Out of Control Policy Blog

NYC Tea Party Paradox

The throngs that besieged New York's City Hall last night for the Anti-Tax "Tea Party" looked about as out of place there as minutemen dressed as Indians probably did during the Boston Tea Party. Packed in police barricades for several hours were the most rednecks and largest collection of white people Manhattan has seen in one place since the Republican National Convention in 2004.

Hand-made signs, printed banners, about a million "Don't tread on me" flags, and one Mark Levin book filled the air. The slogans ranged from "Stop punishing my success" to "I am not my brother's keeper" to "Congress is a toxic asset" to "Obama is not my nanny". 

The purpose of their crazy mob rally was clear: to protest the rising spending in America that is threatening our future. Or at least that's what it was supposed to be about.

In-between the chants of "USA! USA" and "Schumer's got to go!" there actually were some great points made from the stage about trillions Washington has doled out in bailouts and stimulus packages. Indeed the total cost of "fighting the recession" is now over $13 trillion and is about to eclipse our GDP.

But this rally was only about taxes and spending on the surface. Most people were just angry. Angry that we're in a recession. Angry that evil Wall Street bankers were making bonus money (yeah, the irony that capitalists could be made about people making money struck me too). Angry that the government was spending more money than ever before in history. And after eight years of standing by while the spending skyrocketed out of control, they won't stand for out of control spending!

I asked people at the rally why they came out: one woman said because she didn't want her grandchildren to have to pay off our debt. Another said the government was taking away our freedoms. Still another said she was there to end pork barrel spending. But none of them had been to a rally before--nor did they realize how much the Bush administration had spent. Why? As rally-sign-maker Barbara said, "People are busy, we are finally waking up."

Waking up indeed. And across the country too. Similar "tea parties" to protest rising spending were held in hundreds of cities throughout America yesterday, on tax day. They claim to be non-partisan. And while its true that they are mostly put on by citizens unaffiliated with any political organization, they are undeniably an extension of the conservative movement that is now in the minority.

The empty rhetoric was thick. A frequent complaint was "the government isn't listening to us!" When asked if it was possible the government might be listening to the other half of America who voted them into power one responded, "everyone deserves the right to be heard." When asked if the government should listen to thousands if they came out to rally for bailouts he said, "No, because they would be wrong!"

Last night's rally was also heavy with anti-immigration slogans on signs hoisted high above the crowd. Standing between a woman who spoke little English but had come to America to escape ethnic persecution in the Balkans and a friend of mine who's mother is Chinese, I was struck by the irony of the "Immigrants Go Home!" and "Illegals are destroying America" signs. 

One anti-immigrant protester railed on about immigrants taking jobs from Americans and killing our economy. The fact that our economy would fall completely apart without immigrants and that one of Wall Street's greatest threats at the moment is legislation limiting visas for international financial experts was completely lost on this man. 

But the rally wasn't all bad. I talked with one man who made a very reasonable argument for getting rid of the Federal Reserve. A woman named Rachael said she didn't believe in bailouts because "we all have to work hard. Spoiled children don't turn out well." A great layman's metaphor for moral hazard.

I'll be honest and say by and large the rally last night was frustrating. While its great the people are angry about the spending, the fact that these rallies weren't happening during the Bush years, or at the very least in 2008 when most of the bailout spending started, says that there isn't a lot of principal behind the rhetoric. The anger is mostly from being out of power, not because the government is running a deficit. 

Did the rally people yesterday really believe in limited government? Do they really believe that the government shouldn't control our lives? Would the people at the rally, who don't want the government's hand in their wallet, accept the government's ears on their cell phones or eyes on their computers? Do the people at the rally angry about an unfair tax structure also get furious that gay couples can't have the same marriage tax break rights in 46 states that heterosexual couples do? I'm sure some of those there last night do. But if the tea party movement, which certainly has a heavy conservative politics feel to it, is truly going to be a part of reducing the size and burden of government it needs to join a principled movement. A movement towards individual liberty beyond just the wallet. 

Anthony Randazzo is Director of Economic Research

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Comments to "NYC Tea Party Paradox":

Bruce | April 16, 2009, 7:35pm | #

I agree with your blog to the extent that there were a lot of "johnny-come-lately" republicans at these rallies throughout the country. Does that mean, however, as a Libertarian, I should not have taken the opportunity to protest (together with more libertarians than I've seen in one spot - ever!) Perhaps you'd like to organize the next rally so you can get the branding just right. While I'm waiting for that to happen (and yes, I wish this had happened back in October) I'll keep waving my hand-made sign at Tea Parties.

Kevin | April 17, 2009, 9:44am | #

It's amazing how you can see only what you want to see.

1. You see a mob, when in reality, it's law-abiding citizens trying to be heard....

2. You see a conservative movement who sat by and blindly supported bush....when in reality, there was a HUGE conservative movement that ridiculed Bush for his spending and he lost tremendous support over the last few years...Bush was no conservative, so to say anything different, you would have to have been in another country or just not paying attention, or both. (anyways, bush was spending dimes, and obama is spending dollars...big difference.)

3. You see "capitalist's" angry over bonus money....yet, in reality, the rally wasn't about this at all...besides, I don't know any true capitalist, and I know many, who cared about the bonuses, so you're just making a straw man argument.

4. You see "anti immigration" protesters and in reality, they are "illegal alien" protestors. You've been watching CNN too long! There is a big difference, and you should know better than this. The issue of illegal aliens is huge and they are doing their part to destroy our economy. Just ask California. Illegal aliens are bankrupting the hospitals and justice systems, etc.....

5. You see a governemnt who is listening to the "other half" as you put it, when it reality, we have a government that used the other half to get elected and now they're trying to cram every liberal policy they can before these same people wake up and vote them our of office.

6. You see these people as only looking out for their wallet, yet, in reality, it's people looking for liberty against a governement that has grown way to large, whether repub or dem...its time for it to stop.

Keith | April 17, 2009, 9:44am | #

Kevin, I would hesitate before ever using a phrase like "It's amazing how you can see only what you want to see." As Nietzsche pointed out, this is incredibly true, but it damns you just as much as Anthony or I.

Keith | April 17, 2009, 9:45am | #

Also.. "I'll be honest and say by and large the rally last night was frustrating. While its great the people are angry about the spending, the fact that these rallies weren't happening during the Bush years, or at the very least in 2008 when most of the bailout spending started, says that there isn't a lot of principal behind the rhetoric. The anger is mostly from being out of power, not because the government is running a deficit."
Brilliant point. I wondered why there were so many anti-Obama signs, but not one anti-Bush sign.

Fowler | April 17, 2009, 9:45am | #

You're right; I'm not exactly sure what "the tea party movement" is about anymore. Every time I ask (and every website/event I see) I get a different answer. I'm not much for the "whatever you want it to be" bit.

Kevin | April 17, 2009, 9:45am | #

To Keith: Good point. But, I supported my argument with truth. ;-)

Keith | April 17, 2009, 9:46am | #

But only the truth you saw. *wink*
To Kevin: I don't know if you were at the rally (I'll assume you were), but I saw the same things as Anthony. I didn't know there were so many conservatives in New York City, but these people certainly were. These people have not come out before, which I find very significant. Where were the rallies in 2006, '07, and '08? Where were the rallies when the bailouts started?

Kevin | April 17, 2009, 9:46am | #

You are right, partially.....
1. I argue there was a rally about the bailouts, but it was through talk radio. Talk radio was against the bailouts and the people were too....and at first, the repub congress held their ground, but then, they folded....ugh...this was the start..
2. the people have not come out before because this whole thing was just simmering and now it's just gotten out of hand. The last few years of Bush, the only thing that people supported him on was the war and national security, but conservatives began leaving him in droves because of his fiscal policies and spending....I was one of them and I know alot more.

So, when you take the frustrations of the last few years of Bush, and then add the bailout fiasco, the election of Obama, the policies he wants to implement, you finally get people who would normally have never attended a rally before, finally attend one.

This really isn't a dem or repub thing. It's the people against an out of control government.

Michael | April 17, 2009, 9:47am | #

Anthony, you've got to be kidding me! Their angry because their not in power!??? Look at your history, the conservatives have not been in power for most of the last 100 years......look at the balance of power in the House and Senate. To say this was simply because of that dismisses lots of history. Something is obviously different now to bring about an event that has never happened before. Also, you're coming across a bit elitist. Most of these people are not politicaly savvy. They know something is off, whether they can vocalize it to you properly is another story. This is what you do for a living, so let's not be derisive because someone else isn't quite as eloquent as you in their disdain.

The Tea Parties are for the recognition of the individual as the most important thing in our society......letting the individual use his/her God given gifts to the utmost. When the government infringes upon that by taking away individuality and lumping people into groups that they can ontrol, there is an uneasy feeling. The drastic moves by this administration has caused that uneasy feeling to boil over. I'll agree that many don't know why they're so upset, but that does not take away the legitimacy of it.

David | April 17, 2009, 9:47am | #

Love this. I lectured my parents (who I heard you met; they said you were very nice) and said almost exactly what you said, verbatim. I asked them why they didn't go to a rally against Bush. No real response. Then I mentioned the torture memos that were released today. The silence was deafening. Sad to say it, but I don't think the conservative movement has a single shred of credibility left.

Anthony Randazzo | April 17, 2009, 9:55am | #

Didn't mean to set off a fire storm here. Let me clarify, I don't condemn the tea party rallies. They are not inherently a bad thing. But after going to one I just had a lot of concerns and frustrations... thus the blog post. People (or mobs) have every right to protest, I support and welcome it. The term "mob" doesn't have to be pejorative.

To Bruce's point, I don't think Libertarians should avoid these events necessarily. But I do think that if there is anger we should work to harness it and direct it towards a more sustainable political movement. It appears to me (personal view) that much of the tea party movement is anger emanating from conservatives losing power over the past few years. My hope is that the anger can be directed towards the pattern of government growth, and instill principals of real belief in limited government--beyond just the wallet, and beyond just when you don't have power to control the spending.

I don't deny there were conservatives who stood against Bush, I was one of them. I know there were some who critiqued his spending, but its undeniable that most were willing to tolerate the spending in favor of the war or other social beliefs that limit individual freedom. And that is part of my worry here.

This post was an observation of the people at the NYC rally. I can't change who I talked to or what they believed. I talked to people who WERE "anti-immigrant," who told me we should close the borders to all immigration and "protect" American jobs. But such a view doesn't understand how important immigrants are to our economy. Yes some there were against illegal immigration, but they were separate people. And even then, illegal immigration may not the evil many believe it to be. See some of Shikha Dalmia's commentary on immigration in America and how we should approach reform.

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