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April 16th, 2009 · 16 Comments

So, until Wednesday, I hadn’t taken much notice of the whole “Tea Party” phenomenon.  Like about 98 percent of public protests, it had struck me as little more than a stunt, guaranteed to reduce a legitimate argument to a spectacular competition for the dumbest, craziest slogan. Protests may—occasionally—make sense when either you need to draw attention to an issue that’s simply not on the radar screen, or when you’ve got such impressive numbers that you send a clear signal about the scope of public dissatisfaction. In the latter case, though, you typically want an issue that’s fairly clear-cut and binary, so the signal that’s sent is unambiguous.  And in all cases, you want to be sure that the event doesn’t backfire—as polls suggest that many protests do, turning off moderates by presenting a movements most crankish and extreme face.

As James Joyner notes, protests are generally pretty ineffective, and these seem likely to be, if anything, unusually counterproductive. At any rate, signs demanding Obama’s birth certificate or endeavoring to remind him that this is a “Christian nation” don’t bode well, even if they’re unrepresentative. Even without them, it hasn’t escaped anyone’s notice that the conservatives jumping on the bandwagon now weren’t nearly as exercised about exploding spending under Bush, bolstering the perception that this has less to do with any principle than with partisan animus—and desperation. Finally, it seems a little tone deaf to claim the mantle of revolutionary resistance to colonial government when your actual beef is with the scope of an elected administration’s borrowing and spending.

Still, I think Andrew Sullivan puts it a bit too strongly when he suggests that it’s pointless to complain about excessive spending unless you’ve got a detailed notion of what you want to cut. It probably makes sense to stress that there’s popular discontent with  a general lack of fiscal restraint, rather than with any particular set of budget items. Certainly there’s no coherent policy program detectable at these rallies, but a big public demonstration doesn’t seem like a terribly good venue for laying that out anyway. If events like these serve any useful function—my suspicion is that they don’t, but one lives in hope—it’s in moving people from anger to engagement, preparing the ground for more useful and targeted activism down the road. I’m waiting for signs they’re actually moving people past the “anger” stage.

That said, most of the anti-teabagger venting I’ve watched unfold over the past 48 hours has been as grating as anything at the events themselves. When it first debuted a decade ago, the “Billioinaires for…” schtick seemed sort of clever. But the thing about satire, as with most other sorts of humor, is that it tends not to age well: That knee-slapper of a joke loses some impact after the ninth or tenth time you tell it, and this one is years past its sell-by date.  In this case, it doesn’t even make a whole lot of sense: To the extent there’s a theme beyond animus for Obama at these protests, it’s populist indignation about massive government handouts to corporate America, a point on which I’d expect these tuxedoed college kids to be on more or less the same page as the middle- and working-class folks they’re mocking.

The big Twitter-meme for the day seemed to be progressives countering the teabaggers by listing all the reasons they’re just absolutely giddy about paying taxes, proving that for every action, there is an opposite and equally vapid reaction. Popular items: Paving roads! Less popular: Cluster-bombing third world countries! Sure, this is the flip-side of the point they like to throw at the protesters: You weren’t complaining when it was Bush’s out-of-control spending. (Some  of them probably were, of course, but Fox News wasn’t screaming “socialism.”) But it’s not actually any more substantive a contribution than “taxes, bad!” I can think of plenty of government spending I’m in favor of. Give me a moderate tax bill that goes to fund the provision of important public goods the market won’t supply and I’ll pay it with a smile. But especially if you’re going to poke fun at the crudeness of teabagger slogans, you might think twice about circulating zingers like “I pay my taxes because I don’t know how to pave roads myself.” (Is that the criterion for government action now? I don’t know how to make an iPod either.) Even if taxes reached a level that everyone agreed was ruinously excessive, some of that money would be spent on things of some value. This is just the leftish equivalent of: “So, you’d rather have Saddam, huh?”

Finally, there’s the “astroturfing” charge. Now, on a gut check, this thing does feel pretty manufactured, and there’s no question that Fox News and a handful of well-funded DC conservative groups were pushing this pretty hard. Whether they were jumping on a bandwagon or cooked up the whole notion in some backroom months ago I have no idea. But the photos of the rallies I saw also seemed a hell of a lot less slickly produced than, say, an ANSWER-organized peace march. The signs looked homemade rather than prefab, and most of the attendees looked like the sort of relentlessly ordinary folks who don’t make a habit of attending the protest du jour. Liz Mair has a fairly persuasive rundown of reasons to think there’s something genuine there, notwithstanding the role of Fox or FreedomWorks. Short version: A top-down orchestrated campaign would have been a lot better orchestrated.

Come to think of it, maybe there’s something to be said for that.  If people are worked up enough to turn out on behalf of fiscal restraint, they may as well do it strategically, and with more coherent talking points. And while inchoate anger about “taxes” or “big government” may not get you too far, channelling it into more specific policy debates—especially at the local level, where a few hundred people with a few hours a month to spare can actually make a difference—might. Not that I’m holding my breath: The right has spent the last year desperately careening from one gimmick to another. I’m betting this is just the latest in a series destined to keep growing for some time.

Tags: Journalism & the Media · Stupid Shit · Washington, DC



16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 afs // Apr 16, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    Most points here are well made.

    I’m not sure, though, that “I pay my taxes because I don’t know how to pave roads myself” really is as crude or embarrassing as you make it out to be. It’s an inane response to any reasoned or half-coherent criticism of the current tax structure … but it seems an entirely reasonable (and sufficient) response to “taxes bad.” It sounds like you believe that the left should, when faced with self-evidently silly nonsense from the right, respond to the cogent arguments which the right should be making. I don’t buy that.

  • 2 Michael B Sullivan // Apr 16, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    I think that Julian is saying that the left should decry self-evidently silly nonsense from the right, rather than saying, “Oh yeah? Well we can do self-evidently silly nonsense, too!”

  • 3 Tom // Apr 16, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    “Oh yeah? Well we can do self-evidently silly nonsense, too!”

    This was exactly the point, though. I was tempted to (and ultimately did) participate in some silly “yay taxes!” boosterism on Twitter simply because seeing the medium dominated by pathetic mewling about taxes was infuriating. I like to think that adding additional nonsense helped to expose the, ahem, discussion for the “tastes great/less filling”-level debate that it was. The alternative was allowing the tax grumblers to continue imagining themselves as bold truth-tellers brave enough to publicly observe that paying taxes is an unpleasant burden foisted on the public (for no good reason, mind you).

  • 4 afs // Apr 16, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    I don’t think I was clear — in context, the ‘paving roads’ bit is not self-evident nonsense. Accurately or not, ‘paving roads’ is the standard example in the the popular mind of a service that only government can provide. It’s a pithy way of saying “there are things we need taxes for; saying ‘taxes bad’ is silly.” As a defense of any actual spending scheme, it is, of course, ridiculous. If you read it as ‘taxes good,’ it’s maybe even sillier than ‘taxes bad.’ And if you read it in the strange way that Julian does (“taxes are good because they buy stuff we want”), it’s also ridiculous. As a response to ‘taxes bad,’ though, it’s just fine, if maybe not nearly as clever as the author believes.

    I can hear folks thinking “well, ‘taxes bad’ doesn’t really warrant a response” or “sure, if you want to go after the very low-hanging fruit” … but w/ this teabagging thing, it’s pretty much all lowhanging fruit. And some sort of response is called for.

  • 5 Megan McArdle // Apr 16, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    This only works, though, if you say that the right is against any and all taxes. But of course they aren’t; they just want many, many fewer taxes. The fact that you disagree with them about the wonderfulness of the things that the taxes buy does not make it mewling stupidity. The implication I saw on Twitter was that the right ought to shut up and pay their taxes without complaining because Daddy Knows Best. This is not the role of a citizen in a democracy. If you think taxes are too high, you have a right–even a duty–to complain.

  • 6 Michael B Sullivan // Apr 16, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    As to some sort of response being called for, what’s wrong with, “That’s simplistic and infantile. Every serious person agrees that some level of taxation is appropriate, so instead of ‘taxes bad,’ why don’t you tell us which taxes are bad”?

    Not as pithy, but, I think, forceful enough, and it doesn’t participate in devolving the discussion. Because “I pay taxes because I don’t know how to pave roads” also demands some kind of response, and, by the same logic that lets you say “I pay taxes because I don’t know how to pave roads” in response to “taxes bad,” Julian can say, “I don’t know how to make an iPod, but that doesn’t mean that we should subsidize Apple” to the roads thing.

    Which, obviously, gets us nowhere, because you didn’t really mean the road thing very seriously. But if they all demand responses, and the responses don’t attempt to address what people actually mean, then we never actually have the discussion.

    You don’t need to dignify a silly statement, or ignore it, or respond less than forcefully to it, to make your response thoughtful.

  • 7 afs // Apr 16, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    Michael —

    Well, yeah, that’d be the dignified & respectful approach. And necessary one, if you want to engage in any sort of meaningful exchange. But when the other guy starts w/ ‘taxes bad’ or ‘the muslim president sure loves terrorists,’ it seems fair for the lefty type to write off the possibility of discussion, and it’s hard to blame him for going straight to gleeful mockery. There’s really no place for the discussion to devolve to. Which isn’t to say that much of the twitter squacking isn’t rather embarrassing … though I think the medium itself shares a good bit of blame. (What sort of political discourse will we have if we limit thoughts to 140 characters? Yeah.) Nobody’s going to accuse the left of elevating the conversation surrounding the teabagging business. All I was saying is that, much as I agree w/ the overall gist of the piece, I think Julian’s a bit off in his judgment of that particular statement.

  • 8 Michael B Sullivan // Apr 16, 2009 at 4:33 pm

    afs –

    Dignified and respectful? Really? When I lead with, “That’s simplistic and infantile”?

    That’s my point. You can reply in ways that do NOT dignify the claim (any more than any response dignifies it, at least), without making similarly silly claims yourself.

    If you want to go pithier, you can says, to someone who says “taxes bad,” “You’re an idiot.” There’s nothing that says you have to resort to dumb arguments just because you want to quickly dismiss someone.

  • 9 afs // Apr 16, 2009 at 5:01 pm

    You’re right — very bad choice of words on my part. Though of course I meant something like ‘respect’ toward the wider conversation. And dignity refers to the speaker’s dignity, not the guy spoken to.

    But I guess we just disagree fundamentally about the ‘silliness’ of the paving statement. Yeah, it’s nonsense, if read literally. And there are plenty of other not-so-straightforward ways that you can read it which similarly make it nonsense. But the to my mind obvious intent is … obvious. And it’s a valid, if mean-spirited and only partially effective, rhetorical approach.

  • 10 Tom // Apr 16, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    This only works, though, if you say that the right is against any and all taxes. But of course they aren’t; they just want many, many fewer taxes. The fact that you disagree with them about the wonderfulness of the things that the taxes buy does not make it mewling stupidity.

    This is true in general, but doesn’t really apply to the specific conversations in question. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the vast majority of people who spent yesterday publicly whining about taxes haven’t bothered to learn anything about how our government spends its citizens money (or have and are ignoring it in bad faith); haven’t bothered to figure out how to push any of the civic levers available to them; and would generally prefer to just angrily pout about the obligations that our unbelievably wealthy democracy has decided upon, or at best to engage in magical thinking about how the tax code changes that are uncontroversial among their peer group will somehow slash their yearly bill. (I should add — though it’s obvious — that while these things are true for most of the teabaggers, I’m sure they’re not true for anyone here.)

    The above is harsh, but I don’t think it’s inaccurate. The conservatives with smart things to say about what’s wrong with our tax system typically say them on days other than just the ones when they have to cut big checks to the IRS.

  • 11 joetauke // Apr 16, 2009 at 9:43 pm

    I don’t know if you’ve seen it or not, but there’s an interesting clip from Glenn Beck’s live show at the Alamo protest yesterday that makes me think that while the GOP has certainly TRIED to turn this movement into a Republican thing, they haven’t actually succeeded. You can watch it here:


  • 12 Our Morning Roundup: Wingnuts and Their Teabags - City Desk - Washington City Paper // Apr 17, 2009 at 9:03 am

    […] who Washington City Paper picked as best policy blogger when he was working for Ars Technica, sums up the moderate objection to tea parties very nicely: “As James Joyner notes, protests are generally pretty ineffective, and these seem likely to […]

  • 13 Hans Bader // Apr 17, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    The Tea Party protesters DID identify specific wasteful spending that should be cut, like the stimulus package (most of which hasn’t been spent yet) and the mortgage bailouts. Andrew Sulllivan is just wrong.

    I’ve pointed this out time and again at http://www.openmarket.org:

    Slandering the Tea Parties
    by Hans Bader
    April 16, 2009 @ 2:43 pm

    The “tea party” protests against out-of-control government spending have been very clear in identifying what wasteful spending they object to. One example is Obama’s $800 billion stimulus package, which was sold to the public as a way of preventing the economy’s “irreversible decline,” but which the Congressional Budget Office repeatedly pointed out would actually cut the size of the economy “in the long run.” Another example is the Obama Administration’s mortgage bailout, which would benefit even high-income people with modest mortgages (see the “I can’t afford your mortgage” sign in the Olathe and other tea party protests).

    But the protesters are frequently criticized by journalists like Andrew Sullivan for supposedly offering no solutions or constructive suggestions.

    For having the temerity to protest Administration lies and out-of-control spending, the protesters have been attacked elsewhere in the left-wing blogosphere in the most vicious language as “redneck, racist Republicons” and as “a bunch of white old people and rednecks” who “got together and tried to start a revolution…to drive the Fascist/Communist nigger out of the White House and stop the fags from stealing their children.”

    As a Harvard-educated, arugula-eating, urban dweller whose office hosted the end of the Washington tea party, I find these claims baffling. I am certainly not afraid of my Asian, black, and Hispanic relatives, my French-born wife, or the gay neighbor whose children play with my daughter.

    Andrew Sullivan derides the tea parties as “opposition to the Obama administration’s spending plans, manned by people who made no serious objections to George W. Bush’s.”

    I did too make “serious objections to George W. Bush’s” spending plans. I condemned his costly prescription-drug entitlement (which Sullivan himself predicts will add $32 trillion to the national debt) in the Washington Times, and repeatedly condemned the $160 billion Bush “stimulus rebates” in 2007. I publicly called his $700 billion Wall Street “bailout bill dangerous, inflationary, unnecessary, and unconstitutional.” And I condemned his multibillion dollar auto bailout.

    And contrary to Sullivan’s claims, I do indeed have a “constructive and specific argument about how . . . to reduce spending and debt and borrowing” — cancel the wasteful $800 billion stimulus package, most of which has not been spent yet, and may cause inflation when it finally is.

  • 14 CitizenE // Apr 17, 2009 at 8:03 pm

    From a lefty this all sounds like the same old, same old tax evasion nation concept that has catapulted this nation into abject debt since the Reagan administration. When I hear the right call for an end to the biggest taxpayer boondoggle in history, Star Wars, or get really outraged about the tens of billions of untraceable taxpayer dollars that disappeared in the ‘reconstruction” Iraq, when I see some real cost analysis go down about per capita health care, when I begin to hear about wise investment, then I’ll believe that the teabag set wants to do anything more than pass the buck down to their children and grandchildren, get something for nothing and wars for free.

  • 15 links for 2009-04-17 « Overton’s Arrow // Apr 17, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    […] Teabaggin’ (tags: tea party protest taxes government opinion)   […]

  • 16 Joe R. // Apr 24, 2009 at 8:04 am

    I always chuckle about the complete lack of self-awareness when a blogger ridicules protests as pointless.