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Maricopa County Libertarian Party

Where Were You?

September 28, 2009
 by Kimberly Ruff

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On oft-made criticism of the Tea Parties is that protesters didn't seem too eager to complain when Bush was spending our tax dollars like a kid in a candy store. In this, I explore several factors that have contributed to the sudden rise in public protests.



Despite the fact that the Arizona Republic's Letters to the Editor are a constant source of aggravation for me, I still habitually read them every Monday through Friday. Lately, along with the usual crop of letters to either canonize or crucify Sheriff Joe Arpaio, there has been the recurring complaint, "Where were all these tea party protesters railing against excessive government spending when Bush was in power?"

Typically, this question is asked for one of two reasons. Either the author's main point is that the protests are hypocritical; they assume that no one complained when Bush increased federal spending and allowed the national debt to expand to unprecedented levels because he was a Republican and/or white, while Obama is a Democrat and/or black. Or, the author argues that we're getting our undies in a bunch for no good reason. Spending was outrageous last year, so why should this year suddenly manifest in a collective public outcry?

There are several factors that have contributed to the sudden surge in public protests, and none of them have to do with Americans being poor sports about the election, racists about the winner, or amnesiacs about the past administration.

First, there is a causal relationship between economic decline and socio-political upheaval. A tanked economy creates an unstable environment for people, who fret about the possibility of unemployment and the accompanying difficulty of making ends meet. Constant worry without an immediate solution frustrates people who, in turn, look for a reason for their seemingly ceaseless misery. When they find one, they become aggressive. This phenomenon, known as the frustration-aggression hypothesis, helps explain the sudden radicalization of many Americans.

In the case of the Tea Parties, originally started by libertarians, the reason for their frustration and the object of their aggression is the heavy burden of taxes delivered at a time when the average individual can ill afford to shoulder them. Factor in where those taxes are going – to the very agents and agencies responsible for our ruined economy – and you've got yourself an explosive mixture.

Of course, not everyone at the Tea Parties is against the measures taken by government to help prop up the very economy they knocked down; some are blindly frustrated and are aggressing against the perceived decline in American values. This brings me to my second factor.

There also exists a correlation between tough times and collective nostalgia. As the brilliant historian, Richard Hofstadter, wrote in The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, "what underlies this overpowering nostalgia of the last fifteen years is a keen feeling of insecurity. The two world wars, unstable booms, and the abysmal depression of our time have profoundly shaken national confidence in the future. If the future seems dark, the past by contrast looks rosier than ever" (pp. XXXIII-IV). This book, written in 1948, succinctly captures the very phenomenon Americans are facing sixty years later – overwhelmed by their present and fearful of their future, they look fondly on their past.

The Tea Parties are a perfect illustration of this. Overwhelmed by two wars, unstable economic booms, and the abysmal recession of their time, Americans gather on the steps of a Town or City Hall, outfit themselves like Patrick Henry, wave Gadsden Flags, and shout, "give me liberty or give me death!" Even the name of the event – Tea Party – is an invocation of a time long since passed. It may seem like street theater to some, but it's really an attempt to pull together the threads that once united them, however tenuously, in order to hang onto something stable.

No doubt, many of Obama's policies bear remarkable similarity to Bush’s, but not all Americans are yelling about one now because they liked the other better. It just so happens that the perfect storm of a bad economy, a tenuous future threatened by economic instability and swift political change, and overwhelming frustration at both have caused them to wake up and put their feet down.

At least, that was how it began. What it's become is an entirely different matter.



Related Content:

The Libertarian Problem - Austin Raynor
The Perils of Success - The Angry American
9/12 Tea Party in Phoenix Degenerated to Republican Pep Rally - Nick Coons


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