Wages stagnate. Unemployment hovers near 10 percent. Jobs trickle overseas. Wall Street gets bailed out. CEOs divide billions. Folks feel anger. The result: Tea Parties.
Based on the Boston Tea Party, an historic icon of resistance to an imposed British tax, the Tea Party movement in the United States claims over a thousand local chapters nationwide, loosely affiliated to curb federal spending and shrink the size of government.
Their vow to “take back America” involves an assortment of bottom-line pocketbook issues that include checking federal spending, eliminating federal agencies, defanging federal regulations, halting the tide of job-taking immigrants and letting free markets be ever freer. More ideological advocates want to abolish the income tax, dissolve the Federal Reserve and return to the gold standard. For Tea Party advocates, taking back America involves pushing certain economic policies and not necessarily restoring a stronger moral order.
From the Southern Poverty Law Center comes a disturbing report, “Rage on the Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism.” The report says that patriot groups espousing anti-government conspiracy theories have increased from 149 to 512 in the last year, and militia groups, the paramilitary arm of the “patriot movement,” grew from 42 to 127. These groups are fueled by the changing demographics of the country, the soaring debt, the troubled economy and charges that President Obama promotes socialism or fascism. These economic, social and political issues offer great appeal to the Tea Party people. However, the report expressly states: “The ‘tea parties’ and similar groups that have sprung up in recent months cannot fairly be considered extremist groups, but they are shot through with rich veins of radical ideas, conspiracy theories and racism.”
Extreme anger, paranoia and weapons can combine for lethal results. In 1995 Timothy McVeigh’s frustration with the government and the fervency of the patriot movement led him to bomb the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.
The makeup of the Tea Party movement for the most part appears mainstream. A recent poll sponsored by the National Review Institute found Tea Party participants to be 62 percent Republican, 25 percent Democrat and 10 percent independent. Socio-economic indicators show 52 percent have college and graduate degrees, 57 percent are over 55 years old and 40 percent have incomes over $60,000. Religious affiliations show 60 percent Protestant, 28 percent Catholic and 2 percent Jewish with 69 percent attending religious services regularly.
People of faith offer a significant perspective in addressing the anger and frustration with government and social conditions. Rather than throwing the tea overboard, we can brew it to form community. The way out of polarization is dialogue.
The anger industry thrives by selling outrage. Personalities on cable TV, talk radio and Internet blogs grow rich fanning fears and pandering to viewers with predisposed ideological viewpoints. Incivility nearly morphs to a contact sport with interrupting, talking-over and name-calling. Avoiding dysfunctional anger means hitting the “off” button.
Dialogue depends on responsible reading and viewing, not on a single news source diet. Religious teachings can move the conversation beyond the narrow economic measures of value — “Is it efficient? Is it profitable?” — that so dominate today’s American politics. The social teachings of the Church can reintroduce moral considerations beyond individual self-interest: “Is this good? Will society benefit from this?”
The anger of the Tea Party movement and the paranoia of the patriot movement signal the alienation among us. The challenge remains to build a table big enough so all can talk and feel they belong.