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.