Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Tea Party Hippies

When I was a young child in the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a small subset of Americans who liked to dress in a way that was out of the ordinary and carry signs questioning government policies and urging others to do the same. These people were known as hippies and if there was one underlying idea behind the movement, it was Freedom. Hippies wanted to be free to ignore societal restrictions on dress and relationships. They professed a deep respect for individual rights.

Forty years later, the pendulum has now completed its swing from far left, through the center, and way out to the far right. And now that it has, you can see oddly dressed Americans carrying signs questioning government policies and urging others to do the same. These people are known as Tea Partiers and if there is one underlying idea behind their movement, it is Freedom. Tea Partiers want to be free of an over-reaching government. They profess a deep respect for individual rights.

I was having one of those pointless Facebook chat arguments with one of my brothers the other day when I finally made the connection between the hippies and the tea partiers. They have far more in common than members of either group would probably care to admit. Both will be the iconic representations of their historical moments in future history textbooks. Both represent a crystallization of a strong feeling gripping a significant subset of Americans. And both, in the end, try to raise selfishness to the level of national policy.

The hippies wanted people to be able to live as they wished, as long as their actions did no harm to anyone else. The tea partiers have the same wish. How those unfettered lives would look as led by tea partiers is no doubt very different from the looks of the unfettered lives led by hippies, but in the end both do more harm than good to society as a whole. Both advocate societally unsustainable versions of freedom.

Both groups have done the country a service by driving the national debate in a direction it probably needed to go. The hippies helped yank Americans out the of numbing conformity of the Eisenhower Era and the tea partiers are helping to pull Americans toward fiscal responsibility. Both movements have some positive effects on the country, but the tenets of neither group would make a good way to run a country.

For a society to function well it NEEDS stable structures and institutions. It needs police and an army and laws. There is a solid societal foundation provided by stable, loving families and other structures hippies questioned the need for. For a society to function well it also needs to support it weakest and poorest members. The government needs to ensure the welfare of everyone—especially those least able to ensure their own welfare. One way the government does this is through taxation. Taxes are the cost of a stable society. And a progressive tax system is the basis of an advanced society.

Thinking about the hippies and the tea partiers has helped clarify my thoughts on the American political spectrum. It has become clear to me that our politics gets played out in a fairly narrow band in the middle. We are most certainly a centrist nation. When Barack Obama is called a socialist and George Bush is seen as a fascist, it is clear that we don’t like to stray too far from the middle. These swings out to the farthest reaches of our American Pendulum’s arc make for turbulent times and good pictures. They even lead to some necessary adjustments in our laws and the ways we live; but, because of the Constitution and our underlying commitment to being a nation of laws rather than a nation of emotions, things never quite fall apart. It may feel like they have sometimes, but in reality we have been a remarkably stable democracy.

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