Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Day I Joined the Tea Party

The Tea Party held a tax day rally in Portsmouth. I went to the rally to see what the fuss is about and check it out for myself. I was surprised more by what it was not, than by what it was. For better and worse, the New Hampshire seacoast chapter of the Tea Party doesn't live up to it's reputation.

There were plenty of signs on display. I didn't see signs with egregious spelling and grammar errors and the messages were relatively tame. Nothing racist. No Nazis. Nothing that seemed overly hysterical. No Fox News references.

I expected the general mood to be one of anger and defiance. But it wasn't really. Cranky, yes. But the partiers seemed to be mostly just enjoying the opportunity to curse big government, complain about onerous taxes and root for freedom.

I didn't see any guns. I thought implied violence might be a theme. But it wasn't really. At one point the MC was explaining a mock tea party bit where costumed reenactors were going to dump "the things we don't like" into the river. When someone yelled out "But Obama's not here!" the MC responded with a jokey agreement. He quickly followed up. "You know that's the one line they'll use in the papers." Big laugh.

Another thing the rally wasn't is large. The newspaper estimated the crowd at 250 which seems about right. Prescott Park has certainly seen bigger events. The annual Chowder Fest, for example, draws crowds more than 15 times that size. And they have delicious chowder.

In addition to talking in the scene, I was there for the speeches. I wanted hear what the fine minds of the Tea Party had to say-- to bathe in their vision of human liberty. There was not a lot of thematic diversity. The speakers struck the same notes again and again. I'll outline their arguments. I had some quibbles.

Founding Fathers

The Tea Partiers are big fans of the Founding Fathers. They are under the impression that the feeling would be mutual. Apparently the Founding Fathers would unanimously support every Tea Party utterance. I'm not so sure.

One memorable sequence was called: "Obama or the Founding Fathers". The speaker was going to say a phrase. We, the audience were supposed to call whether it should be attributed to President Obama or the authors of the Constitution. I was looking forward to this. I was genuinely curious what excerpts from the Federalist Papers or out-of-context Obama quotes might be used in service of the Tea Party thesis. I was disappointed.

Rather than draw material from anything the subjects ever said, the speaker just tossed out slogans. "Honest work", "Government handouts", "Freedom from oppression", "Federal control". A few times the speaker said something like "Projecting American power" and the crowd was genuinely confused about who we were supposed to be calling for.

Some notes on the Founding Fathers: They invented the federal government. The reason they invented the federal government is they had already tried the independent states approach and found it to be a disaster. They knew a strong nation would require a strong central government. So they created one.

The authors of the US Constitution held a diverse set of political views. They didn't agree with each other. No matter what your beliefs are, they would not all agree with you. They did ok despite their differences. So do we. Imagine if, by some miracle, we could resurrect James Madison today. Suppose we could invite him to see what has come from their little experiment in Republic-building. He would be impressed. America today is much more than anything they envisioned. We've build a great nation upon the foundation they established. We've kept their principals intact and inspired the world with our example.

The Founding Fathers would not be joining the calls to tear it all down.

Taxes and Deficits

If I hadn't already known that we had a trillion dollar deficit and that 47% of Americans don't pay federal income tax, I could have learned these facts from the speeches and signs at the rally. They neglected to mention that Obama has lowered our taxes or that income tax rates are now the lowest they have been in 60 years. Many of the people there complaining about the oppressive federal tax burden are among that 47% that pay no income tax at all.

It is no coincidence that we have historically low taxes and historically high deficits. One naturally leads to the other. The TPers claim they want to reduce spending. But their lack of specifics is damning. I want to "eliminate wasteful government spending". Everyone wants to eliminate wasteful government spending.  The problem is there is no consensus on what counts as waste. And you can't build consensus without offering specifics.

An energetic call for tax cuts paired with vague hand-waving in the direction of spending cuts is a clarion call for increased budget deficits.


God got number of shout-outs (Jesus Christ, not so much). My favorite: "God was the first entrepreneur. He created the universe with His own toil and His own imagination. He derived the pleasure from His work and reaped the rewards. He would have us live by His example."

No. The first artist? Maybe. But God was not an entrepreneur. He may move in mysterious ways, but we can safely assume that God isn't in it for the money. The universe was not created as one big franchise opportunity (The Almighty Dollar Store?). If that is the altar at which you worship then your faith rests on a very shaky foundation.


Speaking of shaky foundations, much of Tea Party rhetorical edifice is built upon an simplistic house of straw. Each of the speakers was building a bulwark against some imagined, imminent assault on our civil liberties. Apparently, Obama and "the liberals" have some big plans.
I don't claim to speak for all liberals. Like all vaguely-defined labels, liberalism is a many-splendored thing. I am an Obama supporter.

So, to all you Tea Partiers:

I'll happily defend your right to speak your mind. I don't dispute your right to own firearms. I want your employer to thrive, prosper and expand. If you own a business, I wish you luck and hope for your success. I am also deeply concerned about the federal deficit and am concerned that the American people will not support policies that lead to its reduction. I don't believe in federal expansion for it's own sake. I don't like paying taxes. I don't think tax dollars should be spent on initiatives that are unrelated to the public good.

We aren't coming for you. Really.


While I was hanging out listening to aspiring Republican senatorial candidate Bill Binnie I was approached by aspiring Republican congressional candidate Bob Bestani. Mr. Bestani was kind enough to entertain a few of my questions. I pressed him on how we'll reduce the deficit, control health care costs, and why American health care costs are vastly higher than those in other countries. His responses were not wildly divergent from typical Republican talking-points. He concluded by suggesting I audit his economics course at Stanford for the full extent of his wisdom.

My encounter with Mr. Bestani left me pondering the fate of Congressional aspirants. What is it like to reach such a position in life? You to put yourself forward. Your quest to be a member of the United States House of Representatives leads to skulking about at the back of a rally, shaking hands, passing out fliers and hoping to score a few votes. The guy at the podium is excoriating the legislative body you hope to join. You're trying to become one of the bums the crowd is demanding to throw out.

By the end of the rally, I had my fill of the New Hampshire chapter of the Tea Party. These people are not part of some formidable, fearsome movement. But nor is it a party I would care to join or in whose hands we can entrust our future.


  1. You may have left before my speech, which was the last one of the night! You can see what I talked about at

    By the way, I also attend the Portsmouth Coffee Party. Dialogue is good. Cross-dialogue is better!

    The answers are out there, but rarely come from the politicians themselves...

  2. Hey Jack,

    Thanks for the note. I'm with you on the cross-dialog. Thanks also for linking and reminding me of the Portsmouth Declaration.

    I read the declaration and after hearing the 4/15 speeches I have a question. Maybe you can help. With the calls for sharply-limited government you seem to be asking for the abolition of programs like: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the FDA, etc...

    Is that true? Do you think most Americans or even most Tea Party members want to eliminate all those programs? How would doing so make America a better place?

    The big problem I have with the Tea Party is it's all vague platitudes. Do you even support your own platform when it comes to specifics?