Last week the Tea Party proved itself once and for all to be anti-populist.
Now, I know their press says Tea Partiers are just regular Joe the Unlicensed Plumbers, angry about government fill-in-the-blank. That’s been the story ever since they first rallied against people who found themselves on the wrong end of an adjustable rate. “How many of you want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgages who has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?”, queried CNBC’s Rick Santelli in February of 2009. It was the rant that brewed the Tea.
Yeah, can’t pay your bills? It’s not the conspiracy of Wall Street’s semi-legal la cosa nostra. It’s that you’re a degenerate!
Thus the battle hymn of the Tea Party was born: Wealth rewards the virtuous; poverty punishes the failures. Someday we’ll all be virtuous enough to be affluent.
This idea has been packaged and sold as “free market” – bought by people in tri-corner hats: There are winners and losers. Losers are broke. Root for the winners.
“Populism” – traditionally defined as average people against the elite – was attached to the Tea Party by default. Tea Party isn’t a youth movement. They’re not labor. They’re not anti-war. So for lack of a better vocabulary word the Tea Party – basically the GOP on caffeine, fueled by corporate interests – got labeled “populist.”
But they’re far from it. Tea Partiers see destitution as a leprosy to be cured by forceful finger wagging.
Shame on you! Pay your bills!
But what the Tea Party really hates is government. They don’t trust the government. They hate all regulations unless its policies make life miserable for anyone who looks Mexican – then we’re a country of laws. Government is always too big and too cumbersome unless it’s the military – then it’s patriotic. Government workers are flesh-eating bacteria with parasitic benefits unless they’re soldiers – then they’re heroes.
Privatize everything. Let the sleek, optimized, profit-driven business sector make more money off everything. “Capitalism!” Put that on a sign – you’re the Tea Party. You’re shaking your fists at the government!
So it was a little surprising when in Wisconsin last week, the Tea Party marched in favor of the government. Wisconsin had a budget surplus last year which was given away as tax breaks to Governor Scott Walker’s supporters. Now faced with a deficit, Walker’s “Budget Fix Bill” calls for drastic cuts to working people and the public unions’ rights. After a weeklong standoff, the Tea Party then showed up with some misspelled signs (see they’re not elite…just marching for the interests of elites) in support of government overreach. Opposite of their rep, the Tea Party is anti-populist at their core, so they had to show up in solidarity with the big guys.
The Tea Party will tell you it’s not the government’s job to make life better for the middle class. Ok, fine. Then whose job is it? Oh, the unions. Which the Tea Party is also apparently against…because the Tea Party is anti-populist.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1983, 20% of the workforce was in a labor union. Now it’s just under 12%. The states with the highest percentage of union workers are the richest states: California, Washington and New York. The states with the fewest – Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas – are the poorest.
The existence of workers’ unions make non-unionized jobs better for workers. If an employer wants their workers not to unionize, the employer makes conditions comparable to the union places. This is the soft power of organized labor.
With the decline of the unions, the middle class has also declined. We just endured the Bush Lost Decade. The richest in this country saw their fortunes increase during the last 10 years. The middle class saw their wages flatten.
Several factors contribute to the flat line, but an important one we overlook is the decline of workers’ collectively negotiating with employers. The right to earn a decent wage for a decent job…has been browbeaten, bloodied and in some cases bypassed.
A real populist movement is made up of regular people. In their protests the Wisconsin union supporters have been chanting, “This is what democracy looks like.”
They’re also what an actual populist movement looks like.