Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Tea Pretense

   I recently came across a comment by someone sympathetic to the Tea Party movement. As outrageous as it sounds, they actually felt that the Tea Party was in many ways an underclass, although not what we normally think of as such, that is in any kind of socio-economic terms.  And that of all people, liberals were the least interested in helping poor Americans.  In a way, the commenter seemed to feel, while not any actual political alignment of interests, a sort of camaraderie with them.
    “You guys just kill me with your bleating about the underclass. You looooove the underclass, but you despise every single person in it. A bunch of rubes, a bunch of cheap votes. I have volunteered (that means working free of charge) hundreds of hours of my time as an EMT in a small jerkwater town plagued by poverty and meth. I’ve seen and smelled squalor you soft-handed pansies can’t imagine. I’ve repeatedly walked among criminals, crazies, and puddles of bodily yuck to help some human reject from society who was sick or hurt. I’ve foregone many a night’s sleep and risked infection with horrible diseases, just because it’s kind of a rush to be a small-time hero. By my hands and the strength of my back, I’ve done more to provide access to healthcare and reduce costs, than all of you put together with your holier-than-thou posturing and whinging.”

    I won’t bother posting my resume.  But I will say this. He's just described the real underclass pretty well. It’s a really sad situation. Yet how many of those poor people go to Tea Party rallies? How many of them are complaining about paying too much taxes, or that their health insurance is being redistributed to the sick? How many of them are concerned about too much government “help”?

    The reality is that these are the people the Tea Party hates! They are the ones that all the government spending is being directed at. They are the supposed constituency “pay-offs” democrats are supposedly after. They are the ones with drug problems, incarceration problems, mental health and behavioral problems, working for low pay and not raising their children well enough. What does the the Tea Party have to offer them?

    Nothing! A big fat, “Get lost you lazy losers!”, “Quit sucking off the government teat!”, and “Get a job!”. These are the people the Tea Party doesn’t want their taxes to go to. These people are who “big government” was designed for. It pays for their rehab, their childcare, their social security, their food stamps, their job training, their mental health services, their children’s free lunches and after school programs, their city colleges, their tax credits. These are the people that the Tea Party says would do better if we just left them alone, and let social Darwinism reign.

   Of course that doesn’t actually happen. People simply can’t take their medication anymore. Old people starve or freeze to death. Kids get raised by unfit adults. Children go hungry or eat candy for lunch at school. People don’t go to college. Kids don’t graduate from high school. Whether you think that these people deserve these services or not, they have effects.

    Because if they do deserve help, then we need to make sure we are providing effective services. I think we’re doing a pretty good job. I can make a strong case for most social service programs not simply creating dependency but in supporting people’s ability to take care of themselves. But what we can’t do is nothing.

    Because for every conservative who is out there selflessly sacrificing his time, there are plenty of communities struggling without adequate resources. Talk to almost any service provider and they will tell you that they can’t do enough because there aren’t enough resources. Take away government help and the delivery of services severely drops or disappears outright.

    But if they don’t deserve it – and this is what I think most Tea Partiers believe, then all this government spending on services does seem an awful waste. I think most would say that these people need to pull themselves up. As Glenn Beck puts it, “They need the freedom to fail.” Well, tell that to a 75 year old grandmother on social security. Tell that to a schizophrenic who isn’t under a bridge tonight because of the clinic down the street. Tell that to the diabetic who lost his job but can now find an insurance carrier who will accept him. Tell that to the child who’s got nothing to eat at snack time because his mom never made him lunch, and then who’s three grade levels behind and need some after-school support. Tell that to the single mom who works 40 hours a week while baby is with her aunt and still finds time to take an affordable night class.

    This may sound harsh, but when an EMT arrives at the scene of a disaster does he ask whether the victims need the “freedom to fail”? Well, poverty and dysfunction are also tragic disasters. It usually starts young and by the time they reach adulthood their course has been set. These people don’t need the freedom to fail, they need the freedom to succeed. And government is usually the only thing in their lives that has the power to help them. And no, they often can’t help themselves! Children can’t help themselves. Diabetics can’t help themselves. Single moms can’t always help themselves.

    So, this is why you won’t find any liberals at Tea Party rallies. Because we believe in helping these people, this underclass. We think its fair that society looks after the least among us. We think its possible to give people a hand up, and not just a “hand out”. If you want to get philosophical about it, we believe there are larger reasons for why this class exists. We believe there are structural inequalities at work. For the same reason we think it is only fair that the upper income white people at Tea Parties should redistribute some of their money so that it goes toward rectifying some of these inequalities. And if they don’t want to, then they should be forced to.

   You can call it fascism if you want, but I think that’s quite a stretch. The question is whether they really earned that income – that they really deserved it – or they just took advantage of a system that was rigged in their favor. Just because the structural inequality is complex that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Say it was something simple, like a monopoly. If one family in a town owned all the resources and profited from everyone’s labor, would it be fair to require them to pay a higher share of taxes to help pay for common services?

    So if it is fair the question is how far should we go. What is a fair rate? What is an effective rate? We had marginal rates of up to 90% in the fifties and people seemed to be doing fine. I think the reason conservatives dislike progressive income taxes isn’t that they think they’re bad for the economy. I think they simply find them unjust. Which is principled. But I hope I’ve at least made a case that they’re wrong.

    In the end the Tea Party loves to play the American underclass. Oh, these poor white Christians! The terrible racist Black Panthers! The terrible Shirley Sherrod oppressing white farmers. Obama’s hatred of whites. His hatred of Christians. It is all just really silly. But as for any real American underclass, they show little sympathy – even downright contempt. Let’s not even get started on illegal immigrants. 

    Now that’s an underclass.

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