This term refers to the difference between what members of the Tea Party say and what they do. I’m not pointing this out, by the way, to suggest that Tea Party members are the only hypocrites in our society. We are all guilty of failing to live up to our highest standards.
The difference in this case, however, is that much of the political momentum on the conservative right is based on the narrative that there is a significant and vocal portion of the population that wants smaller government. So we’re seeing radical shifts in state funding. States are reducing support for public education, renegotiating union benefits, taxing retiree income, and using that money to slash business taxes. We are seeing similar dramatic cuts in entitlement and social safety net spending at the federal level being demanded by conservative Republicans in return for their willingness to support fiscally responsible behavior like raising the debt limit.
But when you dig down into the nature of the grass roots support for these sorts of actions, you find something very different.
A Time/CBS Poll found that most Tea Party members felt their personal taxes were fair. Most sent their children to public schools. Most felt both Social Security and Medicare were worth being funded by tax payers.
They were not unhappy about the various government benefits that they and their family and friends might be receiving. In fact they felt quite justified in taking those benefits because they met their needs. They were, however, not only convinced, but angry that there were other people who “were not like them” who were receiving undeserved government benefits. They are deeply pessimistic about President Obama whom they see as disproportionately concerned about the poor to the detriment of the middle class and the rich. In fact 25% of those polled think that the current administration favors blacks over whites compared to 11% of the general public.
Their anger at the President in particular and liberals in general seems to mask their own responsibility for the current size of the deficit as a result of the benefits they receive.
Matt Taibbi from Rolling Stone interviewed Janice and David Wheelock after a Kentucky Palin rally.
“I’m anti-spending and anti-government,” crows David, as scooter-bound Janice looks on. “The welfare state is out of control.”
“OK,” I say. “And what do you do for a living?”
“Me?” he says proudly. “Oh, I’m a property appraiser. Have been my whole life.”
I frown. “Are either of you on Medicare?”
Silence: Then Janice, a nice enough woman, it seems, slowly raises her hand, offering a faint smile, as if to say, You got me!
“Let me get this straight,” I say to David. “You’ve been picking up a check from the government for decades, as a tax assessor, and your wife is on Medicare. How can you complain about the welfare state?”
“Well,” he says, “there’s a lot of people on welfare who don’t deserve it. Too many people are living off the government.”
“But,” I protest, “you live off the government. And have been your whole life!”
“Yeah,” he says, “but I don’t make very much.”
Or Jodine White, 62, of Rocklin, CA who feels that since she has been paying into Social Security, she deserves its benefits.
“That’s a conundrum, isn’t it? I don’t know what to say. Maybe I don’t want smaller government. I guess I want smaller government and my Social Security.” She added, “I didn’t look at it from the perspective of losing things I need. I think I’ve changed my mind.”
If anything, the cognitive dissonance on display is even more impressive than the hypocrisy. The key to understanding this conundrum appears to be who is benefiting from government generosity:
Medicare? Well, that’s for people like David and Janice, and their friends, so that’s good.
Welfare? Well that’s for shiftless, undeserving people — not people like David and Janice.
Chances are that most Tea Partiers have no idea how the government spends its money. Given their preconceptions about Barack Obama, their thinly veiled racism, and their bias against the poor; the Tea Party faithful are pretty sure the government is spending too much money on people who don’t deserve it — people who are not like them. The thought makes them angry and that anger has been used to justify an attempt to remake government in a way that if successful will cost David and his peers their jobs and Janice her peers their subsidized healthcare.
Life has an interesting way of working things out.