People regularly send emails and letters telling me that I don’t understand the folks who call themselves members of some or another affiliate of the so-called tea party.
They’re just ordinary Americans, frustrated with the way government is being run, worried about their time-honored American freedoms and wanting to make their voices heard. And that, after all, is what being an American should be all about.
No doubt that’s true in most cases. Even I can give the crew of self-proclaimed tea partyers who currently hold seats in Congress some slack, even if they were willing to cause the United States to default last year, not to mention pull the rug out from under the elderly on Social Security and Medicare.
But then I run across a story like one that appeared in the New York Times recently about how congressional tea partyers are just the tip of the iceberg. Local and state governments are being besieged for doing just about anything. In many areas, it’s become downright scary.
These tea party activists have been mobilizing around the country to fight everything from expanding public transportation to preserving open space, insisting that it’s all a part of a United Nations-led conspiracy to deny property rights and herd citizens toward our cities.
According to the story, activists are showing up at planning meetings to denounce bike lanes on public streets and smart meters on home appliances, all of which they claim are examples of government usurping individual rights. The much-heralded outrage against energy-saving light bulbs for your home is another example of it.
In Roanoke, Va., they threatened to remove members of the board of county supervisors if they approved paying $1,200 in dues to an organization that consults on sustainability issues. The meeting became so contentious that the police had to be brought in to restore order. In Maine, the tea party-backed Republican governor canceled a project to ease congestion in a busy highway corridor because it was allegedly part of the U.N. plot.
“Similar opposition helped doom a high-speed train line in Florida,” the story reported. “And more than a dozen cities, towns and counties, under new pressure, have cut off financing for a program that offers expertise on how to measure and cut carbon emissions.”
The story quotes George Homewood, a vice president of the American Planning Association, “It sounds a little on the weird side, but we’ve found we ignore it at our own peril.”
The tea party advocates base their protests on a 1992 United Nations nonbinding resolution, dubbed Agenda 21, that was designed to encourage nations to use fewer resources and conserve open land by steering development to already dense areas, something like Madison and other cities have been doing to increase population density to gain the efficiencies it offers.
The American Policy Center in Warrentown, Va., which has caught the ear of the tea partyers, has been pushing this paranoid scenario for weeks and has naturally caught the ears of the likes of Newt Gingrich and, of course, the tea party’s favorite cable channel, Fox News.
In several states, particularly Texas, Virginia and Florida, everything from so-called smart readers on utility connections to the purchase of land for public use has drawn huge protests.
One tea party protester in Roanoke insisted that the real job of smart readers “is to spy on you and control you — when you can and cannot use electrical appliances.” I’m sure Madison Gas and Electric and the city’s water utility, both of which are considering installing such meters, will get a charge out of that.
The protester also fumed: “They get you hooked and then Agenda 21 takes over. Your rights are stripped one by one.”
Ilana Preuss, vice president of Smart Growth America, a national coalition of nonprofits that supports economic development while conserving open spaces and farmland, said, “The real danger is not that they will get rid of some piece of software, but that people will be too scared to have a conversation about local development. And that is an important conversation to be having.”
Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich predicted more than three years ago that angry right-wing populism “lurks just below the surface of the terrible American economy, ready to be launched not only at President Obama but also at liberals, intellectuals, gays, blacks, Jews, the mainstream media, coastal elites, crypto socialists and any other potential target of paranoid opportunity.”
No, I don’t think the tea partyers are just frustrated Americans out to get their voices heard. They’re a dangerous threat to American democracy that we ignore at our own peril.