House on Fire

WHAT THE SUCCESS OF THE TEA PARTY PORTENDS

In October, two extraordinary incidents of moral—and political—significance occurred. The first received considerable publicity: a Tennessee fire brigade refused to save a burning house when its members learned that the owner had neglected to pay a seventy-five-dollar annual fee for the service. The brigade stood by while the house burned to the ground. Luckily, no one was trapped inside.

The second, less known, occurred at a Garwood, New Jersey, pharmacy. A woman was stricken by a severe asthma attack; she had forgotten her inhaler. Staggering into a local drug store, she tried to buy one. But the pharmacy refused: an inhaler would cost $21.50 but the woman could offer no more than $20. She collapsed, wheezing. A call to a paramedic saved her.

The disregard for traditional ethical norms revealed by these two events is striking. There is a good deal of ritual religion practiced these days, but where is the love of neighbor commanded by Leviticus, the Good Samaritan of Luke, or the Golden Rule? The fire brigade and the pharmacist, it appears, did not get the memo.

To be sure, it cannot be said that two incidents demonstrate general moral decline, but there is reason for concern because the incidents point to a larger issue. In this year’s highly charged political season, we heard much talk about individual responsibility, and the denial of societal responsibility, for misfortune. Opposition to government, especially to federal programs for the support of vulnerable citizens, seemed to be strong and to win support at the polls. The rise of the Tea Party reflects the phenomenon.

The political theory of the Tea Party derives from a new egoism. Consider the opposition to taxation and the calls for repealing the Sixteenth Amendment (which has authorized the federal income tax since 1913). Why pay government to help the other fellow? It is thought that, as one observer remarked, “your welfare check comes off of someone else’s dinner table.” That we have always paid taxes to repair roads on which we do not drive or to support schools our children no longer attend is forgotten. “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society,” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes reminded us.

The Tea Party’s use of the Tenth Amendment, reserving to the states powers not delegated to the national government—while ignoring the breadth of the federally superior Commerce Clause—is a first cousin of this self-centered theory. The constitutional inversion is a pretense, designed to enable reversal of the new health-care law, Medicare, Social Security, and, finally, the general benefactions of the New Deal.

The Tea Party encourages the ethos of the Tennessee fire brigade and the New Jersey pharmacist, the cynic who denies he is his brother’s keeper. Some Tea Party members advocate doing away with the minimum wage (now less than $8 per hour), unemployment insurance, and mine-safety laws; others would repeal the Fourteenth Amendment and civil-rights statutes.

This moral anesthesia is reinforced by intellectual insolvency. The distinguished Columbia University historian Fritz Stern has written of the “stupefying ignorance” of the Tea Party. One of its candidates for the Senate was ignorant of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Another Senate candidate appealed to the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms as the answer to so-called federal oppression. Ignoring the Supreme Court’s declaration of 1868 that the Founders created an “indestructible union,” some Tea Party men even equivocated about secession, an unspeakable idea.

The November 2 election resulted in a major transformation of many state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives, but not the U.S. Senate. Even in the House, not even 40 percent of the 129 Tea Party favorites won seats. Of nine Senate candidates supported by the party, five prevailed; the big losers included the derisory candidates, mentioned above, unfamiliar with the constitutional basis of church-state separation or favoring recourse to arms. That is a hopeful sign.

Nevertheless, among senatorial winners was Kentucky’s Rand Paul, avatar of the Tea Party with a claim to an ascendant future, whose anarchic theory of government would leave African-American, Hispanic, and aging citizens to struggle for themselves as they remain unemployed and underinsured, perhaps for years. Promised cuts in social services by the states will add to their misfortune.

In historical perceptive, the Tea Party, like nineteenth-century Know-Nothings, Barnburners, Free Soilers, Anti-Masons, and Hunkers, may merely be a short-lived faction too myopic to see larger American prospects. Or the party may profoundly influence the nation’s long-term political future. The real concern is that the Tea Party, like the fire brigade and pharmacist, will reinforce the current wave of moral indifference.


Related: Bitter Brew, by the Editors
The End of Compassionate Conservatism? by E. J. Dionne Jr.

Published in the 2010-12-03 issue: 

Joseph D. Becker, a founding partner of Becker, Glynn, Melamed and Muffly, a Manhattan law firm, is author of The American Law of Nations (Judis).

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