America's Dish Detergent Wars

The fuss over phosphate bans provides an object lesson in the paranoid politics of the Tea Party's anti-liberal backlash

Political observers trying to understand the conservative backlash movement in America known as the Tea Party certainly have their work cut out for them. It's a movement primarily composed of Medicare recipients who object to "government-run healthcare". Its leaders claim they're more libertarian in orientation, and yet they routinely back some of the most anti-choice politicians ever to run for such major office. One of their key leaders likes to compare himself to Martin Luther King Jr, but the issues that most reliably get Tea Partiers to hit the streets are reliably racialised to exploit their prejudiced paranoia. They are full of contradictions, often making - and then running from - position statements, and seem to be more about just being angry than listing specific grievances.

But as a long-time conservative-watcher, I think the best way to understand where reactionaries are coming from is to look at some of the smaller issues that get them all riled up. Take, for instance, the long-standing fight over phosphates in dish detergent. The parameters of this debate provide an excellent insight into the Tea Partiers, what motivates them, and why they're so paranoid.

Many dishwashing detergents use phosphates as water-softeners, but the problem with phosphates is that when they run off into the local water supply, they upset the balance of oxygen in the rivers and lakes and have the potential to kill off fish. The simple solution to this problem is simply to ban phosphates in dish soap, something numerous states have done.

It shouldn't be too controversial; the non-phosphate soaps do just as good a job at cleaning dishes, but they may not leave glasses as spot-free, which should be a small price to pay for a healthy environment. This isn't just conjecture. When I had a (relatively cheap) dishwasher in Texas, I bought non-phosphate soap and noticed no real difference. Then again, I'm not one who believes my friends investigate their wine glasses to make sure they have no water stains on them.

But for many, any price paid to keep the environment clean is too high. As soon as Spokane County in Washington banned phosphate dish detergent in response to oxygen depletion in its rivers and lakes, many residents rebelled by actually driving to Idaho to purchase the same kinds of dish detergent they'd been using before.

On its surface, this seems like illogical behaviour. Surely, getting in a car and driving across state lines just to buy dish detergent costs more time and effort than just rinsing your dishes before you put them in the dishwasher, right?

But if you see the phosphate ban as an arbitrary act of liberal tyranny imposed for the sheer joy of making Real Americans have to wash their dishes by hand, then getting into the car and driving for a few hours to buy dish detergent can become an easy, risk-free way to feel like a warrior fighting for freedom. And while the big cities in Washington often pull the elections to the left, the countryside and suburbs of the state are stuffed with embittered reactionaries who are eager to believe they're being victimised by a bunch of dumb environmentalists who are incapable of thinking through the ramifications of a policy like this.

Rightwing bloggers gleefully seized on this story of dish detergent smuggling, gloating that Washington residents were sticking it to the environmentalists by using more gas to buy detergent and using more water to wash dishes. Of course, the ugly reality is that wastefulness has a larger impact than upsetting environmentalists - it means fewer resources for the future and a dirtier environment, of course - but the sheer glee of potentially inflicting stress on demonised environmentalists was enough to distract from these facts. Erick Erickson of Red State, alarmed by the possibility that a wine glass might have a spot on it that some red-blooded American would have to wipe off with a towel, said, "At what point do they get off the couch, march down to their state legislator's house, pull him outside, and beat him to a bloody pulp for being an idiot?"

The commenters at Free Republic also enjoyed gloating over the possibility that this would lead to more water use, showing those dirty hippies (their term) how stupid and short-sighted they were. In a telling exchange, one commenter asked, "I'm not exactly sure what the greenies are trying to accomplish, here...", and another replied, "It feeeeeeeeels good, and it demonstrates their 'concern'. That's all that really matters with the libs, not actual results."

Except, of course, that a short Google search would have resulted in immediate knowledge of what the "greenies" were trying to accomplish: reducing the amount of oxygen depletion in Spokane rivers and lakes that was killing off the fish. But the first rule of reactionary politics is: don't learn about the issues, or else you might find your kneejerk anti-liberal reactions weren't as smart as you thought they were.

Large parts of America have been primed through little issues such as phosphate bans to believe they don't need to know the actual facts behind an issue because they can simply substitute their paranoid hostility towards liberals for understanding.

Worse, they've given up any sense of responsibility as citizens towards the common good. Once people have absorbed the idea that wiping off an occasional glass is too much of a sacrifice to save the environment for the good of everyone else, it's not much of a leap for those same people to think that it's a travesty if someone poorer than themselves has decent access to healthcare, that they should have to take public transportation rather than leave the next generation with a planet wrecked through global warming, or that it's worse to raise the taxes on the richest Americans by 3% than have widespread unemployment.

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