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Where Did the Tea-Party Anger Come From?

Why is the Angry Public so Angry?

I think we all know why the Tea Party movement arose — and why even the polls do not quite reflect the growing generic anger at incumbents in general, and our elites in particular.

Anger at Everything?

There is a growing sense that government is what I would call a new sort of Versailles — a vast cadre of royal state and federal workers that apparently assumes immunity from the laws of economics that affect everyone else.

In the olden days, we the public sort of expected that the L.A. Unified School District paid the best and got the worst results. We knew that you didn’t show up at the DMV if you could help it. A trip to the emergency room was to descend into Dante’s Inferno. We accepted all that in other words, and went on with our business.

But at some point — perhaps triggered by the radical increase in the public sector under Obama, the militancy of the SEIU, or the staggering debts — the public snapped and has had it with whining union officials and their political enablers who always threaten to cut off police and fire protection if we object that there are too many unproductive, unnecessary, but too highly paid employees at the Social Service office. In short, sometime in the last ten years public employees were directly identified with most of what is now unsustainable in the U.S. The old idea that a public servant gave up a competitive salary for job security was redefined as hitting the jackpot.

The Tea Party is not over

There is another Tea Party theme that those who play by the rules are being had, from both the top and bottom. The Wall Street bailouts and financial help to the big banks smelled of cronyism, made worse by the notion that liberal “reformers” like Obama got more from Big Money than did the usual insider Republican aristocrats. (The continual left-wing trend of wealthy elites is an untold story, but it suggests a sort of noble disdain: "We make so much that we are immune from the hurt of higher taxes, but like expanded entitlements as a sort of penance for our privilege.")

Emblematic of the anger at both top and bottom was the 2008 meltdown: those who had not played by the rules still got their mortgages, then defaulted, and left the taxpayer with their bills; those who made the loans and profited without risk took the bailout money, and left us with the cleanup. Those in between with underwater mortgages and higher taxes pay the tab.

We are not 19th-century poor

Somehow we forget that we are in the 21st century with our multitude of cell-phones, laptops, no-down-payment new car leases, big-screen TVs, cheap food, and accessible rent that have permeated all society and given the proverbial underclass appurtenances that only the very rich of the 1960s could have dreamed of. Yet the Dickensian rhetoric has only intensified. There is rarely any acknowledgment of the public’s investment in anti-poverty programs or of its efforts to promote social equality. Instead, an overtaxed electorate is constantly reminded of its unfairness and its moral shortcomings. (I just left a multimillion dollar ICU unit in Fresno, where I was visiting a relative. Over a third of the visitors there did not seem to speak English, and so I was impressed by the public generosity that extends such sophisticated care to those who that day seemed largely to have arrived here recently from Mexico. The notion that a visitor to Mexico could walk into such a unit in Mexico City and get instant, free — and quality — care is, well, inconceivable. Yet politicians talk of our heartlessness, not our generosity.)

Existential Blues

There is a sense of futility: new higher taxes won’t lower the deficit and won’t improve infrastructure or public service. Much of it will go to redistributive plans that, the middle believes, will only, fairly or not, acerbate social problems. In California there is a sense (born out by statistics) that we lack a civil and humane public culture brought on by two often neglected facts: a small cadre of overpaid public employees ensures that we don’t have the money for continuance of basic public services; and, second, we feel our tax money is going to redistributive entitlements rather than focused on improving a collapsing infrastructure of dams, canals, freeways, airports, and trains. The idea that a California could ever again build its share of the transcontinental railroad, recreate its Sierra network of dams, copy the Central Valley Water Project, or match the 1960s standards of the UC and CSU university systems is laughable. (But we surely could write a position paper on why the above are either ecologically unsound or in fact counterproductive.) In short, our intent now is not achievement, but equality by any means necessary.

Law — what law?

There is an anger that the law is now malleable. Creditors are bumped at Chrysler, violating contractual agreements. We hear of rumors that cap and trade and amnesty can be accomplished by administrative fiat rather than by law. Of course, BP is demonic in its Gulf performance, but where does Obama obtain the legal right to demand $20 billion in confiscated capital (why then not $50,100, or 200 billion?).

Federal immigration law — as Labor Secretary Hilda Solis recently demonstrated — is not to be enforced, since it is now a race/class/gender issue, or rather a question of demography as seen in purely political terms. Most accept that “government” goes after the misdemeanors of the law-biding citizen to justify its existence, while ignoring the felonies of the lawbreaker, whose enforcement requires expense, and occasional danger. (Why else would the federal government declare some border spots as “no-go” areas in the style of Sadr City?). Are we in Jacobin times, when revolutionary fervor determines which laws are enforced and which not, as if their validity is a political matter alone?