I miss the tea party.
Two years ago, tea party members scared me. Like any loosely formed organization, they embodied numerous viewpoints that often conflicted. But they tended to agree on proposals that would have destroyed safety nets at a time when I felt they were needed most, cut expenditures at a time when a recession demanded deficit spending and chased away immigrants who loved America.
Their energy was immense, and with it came power. Most of the things I feared as a result of their influence on the 2010 elections came to fruition.
While I disagreed with many tea party goals, I agreed with one. I have come to suspect that, because it involved the process by which we set goals in a democracy, it may have been more important than any of the others.
Two years ago, tea party members were uniform in their frustration at the increasing power of special interests. Whether those interests were unions or corporations, tea party members detested the fact that those who wrote the biggest campaign check could control our government. They recognized that the increasing power of special interests necessarily decreased the power of the people.
Indeed, this is one of the few planks upon which the tea party and Occupy Wall Street agreed. Both groups wanted to change a system in which narrow profit motives routinely subvert the will of the people.
The tea party — unlike Occupy — was brilliant in channeling its fervor into political results. No Republican candidate could ignore the tea party in 2010, and many owed their elections to tea party zeal. Those candidates since have supported many tea party goals, but not the most important one.
The same special-interest money the tea party scorned quickly captivated the candidates the tea party had empowered.
The new politicians could either change the system or live by it. They chose the latter.
The U.S. Supreme Court delivered a blow to the goal of reducing the influence of money in politics with the Citizens United decision. Just as frightening is a recent push — articulated by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and encouraged by corporate interests — to allow contributors to remain anonymous.
Knowing the identity of those who contribute to our elected officials matters.
Voters cannot fully evaluate the auto bailouts without understanding they benefited unions and that President Barack Obama’s campaign received generous financial support from unions. He had a political debt to labor organizations — identified in financial disclosures — and it is fair to question whether he allowed that obligation to distract him from his obligation to the nation.
U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville, was a tea party darling. He recently sponsored three amendments to the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act. One prohibited the sharing of missile-defense data with Russia, despite the value of Russian cooperation in defending against missile strikes from Iran or North Korea. Another made it more difficult for satellite-launch companies to compete with United Launch Alliance, which has a monopoly on Defense Department missions. The third tightened restrictions on the Defense Department’s purchase of steel manufactured outside the United States.
Reasonable voters could support each of these amendments. In evaluating them, however, it is important to understand that Brooks received contributions from Raytheon and other missile-defense contractors that stand to make billions if Russia does not cooperate in missile defense. He received large contributions from Lockheed and Boeing, the owners of United Launch Alliance. He received significant contributions from Nucor, which would benefit from more Defense Department purchases of domestic steel. We know these things because the contributions were not anonymous.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile, is protesting environmental regulations that would limit mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. No question, there are valid economic arguments against the regulations. Can there be any question, however, that a fair evaluation of Sessions’ motives should include the knowledge that his campaign has received large sums from the parent of Alabama Power, from coal companies and from other firms that would lose money if the regulations take effect?
McConnell is hoping tea party members will sacrifice their goal of limiting the power of special interests because, by so doing, they can improve their political ability to accomplish other goals. Hand control of your political system over to wealthy and anonymous special interests, he is saying, and they can defeat Obama, reduce the deficit, shrink government and accomplish any number of tea party goals.
It is no coincidence that Occupy Wall Street and the tea party overlapped on a single issue. Both groups, along with almost all Americans, believe that a government by the people and for the people is essential to America’s survival. We always will disagree on lesser issues, but with an effective democracy we can resolve those disagreements.
I miss the tea party because it may be the only force that can muster outrage at McConnell’s cynical proposal. Special interests are using the power they have, to gain even more. Long after our disputes over Obama and the recession are footnotes in history books, we will all wonder what happened to our democracy.
Contact Eric Fleischauer at http://www.mile304.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.