Bircher Glenn Beck) the Leviathan and its debt to lenders were both expanding massively under the supervision of the right party – the one that can be most depended upon to enforce the regressive capitalist disciplining of the state: the

GOP [7].


It doesn’t matter how far right corporate-captive neoliberal Democratic presidents like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and the Democratic Party as whole bend to prove their “centrist” safety to business needs and the imperial agenda[8]. The corporate-funded Tea Party right will continue to skewer state-capitalist Democratic office-holders as “big government” “liberals” and even as “socialists” and “radical leftists” in an effort to check whatever is left (not much!) of the Democrats’ ability and/or willingness to act in accord with the needs and aspirations of the nation’s poor and working class majority.


A Critical Exception; Government Money Spent on Them


A third double standard deserves mention when it comes to the Tea Party.  Despite the militantly regressive ideology of its business masters, many of the Tea Party’s more ordinary middle class supporters remain attached to certain social democratic government protections that accrue to their own advantage.  Hundreds of Tea Party supporters surveyed by CBS and The New York Times last April overwhelmingly rejected government assistance to the poor and income tax increases to provide health coverage to the uninsured.  But nearly two thirds (62 percent) of those Tea Partiers thought that “the benefits from government programs such as Social Security and Medicare are worth the costs of those programs for taxpayers.”  In other words, most Tea Party folks supported taxpayer-funded programs that benefit them even while they oppose the extension of government support to the poor – something that the liberal journalist Matt Taibbi captured well in some colorful commentary on a Sarah Palin Tea Party rally he attended in Louisville, Kentucky last summer:


‘Scanning the thousands of hopped-up faces in the crowd, I am immediately struck by two things. One is that there isn't a single black person here. The other is the truly awesome quantity of medical hardware: Seemingly every third person in the place is sucking oxygen from a tank or propping their giant atrophied glutes on motorized wheelchair-scooters. As Palin launches into her Ronald Reagan impression — "Government's not the solution! Government's the problem!" — the person sitting next to me leans over and explains.’

‘"The scooters are because of Medicare," he whispers helpfully. "They have these commercials down here: 'You won't even have to pay for your scooter! Medicare will pay!' Practically everyone in Kentucky has one."’


‘A hall full of elderly white people in Medicare-paid scooters, railing against government spending and imagining themselves revolutionaries as they cheer on the vice-presidential puppet hand-picked by the GOP establishment. If there exists a better snapshot of everything the Tea Party represents, I can't imagine it.’


‘After Palin wraps up, I race to the parking lot in search of departing Medicare-motor-scooter conservatives. I come upon an elderly couple, Janice and David Wheelock, who are fairly itching to share their views.’


‘"I'm anti-spending and anti-government," crows David, as scooter-bound Janice looks on. "The welfare state is out of control."’


‘"OK," I say. "And what do you do for a living?"’


‘"Me?" he says proudly. "Oh, I'm a property appraiser. Have been my whole life."’


I frown. "Are either of you on Medicare?"’


‘Silence: Then Janice, a nice enough woman, it seems, slowly raises her hand, offering a faint smile, as if to say, You got me!’


‘"Let me get this straight," I say to David. "You've been picking up a check from the government for decades, as a tax assessor, and your wife is on Medicare. How can you complain about the welfare state?"’


‘"Well," he says, "there's a lot of people on welfare who don't deserve it. Too many people are living off the government."’


‘"But," I protest, "you live off the government. And have been your whole life!"’


"Yeah," he says, "but I don't make very much."


‘….At the voter level, the Tea Party is a movement that purports to be furious about government spending — only the reality is that the vast majority of its members are former Bush supporters who yawned through two terms of record deficits and spent the past two electoral cycles frothing not about spending but about John Kerry's medals and Barack Obama's Sixties associations. The average Tea Partier is sincerely against government spending — with the exception of the money spent on them.’ [9]



The Tea Party is a crock of hypocritical crap –something that the dominant mass media has failed to properly report even as Tea Party folk repeat standard paranoid claims of persecution by “liberal media.”


“Big Government is Not the Issue”


For what it’s worth, the Tea Party’s crusade against “big government” – really against positive government action by the left hand of the state – is not really embraced by many  of those who claim to approve of its largely corporate mass media-ted “message.” Contrary to the popular media image and some wishful left thinking, the “super-Republican” Tea Party’s core support base is not particularly comprised of working class, “underdogs” ground up by deindustrialization and corporate globalization[10]. Still, such people are no doubt present in significant numbers among the 52 percent of Americans who “fe[lt]sympathy for the tea party movement” in a survey conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) pollsters in August of 2010[11]. “Feeling sympathy” for a vaguely defined, deceptively marketed and poorly understood, media-scripted “movement” is not the same as being an active supporter, much less a participant in that “movement.” 


The PIPA poll suggested real differences between the values of the survey respondents who “feel sympathy for the tea party movement” and actual Tea Party institutions, candidates, and ideology. The widespread empathy PIPA found for “the tea party movement” was not very well connected to insistent Tea Party warnings about, and complaints against, “Big Government.”  Less than a third, just 31 percent of “Tea Party sympathizers,” told PIPA that their main concern was that government “is becoming too big.” Instead, well more than half (55 percent) said that their biggest worry was that government “is not following the will of the people.” Even among a “hard core” that told PIPA they were “very sympathetic to the tea party” – one in five overall – only 46 percent cited major distress over the great Tea Party issue: “Big Government.” More of this group, 47 percent, expressed greater concern with the main issue in Joe Stack’s theme:  government’s lack of democratic responsiveness[12]. This was consistent with longstanding majority progressive popular American opinion, which – well to the left of both major U.S. political parties and dominant media and the business class on economic issues – has long been primarily concerned not with government power or size  per se but with the disproportionate influence exercised over politics and policy by concentrated wealth and power, by large corporate and financial interests, and the privileged few acting so as to further concentrate wealth at the public’s expense[13]. This majority progressive opinion is all too sadly irrelevant, however, in the United States, where, as John Dewey noted during the Progressive Age, “politics is he shadow cast on society by big business” and will continue to be so long as power is retained by “business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by command of the press, press agents, and other means of publicity and propaganda”[14]. Behind the uber-astroturf Tea Party, the broader Republican right the Tea Party helps re-brand, and both leading political parties lay the “unelected dictatorship of money,” which exercises a permanent behind-the-scenes veto power over any who would foolishly seek “to change the foreign or domestic priorities of the imperial U.S. regime’[15].  


Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007; Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010).  Street is currently completing a book titled “Crashing the Tea Party,” co-authored with Anthony Dimaggio. He can be reached at [email protected]







1. As Bloomberg reporter Lisa Lerer notes, “Tea Party activists, once on the fringe of the Republican mainstream, are fueling the party’s momentum in the midterm elections, a Bloomberg National poll shows….Four of five Tea Party supporters who say they plan to vote in the November congressional elections will back Republicans, even though one-third describe themselves as independents. Eighty-five percent of these respondents say the economy will improve with Republicans in control of Congress. …These Super Republicans are more energized than other likely voters and more apt to view this election as exceptionally important.” See Lisa Lerer, “Tea Party Economic Gloom Fuels Republican Momentum,” Bloomberg News (October 13, 2010), read at http://insurancenewsnet.com/article.aspx?id=230316&type=newswires


2. CBS-New York Times, “Polling the Tea Party,” New York Times, 14 April 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/04/14/us/politics/20100414-tea-party-poll-graphic.html#tab=4; Lerer, “Tea Party Economic Gloom.” Kate Zernike, “For Tea Party, Sway Beyond Mere Numbers,” New York Times, October 15, 2010, A17.


3. For interesting reflections, see Michael Brendan Doughtery, “Tea Party Crashers,’” The American Conservative (April 1, 2010), read athttp://www.amconmag.com/print.html?Id=AmConservative-2010apr01-00006;

Kelley B. Vlahos, “Buzzkill at the Tea Party,” Antiwar.com (March 23, 2010) at http://original.antiwar.com/vlahos/2010/03/22/liberty-forum.



4. Jane Mayer, “Covert Operations: The Billionaire Brothers Who Are Waging War Against Obama,” The New Yorker (August 30, 2010); Matt Taibbi, “Tea and Crackers: How Corporate Interests and Republican Insiders Created the Tea Party Monster,” Rolling Stone (October 15, 2010); Lee Fang, “MEMO: Health Insurance, Banking, Oil Industries Met With Koch, Chamber, Glenn Beck To Plot 2010 Election,” ThinkProgress (October 20, 2010) at http://thinkprogress.org/2010/10/20/beck-koch-chamber-meeting/?utm_source=web&utm_medium=twitter


5. On the “left” (social, egalitarian, democratic, and inclusive) versus the “right” (regressive, militaristic, and repressive) “hand of the state,” see Pierre Bourdieu, Acts of Resistance (New York, NY: Free Press, 1998, pp. 2, 24-44; John Pilger, The New Rulers of the World (London: Verso, 2002), pp. 5, 116; Paul Street, Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2004), pp. xiii-xiv.  The neoliberal dichotomy is well established and has already brought horrendous results. Reflecting the power of the ongoing business-right assault, the public sector of the “wealthiest nation on earth” lacks the money to properly fund education for all of the country's children. It lacks the resources to provide universal health coverage, leaving more than 45 million American without basic medical insurance. It can't match unemployment benefits to the numbers out of work. It lacks or claims to lack the money to provide meaningful rehabilitation and reentry services for its many millions of very disproportionately black prisoners and ex-prisoners, marked for life with a criminal record. The list of unmet civic and social needs goes on and on. But listen to what American government can pay for. It can afford under George W. Bush to spend trillions on Tax Cuts rewarding the top 1 percent in the disingenuous name of "economic stimulus." Under Bush and now Obama it can spend untold trillions more on the record-setting federal taxpayer bailout of parasitic financial firms whose irresponsible and selfish practices crashed the national and global economy in 2008 and 2009.  It can spend more on the military than on all possible enemy states combined many times over, providing massive subsidy to the high-tech corporate sector, including billions on weapons and "defense" systems that bear no meaningful relations to any real threat faced by the American people. It can afford to incapacitate and incarcerate a greater share of its population than any nation in history and to spend hundreds of millions each year on various forms of corporate welfare and other routine public subsidies to "private" industry. It can afford hundreds of billions and perhaps more than a trillion dollars for invasions and occupations of distant devastated nations that pose no serious risk to the US and even to its own neighbors. The American public sector is weak and cash-strapped when it comes to social democracy for the people but its cup runs over in powerful ways when it comes to meeting the needs of wealth, racial disparity and empire


6. Noam Chomsky, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (New York: Metropolitan, 2006), p. 219.


7. As the distinguished left commentator Edward S. Herman noted last April, while the Tea Party protested what it called the “big government” and “socialist” (the openly insane rightist Glenn Beck even said “Marxist-Lenninist”) agenda of Barack Obama:


‘Government, Deficits, Entitlements, and "Centrists" – These are words that come into prominence whenever the right wing and business community go on the offensive. Big government was not featured by the right wing or business during the recent (2001-09) Bush years because, although the federal government and budget were growing, it was via an enlargement of the military and police budgets and an attack on the privacy and civil rights of ordinary citizens, in the alleged interest of "national security."’


‘In the Reagan years, also, the size of government grew, but this was not objectionable to the elite establishment because the growth was in military expenditures, with social budgets, organized labor, and environmental protections under attack. During George W. Bush’s term, there were a number of encroachments by the federal government on "state’s rights," e.g., allowing the feds to override state authority on matters such as environmental rules (the EPA disallowed California’s attempt to limit auto tailpipe emissions in 2007) and medical practice (the Department of Justice sought to overturn an Oregon law legalizing physician-assisted suicide in 2002 and later)’.


‘There were no Tea Party-like campaigns to protest this growth in government and attack on constitutional (and state’s) rights in the Bush years, because the growing and encroaching government was in the right hands (that of the Republicans – PS and AD) It is only when it gets into the wrong hands (the Democrats) and there is the threat that government will serve the undeserving poor—or even the middle class—and neglect the corporate community and national "security" that business, the military-industrial complex (MIC), and right-wing protest cadres get agitated about big government.’


See Edward S. Herman, “Big Government, Deficits, Entitlements, and ‘Centrists,’” Z Magazine (April 2010).


8. The Democrats, to be sure, were once aptly described by former Richard Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips as “history’s second- most enthusiastic capitalist party.” The corporate “New Democrats” of the last generation have joined Republicans in attacking social welfare, the labor movement, economic regulation, civil rights, and environmental protection – consistent with their party’s long history of serving the business and imperial establishments over and against the needs and aspirations of ordinary working people. See Kevin Phillips, The Politics of Rich and Poor: Wealth and the American Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath (New York: Harper, 1989), 32.  On the Democratic Party, see Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008), 3-12;  Lance Selfa, The Democrats: A Critical History (Chicago: Haymarket, 2008),  11-38;  Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 103-04, 110, 136, 149, 156, 157, 166, 195, 201,202-03, 206-08, 286-287 ; Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion (New York, NY: Nation Books, 2009), 145, 146, 157, 159, 17, 168, 175, 176, 183; Paul D’Amato, The Meaning of Marxism (Chicago, IL: Haymarket, 2006), 92-97; William Greider, Who Will Tell the People? The Betrayal of American Democracy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 245-69 (comprising a chapter titled “Who Owns the Democrats?”).



9. Taibbi, “Tea and Crackers.”


10. CBS-New York Times, “Polling the Tea Party,” New York Times, 14 April 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/04/14/us/politics/20100414-tea-party-poll-graphic.html#tab=4


11. Steve Kull, “Big Government is Not the Issue,” World Opinion.org (August 19, 2010), read at http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/articles/brunitedstatescanadara/665.php?nid=&id=&pnt=665&lb=


12. Kull, “Big Government.”


13. Paul Street, “Americans' Progressive Opinion vs. ‘The Shadow Cast on Society By Big Business,’” Z Net (May 15, 2010), read at http://www.zcommunications.org/americans-progressive-opinion-vs-the-shadow-cast-on-society-by-big-business-by-paul-street


14. Dewey is quoted in Chomsky, Failed States, 206.


15. Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “Riding the ‘Green Wave’ at the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and Beyond,” Electric Politics, July 22, 2009.

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