As the latest episode of Congressional dysfunction draws to a close, I can only watch in slack-jawed amazement, listening to circus music and trying to remember the adage "No one is an unjust villain in his own mind. We're all the hero of our own story."
What kind of heroes do the Tea Party believe themselves to be? To whom? In short, why are they doing this?
This is ROB Insight, not the World Insider section (that's over here – they're doing good work) so I'll focus on the Tea Party's economic platform. In short, it looks a lot like generational warfare.
Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg recently published an in-depth demographic study on Tea Party supporters which, in combination with a similar CBS/New York Times survey in 2010, provides a wealth of detail on the goals of the movement.
The studies found that Tea Party supporters were better educated than the national average – 23 per cent had undergraduate degrees versus 15 per cent for the country as a whole – and also wealthier. Half of supporters are over 50 years old, 44 per cent are female, 92 per cent are white, three per cent Hispanic.
In terms of economic policy, Mr. Greenberg described Tea Party supporters' unifying belief that "Obama's America is an unmitigated evil based on big government, regulations, and dependency." The Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare) was chosen as the primary political battleground because "insuring the uninsured dramatically grows those dependent on government."
The earlier New York Times study found that the Tea Party holds no fundamental animosity towards government sponsored health care – there was broad support within the group towards Medicare, the health plan for retired Americans. Interestingly, Tea Party supporters were likely to describe their current level of taxation as 'fair.'
Vehement opposition to expanded health insurance is also part of a broader Tea Party belief in balanced budgets and lower government spending. In part, this arises from a "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" ideology emphasizing self-reliance. It also, however, reflects a fear of currency debasement and inflation through excess government spending. The Tea Party is, after all, ground zero for the Ron Paul-supporting hard currency acolytes.
Writing for the Daily Beast, David Frum explains the generational warfare aspect of lower government spending, arguing that "inflation is a lot more frightening to a retiree who lost a great part of his or her savings in a stock-market crash than to a young family struggling with student loans and a mortgage."
Taken as a whole, the Tea Party's economic beliefs make them a thinly-veiled advocacy group for elderly white Americans. Preaching fiscal austerity while supporting Medicare and Social Security – two of the biggest line items threatening long U.S. government finances – is, at best, inconsistent. Covered by Medicare in their dotage, the Tea Party would deny the same privilege to younger Americans. The fiscal spending that even most conservative economists believe is necessary to revive the U.S. economy should also, in their view, be denied to protect the savings of retirees.