On the night of Dec. 16, 1773, a group of surly New England colonists — hyped on the impassioned rhetoric of prominent Whig and noted brewmaster Samuel Adams — set forth from the Old South Meeting House in downtown Boston and stormed the nearby harbor, whereupon the intoxicated, headdress-wearing colonists emptied nearly 350 chests of British-imported tea into the icy waters of Freedom below.
Nearly two-and-a-half centuries later, Wendy Caswell has planned her own act of tea-related defiance: As chief organizer of the Louisville Tax Day Tea Party, Caswell, a registered Democrat, is in large part responsible for the rally occurring Wednesday, Tax Day, at Jefferson Square, to protest the actions of a government she believes has failed in its obligations to the American people.
“We’re not allowed to actually drop tea bags off the Second Street bridge,” she says, “so we’ll be using loose leaf tea that people can dump, if they wish.”
Before we go any further with this business of tea-bagging, however, a few things must be made evident. Namely, most of these people are not crazy. They’re just normal people who enjoy a good latte as much as the next guy, and they’re upset about what’s happening to this country (whatever that means).
Secondly, the Republican Party is out of power, message coherency and good ideas. The party’s ID levels are at their lowest in decades, a result of demographic-marginalization toward older, white, Southern voters, and a trend toward “multiculturalism” that was co-opted by a better-organized Democratic Party. The breadth of the GOP’s utter disarray has caused — in an intra-party fragmentation that would’ve been unthinkable just five years ago — a “schism-pie” of which Caswell and her ilk of like-minded “tea-baggers” represent but one slice.
Combined with sustained losses in both the 2006 and 2008 electoral cycles and an absence of central Republican leadership, the result is a sub-class of largely libertarian-minded types who didn’t vote for Obama, yet express considerable disdain for both parties’ reliance on Big Government policies.
“Obama was somebody who ran on a lot of change and what government can do to fix problems,” says Paul Coomes, professor of economics at the University of Louisville. “The new administration has made a lot of promises and lofty goals, which people rationally interpret as larger government and higher taxes.”
Specifically, Kentucky’s tax code is unique in the sense that it levies virtually any and every tax that can be levied by a state, with the exception of local sales taxes: property, sales, income, tobacco, alcohol and even savings interest.
“If you have a CD and you have 4-5 percent interest, the government will take a third of that,” Coomes says, “so it becomes a disincentive to save.”
The debate over whether Kentuckians are more unfairly taxed than other states (and whether better revenue streams exist) is a sprawling one, yet Coomes basically agrees that some type of tax will have to be levied no matter what; in other words, you gotta feed the monkey, man — but how you decide to feed it depends upon how well you paid attention in middle-school civics, how much AM radio you listen to, etc.
Many of the tea-partygoers are realistic enough to realize taxation’s fundamental place in the operation of parks, police, fire stations and road maintenance — and, therefore, its fundamental place in the day-to-day operation of the Republic itself, inefficient as it may be.
According to Caswell, taxes can be great “when they’re used for the right thing: fixing our communities, building schools, maybe even prisons. But not government salaries.”
So what, then, is their beef?
“I don’t feel Congress represents us as they should,” says Pete Knighton, a local photographer. He doesn’t have a problem with Obama per se, or for that matter the idea of raising taxes to pay for things like, say, wars. “But I think that this isn’t what people were bargaining for,” he says, referring to the AIG bailout provisions and other D.C. chicanery. “I think we wanted to see things become more equitable [as a result of the election], and then what we got looks like just more of the same.”
As mentioned, the lack of leadership among non-liberals has spawned a wide range of would-be messiahs, oracles and cable news proselytizers who jockey for a higher position with each day’s broadcast. CNBC’s Rick Santelli, for example, is a tee-vee host who called for the first tax day tea party in Chicago, which has spread like wildfire to more than 300 metro areas across the nation.
And Santelli’s not the only star who’s joined the movement. FOX anchors Sean Hannity and Neil Cavuto will broadcast live from tea-bag protests in Atlanta and Sacramento, respectively, while conservo-pundits Michelle Malkin and Glenn Beck have become venerable poster children for the movement itself, apparently for good reason:
“He doesn’t try to put a face on things,” says Caswell, who’s been a fan of the television host for two years and is only recently politically active. “I don’t know why I like Glenn Beck. He’s not trying to change my mind, he’s just trying to give me facts.” Again, another debate, for another time.
Like it or not, this mode of tea-bagging might very well remain a permanent fixture in American political discourse — the Right’s corollary to the Left’s hacky-sack sit-ins, perhaps. Although government might not be shrinking anytime soon, there’s little reason to fear we’ll go commie anytime soon either.
“I don’t believe we’re going to become a European socialist democracy,” Coomes says. “But there’s been enough suggestions of the romantic things this administration wants to do that has a lot of people worried. So what you’re picking up on is a feeling of disenfranchisement.”
Aside from this — a feeling of disenfranchisement — the movement itself seems to be a large tent for wayward Americans looking for change they can believe in, even though they may not have everything figured out yet. At this point, a thinly veiled political stunt is enough for them, if only for the cold comforts it grants the minority when they gather together in one spot, waving signs and raising their voices high, on a patch of land paid for with their own money.
Watch Jonathan Meador’s video coverage of the Tea Party at leoweekly.com/news.