Buzzkill at the Tea Party

by , March 23, 2010

They were certainly not the proudest moments in what has been called the Tea Party Movement: activists on Capitol Hill this weekend to oppose the Democratic health-care bill accused of slinging the N-bomb at black lawmakers, screaming "baby killer" at Rep. Bart Stupak, calling openly gay Rep. Barney Frank a "faggot," and spitting on Missouri Democrat Rep. Emanuel Cleaver.

These Washington Post reports and others, which were denied in part by the Washington Times and the right-wing blogosphere, nonetheless became part of the full front-page coverage of the health care debate drama, which climaxed with House passage of the legislation Sunday night. Obama is expected to sign the bill today. Coincidentally, the blaring coverage was a far cry from the Post‘s treatment of the antiwar march on Washington, also on Saturday, to mark the seven-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.

And it was a really far cry from the weekend’s Liberty Forum in Nashua, New Hampshire, where supporters – many of whom can actually take credit for starting the modern Tea Party during Rep. Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign – came together to make a stand in a less, let’s say, overwrought way.

There doesn’t seem to be much daylight between the agitated Washington protesters and the activists at the Liberty Forum, which was sponsored by the Free State Project, the Campaign for Liberty, the Libertarian Party of New Hampshire, the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance, and others, on the issue of limited government and the return of constitutional principles. They all despise the idea of government-imposed health care and fall in together easily on the right to bear arms and efforts to "end the Fed." Some of the forum’s attendees, exhibitors, and speakers shared with me that they had indeed engaged in recent Tea Party rallies across the country.

Missing from New Hampshire, however, was the colorful hyperbole – there were no posters of President Obama as Hitler or Osama bin Laden, for example, though the president did loom as an almost mythical menace in some of the speeches, conversations, and bumper stickers at exhibit booths.

Judge Andrew Napolitano, the one libertarian staple on Fox News, let it rip for one inciting moment for the crowd on Friday night.

"The government is just an organization built on violence and force!" he boomed during a truncated history lesson, which ended with Napolitano urging the crowd to get a "fire in the belly over freedom" which "is what the government fears."

But overall, this New Hampshire gathering, numbering somewhere in the hundreds, seemed more methodical in its cause. Rather than using words like "liberty" and "freedom" and phrases like "founding fathers" and "we the people" as talismans and incantations, individuals there seemed much more comfortable and, dare I say, natural with the language. The Free State Project, after all, has been around since 2001 (when most of today’s neo-liberty crowd were too busy handing over their civil liberties to George W. Bush and advocating the obliteration of the Muslim world).

Thus, the real 800-pound gorilla in the Nashua Plaza Hotel ballroom over the weekend: whether the current liberty/Tea Party movement – which started off, if not as a third-party libertarian endeavor, but as an alternative to the prevailing political status quo – is being co-opted by Republicans and right-wing conservatives who in the end cannot and will not accept libertarian positions against the war, the military-industrial complex, the war on drugs, and the growing police state.

The New Hampshire Free State Project's adaption of the Gadsden flag.

"It’s a touchy subject," said Seth Cohn of the Free State Project, which so far has brought over 800 libertarian-minded people to New Hampshire. He said the Tea Party has been a repository for all types, and even the new popularity of the libertarian movement in New Hampshire now requires a measure of careful consideration over how the national security issue is articulated. He suggests there is a sizable portion of the Tea Party movement today that reverts right back to the blind "our country, right or wrong" meme as soon as the issue of war is invoked.

"There are a number of people here [at Liberty Forum] who have been going to Tea Parties and have been turned off by all the nationalism," he said, "agreeing that [Republicans] all want a piece of it. The question is, how do we reach those people?"

Perhaps the better question is, how do you prevent those people from allowing what was a genuine grass-roots opposition to the Republican mainstream platform to become part of the Republican mainstream platform? (At least we know that’s the preferred outcome of Republican lawmakers, who unfurled their bright [borrowed] yellow "Don’t Tread on Me" flags on the House floor on Saturday like they had been flying them always.)

But the Liberty Forum and representatives from their sponsor groups, which included LOLA (Ladies of Liberty Alliance), the Future of Freedom Foundation, the Alliance for the Separation of School and State, Gun Owners of America, and the upcoming film, Silver Circle, remember a time when their efforts were not only marginalized but openly mocked by right-wing conservatives in the Republican domain, so they are skeptical that it will ever be one big happy family of limited government and fiscally minded individuals.

"People boo" when you bring up the fiscal irresponsibility of the two-front war overseas, said Allison Gibbs, executive director of LOLA. She’s also working on antiwar veteran Adam Kokesh’s congressional campaign in New Mexico. She said national security is virtually a no-go topic among the neo-liberty crowd, even those who have warmed up to Ron Paul in recent times. "They say, oh I agree with him, but not on the war issue."

She and other LOLA members at the New Hampshire forum (including Antiwar.com’s own Angela Keaton) pointed out that Obama’s win in 2008 was the impetus for many to "go liberty," making the growing Tea Parties a "hip" and central stomping ground for the disaffected. "I think it’s important not to disregard the Tea Parties," said LOLA lady Zaira Dynia, but at the same time, they are "taking that word ‘liberty’ to the point where it’s useless. That’s what I am afraid of, that it will have no value."

It wasn’t beyond hers or anyone else’s memory that Ron Paul was roundly mocked by his Republican counterparts in the GOP primary for president in 2008. He was mocked for saying the economy would tank (it did) and for saying the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were folly (who would confidently dispute this now?). His delegates were not only silenced on the floor of the Republican National Convention in St. Paul but harassed by security at the X-Cel Center. Paul – though a sitting member of Congress – had his own floor privileges restricted.

Ironically, one could argue this is when the roots of the current Tea Party movement took hold. Across town in Minneapolis, the Rally for the Republic drew thousands of Paul supporters, libertarians, and fed-up independents, offering a genuine and inspiring alternative to what had become a forced lovefest for GOP candidate John McCain and the birth of Sarah Palin idolatry among right-wing conservatives.

The rest is history. McCain and Palin lost, and in the wake of failure and disgust with President Barack Obama’s plans for health-care reform, the Tea Party was officially launched last summer, with Palin its predominant face and beneficiary. Paul, who serves in Congress as a Republican, continues to generate new supporters and cachet among conservatives (his ability to flood the recent Conservative Political Action Committee with youthful Campaign for Liberty supporters helped him win the straw poll there, much to the mainstream’s chagrin). But there is no better symbol of the fissures in the old and new liberty movement than the three primary challenges against him in Texas.

According to Washington Independent writer David Weigel, Paul’s Republican challengers hailed from the Tea Party movement. They said Rep. Paul is ineffective, too tied to national ambitions, too extreme, and votes too often against funding measures that could help the district – and of course, he opposes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

From Weigel:

"The criticism is, to say the least, ironic. Almost nothing that Paul does cuts against the rhetoric of the Tea Party movement that is mentioned most in the press: responsible spending and adherence to the Constitution. But some of it does cut against the priorities of national security conservatives and partisan Republicans."

Tom Mullen, author of A Return to Common Sense, said he was invited to speak last year at a Tea Party rally in Montgomery, Ala., and took note of the overriding pro-war themes. He attempted to apply the common argument that taxpayers should not be forced to pay for everyone else’s health care to overseas wars of choice. "I said, why is it right for the government to force you to fight for freedom in some other country?"

I asked Mullen what the reaction was. He said, "They were very polite."

Right now, there is a lot of politeness and outreach on both sides, I am told. For instance, Stephen Lee of both the Hillsborough County Republicans and the Live Free or Die Rally in Jaffrey, had no problem setting up a booth at Liberty Forum boasting the sale of Palin 2012 stickers right across the room from Antiwar.com, which was selling its own bumper stickers mocking Republicans for their support of torture during the Bush years. In fact, his two hats represented some of the tug and pull of the movement itself.

"I agree with Ron Paul – he was against Iraq because it was unconstitutional," said Lee. As for Afghanistan, he said, "I just don’t want to pull out and have our men and women just die for nothing … fight to win or bring them home."

I was asked to speak at the Liberty Forum by co-organizer Rich Tomasso, who has been involved with the Free State Project and the New Hampshire Libertarian Party. I presented an analysis of author Aldous Huxley and how the dystopian themes from his Brave New World (1932) and Brave New World Revisited (1958) apply to our media and political cultures today.

One of the things I talked about was how the corporate establishment and dominant two-party system work in tandem to marginalize third-party political experiments, how "they are routinely strangled in their infancy or allowed to exist until they become a problem. Or even worse, they are co-opted and absorbed into the party organism, never to be seen from again. Because they threaten the status quo."

As the 2010 campaign season hits full-throttle, as the 2012 presidential contest looms ever closer, the popular Tea Party Movement is at risk of being absorbed into the GOP like the Borg. It will be a subtle takeover, mind you, as more Republican candidates seemingly embrace the charge of the neo-liberty cause, while more Tea Partiers than not come to the conclusion that getting Republicans elected is more important (and easier) than pushing for a third-party solution. This marriage will not be difficult, as they have more in common with each other than with the renegade libertarian minority among the ranks. Ron Paul’s son, Rand Paul, who is running for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky, told me himself he believed the vast majority of Tea Partiers today voted for John McCain, not his father, in 2008.

The real question is where this will leave devotees of the Liberty Forum and its many long-held alliances in the libertarian realm. Will they try to fight from within the Borg, or will they be satisfied, left behind once again, toiling away earnestly – and honestly – at the margins?

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos