I would gladly join a tea party group as long as it accepted Barack Obama as the president of the United States, kept its distance from the Republican Party, Fox News and the Democratic Party, and as long as it opposed more tax breaks for the wealthy, fought for better wages and health care benefits for working-class Americans and conceded that the financial system that caused the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression needs regulation.
How far apart are we?
Those in the tea party movement say they have been unfairly caricatured as a bunch of angry, ignorant white people who think Barack Obama was born in another country, that he's a Muslim, and that he did not actually win the 2008 election. But when Philadelphia Daily News reporter Will Bunch, author of "The Backlash," interviewed tea partiers in Delaware last year, he found exactly that - people who not only questioned Mr. Obama's citizenship and his faith, but also believed he had not won the popular vote. (For the record, the Obama-Biden margin of victory over McCain-Palin was nearly 10 million.)
But let's be open-minded and assume that the vast majority of tea partiers or "tea party types" are rational, high-minded men and women who genuinely care about the future of the country.
The tea party movement hasn't anointed an official spokesperson, though there are some opportunists who have stepped forward to claim leadership, or at least a unique understanding of the movement. One of them is Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of FreedomWorks, described as "a nation-wide grassroots organization fighting for lower taxes, less government and freedom." Mr. Kibbe is the co-author, with Dick Armey, of "Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto."
Here's how Mr. Kibbe explained the motivations of the tea party in a recent piece posted on the Fox News website:
"With the national debt rising $3 trillion since President Obama entered office, and when 42 cents of every federal dollar is borrowed, ordinary Americans are fearful that the country they know and love won't be there for their children. That's the true emotion driving the largest grassroots uprising in modern history; not anger, not ignorance, but a fear that in short time our country will be unrecognizable from any European welfare state."
He added: "It's time to either change course or lose our country."
Even liberals don't want to "lose our country." Even liberals know that, in the long term, we can't keep running massive deficits (See "Clinton, Bill, administration of"). But if the solution is more of what we had in the past - tax breaks for the rich at the expense of middle- and low-income Americans, less government regulation in favor of more "free market" policies - then I fail to see where the tea party is offering anything new.
The tea party should be angry that:
- One in seven Americans now lives below the government's poverty line for a family of four ($21,954 annually), a level not seen since the 1960s.
- More than 20 percent of children are poor.
- Forty-four million working-age Americans are poor.
- The gap in after-tax income between the richest 1 percent of Americans and the middle fifth of the country tripled since Ronald Reagan's election in 1980. That's according to the Congressional Budget Office.
- Between 1979 and 2007, average after-tax incomes for the top 1 percent rose 281 percent ($973,100 per household) while the middle fifth of American households saw only a 25 percent increase ($11,200) and the bottom fifth only 16 percent ($2,400). That's according to an analysis of CBO figures by the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The tea party should be angry that, during both Republican and Democratic administrations, American companies have closed thousands of manufacturing plants and shipped millions of jobs overseas. Tea partiers are angry - or jealous - that public employee unions exist and that they achieve good wages and benefits for their members. But tea partiers should really be angry at the decline of unions in the private sector; it would be in their interest to organize a pro-labor wing and support unions.
Indeed, big government deserves some of the tea party anger. But there are other forces at work against the working class, and until the tea party recognizes that and broadens the target of its ire, then it appears to be doing the bidding of the political-corporate ruling class that has had the upper hand for decades.
Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM.