Wealthy populism and the real history of the Boston Tea Party

In light of our recent articles on European populism and comparing anti-democratic mass demonstrations in Thailand to the U.S. tea party movement, I was thinking about the latter group once again. I was also double-checking the history of the East India Company for research and stumbled into the realization that the “tea party” part of the name might be more accurate than previously believed.

The common version of the story is that it was a protest against high taxes from Britain — on tea among other things — without representation in parliament. Obviously, this would not be an accurate analogue to anything in the modern United States because the people protesting are represented in the elected legislative body of the national government.

There’s also usually a claim that the colonists were being “forced” by the government to purchase tea from a monopoly. And maybe you could make a case that government policies today are creating de facto monopolies for certain companies (like internet service providers) — mostly through lax regulation. But they generally haven’t been protesting that angle. It’s always been about the original “Taxed Enough Already” (TEA) claim.

So back to the history: in fact, the inciting factor provoking the riot was not some act of increased “taxation without representation” but actually that the British government lowered the tax burden, by allowing the EIC to import tea directly into cities like Boston, without going through British home customs first. Yes the government was still making the EIC the monopoly licensed tea importer, but middle-class colonists had been blatantly ignoring that restriction anyway, in light of the previously high prices on taxed tea imports. Instead, they had been illegally buying tax-exempt tea from Dutch wholesalers brought in by American smugglers.

Those smugglers had become very wealthy, especially in Boston. The problem was that their business only survived by virtue of multiply-taxed East India Company tea being way more expensive than the competing non-British tea. People weren’t buying Dutch tea as a political statement (before the Boston Tea Party), but to get a deal. As soon as EIC became the cheapest tea in the game (not through unfair subsidies, just tax cuts!), everyone was more than willing to purchase legal British tea (including customs duties). And the wealthy business interests running the illegal tea were not happy with being priced out of the market.

Thus, the original Boston Tea Party is less a cry of freedom and more a story of a bunch of rich guys rallying a populist mob to halt the enforcement of government regulation on their illegal business activities and to protest the cutting of taxes that affected average people because tax-avoiding smuggling was how they had become rich. All they had to do was drop some vague buzzwords like “liberty” and rights” to make the case that the money consumers were spending on tea should be going into their own pockets instead of into the royal treasury (which was paying for all the colonial defenses, the debt from the French & Indian War, etc).

So to recap, this current conservative populist “movement” named itself after a protest against policies that benefited common people but negatively impacted wealthy business interests led by flagrant tax evaders. That seems pretty apt actually.

It’s too bad that wealthy interests are so often and so easily able to rabble-rouse disaffected and struggling middle class people to rally against their own interests on behalf of the rich.

Flag of the British East India Company, 1707-1801.

Flag of the British East India Company, 1707-1801.

Rick Santorum: Rebranded or Receding?

I’m not a big fan of getting into the endless discussions on distant presidential election fields, and I’m certainly not a fan of Rick Santorum, who I believe to be a horrible person. But I was mildly intrigued by some extensive comments he made to the Associated Press about a possible second presidential run during an interview about his latest book.

He’s still quite obsessed with decrying sex — an obsession that made him famous initially as a U.S Senator — and in the new book blames poor voters for having too much consequence-free sex. But he also seems to be staking a clear position as the “Big Government Republican” wing’s standard-bearer, much in the way that George W. Bush was, and against the Paul/Cruz libertarian wing.

Anxiety among those voters remains high, and Republicans have for too long talked to the top earners and not the workers.

“A rising tide lifts all boats – unless your boat has a hole in it. A lot of Americans, we’ve got holes in our boats,” Santorum said. “Millions and millions of Americans (are) out there who want good lives but have holes in their boats. … They just see the water level going up and their boat sinking.”

That’s why, he argues, candidates need to put forward policies to help those voters.

“I’m looking at 2014 and I’m thinking the Republican Party is heading toward No-ville, which is `we’re against this, we’re against that, we’re against this.’ We’re not painting a positive vision for America,” Santorum said in the interview.

“There’s a strain within the Republican Party now that smacks of the no-government conservatism,” Santorum said. “That wasn’t Ronald Regan. It wasn’t Teddy Roosevelt. It wasn’t Abraham Lincoln. It wasn’t any Republican that I’m aware of. It wasn’t Calvin Coolidge. And yet there seems to be this creation of this strain of conservatism that has no basis in conservatism.”

Santorum said Republicans should respect Reagan, but he doubted the former president would offer the same policies today that he did during the 1970s and 1980s.

(N.B. Calvin Coolidge was 100% the embodiment of “no-government conservatism” so I have no idea what he’s talking about there…)

If he decides to run again, this puts him in a bad spot with a lot of Republican primary voters these days, which he seems to know. So, it could be a hail-mary pass to try to rally a lot of unusual primary voters who want an interventionist government (that helps the “right” and “deserving” people, of course) and care about social justice, in the same religious vein he does.

But it’s probably incompatible with “Gospel of Wealth”-style Protestants and the libertarian/tea party-style Republicans who still dominate much of the party’s primary process. It’s also badly incompatible with the Big Business Republicans who kept his 2012 presidential hopes alive despite a mess of a campaign committee.

So, this may not be a rebranding, so much as another way to cash in while there’s still some amount of attention on him, before ultimately opting not to run. Comments like “Yeah, I don’t know if I can do this. It’s just tough,” are not usually associated with people who decide to run after playing coy. (If the campaign is tough, being president is tougher.) And he’s got a reasonably successful private sector career now, making Christian-themed movies. Plus, he’s still (quite reasonably) very concerned about the health of his youngest daughter who has a severe genetic disorder that may not allow him much more time with her.

If I had to guess, I’d say he won’t run again, but it’s always hard to predict these things because circumstances change and people get pressured in or out of the race unexpectedly. But to me it sounds like he’s pretty much pulling the plug on running and just wants to be a “thought leader” in the party (which I don’t expect will work out too well).

April 21, 2014 – Arsenal For Democracy 81

Description | Topics: Bundy Ranch standoff, Allen West, HBO’s Veep. People: Bill, Nate, Greg, and guest Daniel Fidler.

Talking Points:

– Why Cliven Bundy owes the Federal government a million dollars in back taxes (and why he believes the United States doesn’t have any authority over him)
– What Allen West’s latest anti-Muslim rant tells us about American views on governance and the Framers’ intent
– Political Pop Culture: Why you should be watching HBO’s “Veep,” now in its 3rd season.

Part 1 – Bundy Ranch Standoff:
Part 1 – Move Your Cows, Bundy – AFD 81
Part 2 – Allen West:
Part 2 – Allen West – AFD 81
Part 3 – Daniel Fidler on HBO’s “Veep,” season 3 [Spoiler Alert]:
Part 3 – Veep Review – AFD 81

To get one file for the whole episode, we recommend using one of the subscribe links at the bottom of the post.

Related links

Read more

How dare you vote for your interests!

It’s pretty well known that among Fox News’s “infotainment” programming (between its official news segments) the show Fox & Friends is perhaps the most devoid of a link to reality. But it does spit forth, within a vast mine of crap, some particularly putrid gems worth looking at in greater depth.

allen-westOne such recent gem was a segment with Allen West, a hyper-conservative former Congressman from Florida and advocate of the Tea Party movement, perhaps best known for his undying rage toward Muslims. (He is also known, among critics, for his borderline war crimes in Iraq that led to his early retirement from the U.S. Army — a fact the Fox News hosts did not bring up when repeatedly calling him “Colonel West.”)

During this segment, the show asserted (with little daylight between his claims and the hosts’ statements) that the Muslim Brotherhood is about to become a party on everyone’s voting ballots, right alongside Democratic and Republican candidates.

Now, there are many things wrong with that claim (besides the fact that it’s 100% made-up). It’s hard to know where to begin.

For one thing, the framing of the claim is outlandish because anyone could start any party (as many have indeed done) and it would still not be on the same level as the Democrats and Republicans — certainly no more than if I were to launch the “American Easter Bunny Supremacy Party” or whatever. But we’re talking about the network that tried to convince its viewers that the “New Black Panther Party” was a revolutionary force sweeping the nation and oppressing white voters, rather than two old Black men in berets looking cranky outside a single polling place in Philadelphia.

So, for today and the segment in question, it’s probably not worth my time to rehash the theme that Fox News is crafting an entirely fabricated reality that with each passing day shares fewer properties — nay, even laws of physics — with our dimension. If you want more on that, you’ll want to read my popular 2010 treatise entitled “The Right-Wing Alternate Universe.”

(Shout out, though, to their extensive world-building and long-running character development work on this Fox Newsiverse. They should host a con or have a wikia or something, so Fox News Channel nerds can discuss continuity error resolution and alternate timelines.)

Voting bloc

But the real reason I wanted to bring up this segment was the claim that a consortium or coalition of legitimate Muslim-American and Arab-American lobbying organizations were trying to put together a political party. That’s not actually true, as you’ll see from this quotation from the segment, where he elides two entirely different concepts of
1) a political party and
2) a voting bloc (a group of voters who informally vote together based on a shared interest).

From the Informed Comment summary of the exchange (if you haven’t watched the clip yet):

“They’re forming some type of political party, a voting bloc as they call it,” West said.

“In this country!” Doocy emphasized.

“That’s right! To institutionalize policies that favor them,” West agreed, adding that they wanted to “destroy America from within using a civilizational jihad, and that’s exactly what you see happening.”

Ok, so in reality (as he tacitly acknowledges without formally acknowledging) no one is actually forming any type of political party. A “voting bloc as they call it” is exactly what every major group of united voters is called in every democracy in the world, but he makes it sound like a concept so exotic and Middle Eastern it just walked out of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights holding hands with Scheherazade.

If all the labor unions in the United States endorse a candidate and organize to get their membership to back that candidate, they have formed a voting bloc, not a political party. They’re not suddenly now “The Labor Party.”

But look at that other remark he tosses in there. He says they (the Muslim/Arab-American interest groups) want “to institutionalize policies that favor them.”

That’s a fancy way of saying they want to pass laws that are in line with their goals (of reducing discrimination against Americans who are Arab and Muslim and of promoting better cultural understanding).

If you listen to the clip of Allen West talking, but then read closely the words coming out of his mouth, it’s the political equivalent of Andy Daly’s (very funny) “Jerry O’Hearn, veteran standup comic” character who just says banal and vacant statements in the expected cadence and rhythm so it sounds like he’s doing a routine, without having to make actual jokes (much like West says banal facts but makes them sound shocking).

Daly has said that he developed the character after he accidentally timed a joke wrong one time and audience members laughed automatically at the pause rather than at the punchline because they thought he had already said it.

Similarly, Allen West can just say normal stuff in a scary way — “a voting bloc as they call it” or “to institutionalize policies that favor them” — and suddenly it has great meaning.

But actually, for the tea party movement, as I’ve argued before, there is great (negative) meaning to the idea of (other!) people voting for candidates that will pass “policies that favor them.” Read more

AFD 67A – Thailand Tea Party, Carbon Price

Latest Episode:
“AFD 67A – Thailand Tea Party, Carbon Price”

In a bonus half-episode recorded on 12/16, guest co-host Greg joins me to talk about why Thailand’s protesters remind us of the U.S. tea party and about how U.S. companies are planning for a carbon price that Congress isn’t close to passing.

Related links:

– AFD: “Is Thailand Facing Tea Party-style Obstruction?

– AFD: “Carbon Pricing and Economic Uncertainty

No new episode next week. Happy holidays. We’ll be back in January, but there will be lots more posts on here, in the meantime.

Is Thailand facing tea party-style obstruction?

To expand further upon my much longer essay on recent protests in Thailand and Ukraine, Thailand needs to get itself together. This is such a mess. In sum: One party coalition (TRT or PPP) has won every democratic election since 2001, the first after its creation. The main opposition party has lost every election since 1992. Instead of figuring out how to broaden their appeal and campaign in new areas of the country, that party is throwing yet another tantrum in the streets and literally demanding the ruling party leadership leave the country (to join the members they have already forced out previously).

Instead of changing their electoral approach to try to win for a change, they are simply saying that voters have been duped. And now that early elections have been called, they are still protesting because of course they realize they’re going to lose yet another election. Sore-loserism like this is not a good look and it’s bad for democracy.

Because of the deep affection that the governing party has in the north and northeast of the country, scholars say, it would be very difficult for the Democrat Party to reverse its two-decade losing streak in national elections. In the last elections, held in July 2011, the governing party received 15.7 million votes, compared with 11.4 million for the Democrats.

Mr. Suthep, the protest leader, said that low-income Thais, many of whom support Mr. Thaksin, “had been completely fooled for 10 years.”

Although the opposition has repeatedly said that Mr. Thaksin has maintained his power by buying votes, two of Thailand’s leading political researchers wrote in an article last week that the allegation was “dangerous nonsense” because it was policies, not vote buying, that had cemented the loyalty of many voters in the provinces to Mr. Thaksin. Mr. Thaksin instituted universal health care and microloans to farmers that were very popular among rural voters.

Yes, it’s quite shocking that voters might vote with a party that speaks to their needs and provides key programs to support them in their hour of need … and against a party that serves much narrower interests from a different region and which has supported a military coup against their preferred party (after boycotting an election no less). Voters “must” be sheep simply because they have a different ideological position!

Of course whenever the Thai opposition has been brought to power by non-electoral means, such as the military coup or the banning of the first iteration of the ruling party, they have been driven out again by voters at the very next election. Why? Because even when given the opportunity to enact policy on which to campaign, they have failed to sway the majority.

It brings to mind the recent attitude of U.S. Republicans (particularly those aligned with the tea party types) who are increasingly restricted to a single geographic region and find themselves unable to win back full control of the government. Their response has been to try to shut down the government and block any policymaking whatsoever. The Republican base consistently also expresses aloud the same view as Thai opposition leaders — that the voters are only voting for the majority party because they’ve been hoodwinked and paid for.

Listen to the echoes from Thailand:

“I understand that democracy means being governed by a majority,” said Chaiwat Chairoongrueng, a 36-year-old civil servant protesting last week. “But you cannot use the majority to rule over everything.”

Protesters did little to hide their sense of superiority, echoing the leaders of the demonstration who repeatedly described the demonstrators as “good people” fighting evil.

“We are the middle class, we are educated and we know best,” said Saowanee Usanakornkul, 43, from southern Thailand who took part in the protest. “We know what is right and wrong,” she said. “But the poor don’t know anything. They elect the people who give them money.”

Rather than developing an alternative policy program that will achieve similar goals — which they may not in fact be interested in achieving anyway — upon which they could campaign, they have chosen to blame the voters, throw a tantrum, and bring everything to a screeching halt.

That’s not how a functioning democracy works. If you lose repeatedly at the ballot box (in free elections!), you’re doing something wrong. So you change course and find new ways to appeal to voters and target new groups of voters. You don’t boycott, you don’t throw tantrums, you don’t take to the streets, you don’t shut the government down, and you don’t overthrow the government.