It's easy to know what the teabaggers are against.
They hate what they call Big Government.
They hate Big Business.
They hate the political establishment represented by both parties.
They hate Barack Obama and don't think much of John McCain either.
They hate urban elites.
They hate health care reform, TARP, and the economic stimulus package.
They hate a lot.
What's less clear is what they're for. According to this must-read New York Times article by David Barstow, the teabaggers have developed a ramshackle political philosophy -- if that's the word -- based on the Social Darwinism of Ayn Rand, states' rights, a uniquely individual reading of the Constitution, and what must surely be a fragile grasp of George Orwell.
The surface appeal of Orwell echoes throughout teabagger meetings when they invoke the specter of Big Brother as represented by all of the above. But Orwell, although an anti-Stalinist, was a lifelong Socialist, an avowed leftist with a deep commitment to social justice. Although critical of the British political establishment, he remained well within its bounds. If Orwell would have had anything to say about the current health care legislation that the teabaggers so despise, he would almost certainly argue that it did not go far enough. So, it's more than a bit odd that the teabaggers would anoint a man whose diamond-hard intellect and belief in the necessity of a benevolent welfare state are at complete odds with their distrust of elites and government.
Moreover, Orwell would have little truck with Rand's Social Darwinism. Rand, who pretty much rejected everything except hero worship (especially of Ayn Rand -- she once famously compared herself to Aristotle and Aquinas, and presided over an inner circle whose membership depended on adulation of her), espoused the primacy of both property and individual rights without seeming to grasp that the two are finally separate interests that inevitably clash. An atheist who claimed to worship no god other than reason, Rand pursued a curious logic that eliminated altruism and social justice as legitimate cultural values and that argued instead for the moral primacy of laissez-faire capitalism.
That we had eight years of this under the Bush Administration and that it drove the country into a ditch appears to have escaped the teabaggers, although they would no doubt argue that Bush did not go far enough in terms of deregulation, and that that caused the problems we face. And, of course, there's always the question of who would want to live in a society that paid lip service to individual rights while offering no guarantor of them and that paid no heed to the welfare of its citizens as a group.
In Barstow's article, a teabagger looks somewhat regretfully at an all-white teabagger gathering and says unconvincingly that they are not racist. Maybe. But Orwell, who had an unparalleled grasp of language, meaning, and code words, would be quick to point out the racial implications of the talk and signs advocating lynching and gelding, not to mention the emphasis on states' rights. Perhaps a teabagger group in the Pacific Northwest is removed enough from history that it can't internalize the meaning of states' rights to African-Americans. But no group in the south can claim that and pass the laugh test. As long as the 'baggers insist on states rights as a core philosophy, they won't attract minority groups of any kind, as minorities historically have had to look to the federal government for whatever justice they can get. And the naked hatred of President Obama won't be attracting minorities any time soon, either. Leonard Pitts has a thoughtful column on teabaggers and race here.
The teabaggers claim to worship the Constitution; Barstow profiles one who carries a copy with her and reads from it daily. It's strange, then, that they would find common cause with the Austin man who crashed his plane into an IRS office, killing himself and family man father of six who was simply doing his best to make a living. After all, the Sixteenth Amendment gave Congress the power to create the IRS, so the attack on the building was literally an attack on the Constitution itself.
OK. so maybe I'm engaging in a semantic game typical of the liberal elite, although I don't think so. What's inarguable, it seems to me, is that the Constitution is a complex document open to interpretation. It's impossible to know the mind of the Founders because the document evolved over time and was the product of compromise. We know that it isn't perfect because it allowed slavery, was silent on universal manhood suffrage, and denied women the right to vote. It has also been amended 27 times. Moreover, the Constitution has been subject to court cases, academic study, and judicial debate for over 200 years. Of the two great Chief Justices, one (John Marshall) was a conservative whose rulings established the Court as a defender of property and business rights. The other (Earl Warren) was a liberal who interpreted the Constitution as a protector of the individual against corporate and state power.
Legal experts from the reactionary right to the radical left and all points in between have argued for particular interpretations of the Constitution. Historically, it has a latitude wide enough to accommodate both liberal and conservative perspectives. The most an individual can do is find the arguments that most reflects his or her personal and political values and understand the Constitution through that prism. What no one can claim the absolute correctness of an interpretation since no historically established a single perspective. Whether the teabaggers like it or not, objectively speaking the Constitution is an organic document whose meaning adapts to the times and the judicial philosophies of the men and women sitting on the Supreme Court.
And yet, the teabaggers claim to know the one true meaning of the Constitution, which is to them a document that seems to end at the Second Amendment. They're so sure of this that anyone who disagrees with them is not a true American and has committed borderline treason. Hence, the dark hints about a pending civil war between, presumably, those who revere the Constitution and those who defile it. That's what lets them rationalize the undisguised atmosphere of violence, take pride in mob tactics, and shrug off the racist imagery: We're the only ones worth listening to, and if we have to shout you down and make threats to call attention to ourselves, we will. We have to be ready, they believe. If civil war comes, it won't be us who starts it, but you'd better know that we are prepared to fight and die for our country.
It's sad, really. These are people who with some justification feel betrayed by the nation's institutions, aggravating an already deep-seated sense of right-wing aggrievement. Heck, Wall Street and the government let everybody down, except for a few executives who collect fat bonuses no matter what. But the solution must be better than turning the country into an armed camp with every man for himself, fanning the flames of race hatred while waiting for a Randian savior like Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck to lead us all to some Libertarian promised land. It's really nothing more than a children's story, a version of Snow White in which the good (white) people are awakened by a kiss from Princess Charming who then vanquishes the evil queens around them. Whatever the Founding Fathers envisioned for the country, surely it wasn't that...
It can happen here, writes David Sirota...