21 April 2010

E.J. Dionne confuses numbers and significance

So here's E.J. Dionne to tell us who the TEA partiers are, and aren't. Quite simply: they don't believe what the rest of us good folk believe. Apparently, this makes their beliefs false, although Dionne doesn't quite say that. Citing a New York Times and CBS News poll, what he does say is, in relevant part, this:
[The poll's] findings suggest that the Tea Party is essentially the reappearance of an old anti-government far right that has always been with us and accounts for about one-fifth of the country. The Times reported that Tea Party supporters "tend to be Republican, white, male, married and older than 45." They are also more affluent and better educated than Americans as a whole. This is the populism of the privileged.

And the poll suggested something that white Americans are reluctant to discuss: Part of the anger at President Obama among Tea Partiers does appear to be driven by racial concerns.

Saying this invites immediate denunciations from defenders of those who bring guns to rallies, threaten violence to "take our country back," and mouth old slogans about states' rights and the Confederacy. So let's be clear: Opposition to the president is driven by many factors that have nothing to do with race. But race is definitely part of what's going on.

The poll asked:"In recent years, do you think too much has been made of the problems facing black people, too little has been made, or is it about right?" Twenty-eight percent of all Americans -- and just 19 percent of those who are not Tea Party loyalists -- answered "too much." But among Tea Party supporters, the figure is 52 percent, almost three times the proportion of the rest of the country. A quarter of Tea Partiers say that the Obama administration's policies favor blacks over whites, compared with only 11 percent in the country as a whole.

So race is part of this picture, as is a tendency of Tea Party enthusiasts to side with the better-off against the poor. This puts them at odds with most Americans. The poll found that while only 38 percent of all Americans said that "providing government benefits to poor people encourages them to remain poor," 73 percent of Tea Party partisans believed this. Among all Americans, 50 percent agreed "the federal government should spend money to create jobs, even if it means increasing the budget deficit." Only 17 percent of Tea Party supporters took this view.

Asked about raising taxes on households making more than $250,000 a year to provide health care for the uninsured, 54 percent of Americans favored doing so vs. only 17 percent of Tea Party backers.
It is entertaining to read and hear that people of the TEA party stripe are anti-government. E.J. Dionne and his ilk know this is a lie: anti-government types are called anarchists; and anarchists don't want limited government (as Dionne recognizes the TEA partiers as wanting); anarchists want no government. Immediately, we have cause to wonder about Dionne's honesty. Besides, there's no crime in being anti-government until Dionne proves otherwise, which he can't. Frankly, I don't think the man knows what a proof looks like.

Apparently, TEA partiers are easily dismissed because they tend to be -- tend to be, mind you -- "Republican, white, male, married and older than 45", as well as "more affluent and better educated than Americans as a whole". This set of facts justifies Dionne's characterization of the movement as "the populism of the privileged." What? Those who pay the bills complaining about having to do so? Is there no decency? Where do these people get off? Just pay your taxes and keep your mouth shut.

It's a difficult place to be for a TEA partier. They are more affluent and better educated than Americans as a whole, which means they are paying the taxes, or at least, by virtue of being more affluent and better educated, most of the taxes. But, precisely because -- and despite -- paying the bills, because they are relatively few, they are irrelevant. Of course, on the other hand, they do pay the bills. So this is not the populism of the privileged; it is the populism of the tax-payer. It is the populism of the American Revolution. Liberals have been correct to point out that the Boston Tea Party was about taxation without representation, whereas we have taxation with representation. In fact, however, the representation at issue was really representation for net tax payers, not net tax receivers. What we have right now, and Dionne substantiates the claim, is a situation in which tax receivers out-number tax-payers. Since majorities win, most of the representation in this country goes to those who receive tax monies. It is interesting to note, on that point, that neither the poll, nor Mr. Dionne, offer any details about the level of taxes paid by TEA partiers in comparison with Americans as a whole. That's very telling. Given that 47% of households pay no taxes and TEA partiers are such an insular minority, I think we know who is paying the taxes for those 47%.

Dionne also asserts a racial component. For TEA partiers race, not truth, is a concern. He writes: "Twenty-eight percent of all Americans -- and just 19 percent of those who are not Tea Party loyalists -- answered "too much." But among Tea Party supporters, the figure is 52 percent, almost three times the proportion of the rest of the country. A quarter of Tea Partiers say that the Obama administration's policies favor blacks over whites, compared with only 11 percent in the country as a whole."

And? And nothing. It's just wrong to believe that too much has been made of the problems of blacks. Perhaps. But is it true? Dionne is silent. This is, of course, because he "knows" that TEA partiers don't care if it's true; they're just racists. They don't believe this because it's true; they believe it because they don't like black folk.

Actually, I find it particularly easy to believe that too much has been made of the problems of blacks. When I compare the performance of blacks and, to a certain extent, hispanics, with that of, say, Asians, I simply cannot avoid thinking so. For all that is made of the problems of blacks, they simply are not doing as well as Asians. Why? Because blacks they think they're owed, indefinitely, one supposes. Asians are hungry, but blacks think they're owed. For my money, when someone with problems thinks he's owed then any attention he gets is too much. For E.J. Dionne, however, there is no excuse for this sort of thinking. Most Americans don't believe too much is made of the problems of blacks and, therefore, TEA partiers are of line, even racist, for thinking so -- even if it is true. If it is true that too much is made of the problems of blacks, then TEA parters are not racists just for thinking so. But truth doesn't matter to Dionne.

Perhaps the most entertaining part of Dionne's column was this part:

The poll found that while only 38 percent of all Americans said that "providing government benefits to poor people encourages them to remain poor," 73 percent of Tea Party partisans believed this. Among all Americans, 50 percent agreed that "the federal government should spend money to create jobs, even if it means increasing the budget deficit." Only 17 percent of Tea Party supporters took this view.
Think about this. What does it really tell us that 38 percent of all Americans believe providing government benefits to poor people encourages them to remain poor and that 73 percent of TEA partiers believe so? Here again we have a question regarding a matter of fact: Is it, or is it not the case, that providing government benefits to poor people encourages them to remain poor? And even if we don't not know certainly, are there reasons for believing it to be the case? I think so. The behavior of people presently receiving unemployment benefits suggest that it is the case.What does it really tell us that 50 percent of Americans agree that the federal government should spend money to create jobs, even if it means increasing the budget deficit while only 17 percent of Tea Party supporters do? For one thing, let's recall that, TEA partiers being more affluent and better educated, they are likely the ones whose money is going to be spent on this. Additionally, it may just be that, however counter-intuitive, government spending, while certainly capable of creating a myriad of jobs, may not create the best, longest-lasting jobs. After all, TEA partiers (better educated than most, remember) may be aware that recent scholarship seems to be showing that FDR's New Deal actually prolonged the Great Recession.

None of what I've written really refutes Dionne's argument, however. His argument is pragmatic. TEA partiers, whether simplistic anarchists or sophisticated minarchists, mean-spirited racists or thoughtful critics of race-related policies, represent a small minority. And this minority, for all its bluster, will be irrelevant to the next election and should be disregarded. Perhaps. On the other hand, those who were the most committed to the American Revolution accounted for only a third of the population. There is something to note, once again, about the sort of minority that TEA partiers represent: They are, according to Dionne, more affluent and better educated than the rest. That class is usually the one from whom the best leaders come. It takes initiative and commitment to become affluent (unless Dionne wishes to claim, and prove, that all this affluence was inherited). It takes initiative and commitment to become educated.

They may be a minority. A more relevant question would be: Are their beliefs correct? Even if not, let's say they are a minority. So what? It may be relevant to the next election, but the country wasn't lost in a day. It won't be regained in a day, either. As the latin proverb has it: "He who perseveres, conquers."

NOTE: I have never attended a TEA party.

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James Frank SolĂ­s
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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