Reading the Tea Leaves: Will the Empire Break Up the Party?
The Tea Party wants small government, right? Actually, it’s not so simple. In fact, you could drive a Bradley tank right through an ideological schism within the Tea Party.
On Tax Day, my CODEPINK colleagues and I conducted 50 interviews with Tea Party members about the cost of war and empire. With military spending eating up 20 percent of the federal budget and half of all discretionary spending, we figured that any serious effort to shrink government would have to deal with this bull in the china shop.
While a recent New York Times/CBS poll showed the Tea Partiers to be a relatively homogeneous group of older, white, mostly males, we found that this group certainly doesn’t speak with the same tongue when it comes to the U.S. role in the world. On one side are the neo-con interventionists who think the United States is God’s gift to the world. On the other side are non-interventionists who want to slay the warfare state. The extreme fissure is bound to upset the tea cart as more Tea Party leaders are forced to articulate their foreign policy positions.
First, a bit about our interview process. In Washington DC on Tax Day, we attended the Freedom Works Liberty Summit, the noon rally, the afternoon rally on Capitol Hill and the evening gathering on the Mall. We clearly identified ourselves, wearing bright pink CODEPINK t-shirts, and politely asked people if we could interview them to see if there might be common ground between the Tea Party and the peace movement.
Many refused to even talk to us, calling us communists, leftists and idiots. One woman spat at me and shouted, “Don’t you know that Muslims are trying to take over the world? If it weren’t for our military fighting in Afghanistan you wouldn’t be standing here asking those stupid questions.” Another woman got so hysterical about the question on aid to Israel that she tore up the survey. A few Vietnam vets followed us around screaming “Code Stink, Code Stink”—their breath reeking of booze. They got so aggressive that we had to call the police.
But others were eager to share their thoughts and dialogue with us. One man insisted on taking a group photo to show his buddies back home. “They’ll never believe that I actually had a decent conversation with the Pinkos,” he laughed. “I wonder if they’ll still talk to me!”
We asked six questions dealing with the cost of overseas bases, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, aid to Israel and Egypt, private security contractors, where we could cut the military budget, how those funds should be redirected, and if the Left and Right could work together on these areas.
In our very small, unscientific sample, the hawks—many of whom were retired military or have close family in the military—outweighed the doves. Take the first question about the 800-plus bases the U.S. military maintains at a cost of over $100 billion a year. Thirty-five of the 50 respondents wanted to keep the bases. “We need those bases to maintain stability in the world. Nature abhors a vacuum, and if we weren’t there, the Islamists or the Chinese would jump in,” said Bruce Welker, a retired law enforcement officer from Pittsburgh. “I’d hate to see what would happen to the world without our military presence.”
The 15 people who wanted to dismantle the web of foreign military bases included Josh Little, a college student from Alexandria, Virginia. Josh said that his grandfather helped overthrow Hitler, but that was 60 years ago and it was high time for us to leave Germany. “I’d say the same for Japan, Korea and all of Europe. They can take care of themselves.”
On Iraq and Afghanistan, most of the people we interviewed were not disturbed by our statistic that every taxpayer had already paid over $7,000 for the wars—and that’s before Obama’s latest escalation. Seventy percent did not want a quick withdrawal, saying that we had to “finish the job first.” One military mom complained that “our ridiculous rules of engagement” were forcing our soldiers to fight with one hand tied behind their backs. “Obama and Congress should butt out and let the military just do the job and get out,” snapped Janice Becker from Tampa, Florida, whose son was on his third tour in Afghanistan.
The 30 percent who wanted a speedy withdrawal made comments such as “President Karzai is corrupt,” “our presence is creating more insurgents,” “there’s nothing to win” or “we shouldn’t tell others how to run their countries.”
The third question was about the billions we spend on aid to Israel and Egypt—the two largest recipients of foreign aid. Foreign aid has long been unpopular, and a recent poll by The Economist showed that a whooping 71 percent of Americans want to cut foreign aid (although few know that it represents less than one percent of the budget).
You would think that aid would be particularly unpopular within the Tea Party. That was true in the case of Egypt, where 45 out of 50 interviewees preferred cutting aid. “They don’t like us anyway, so why should we give them our money?” asked Carey Henderson, a schoolteacher from Boston.
But when it came to Israel, 80 percent wanted to keep up our $3 billion in aid, even though we pointed out that Israel is a wealthy country. Sarah Wetstone, a DC resident who works for the Department of Homeland Security, called Israel “a strawberry in the middle of an ant field” and was upset that Obama was giving Israel a hard time. Karen Omara, a homemaker from Middleton, Ohio, said we should give Israel even more money since they were “God’s people” and our only ally in the hostile region. When I asked if she was Jewish, she answered, “In a way, because my Lord and Savior was Jewish.” She talked glowingly about her travels to Israel and her support for the Joshua Fund. I later learned that the Joshua Fund was established in 2006 to mobilize Christians to bless Israel in the name of Jesus and that it was committed to “praying for peace, while preparing for war.”
I did find one Jewish person in the crowd—an unemployed, middle-aged woman from California who didn’t want to give her name. She insisted there were many Jews in the Tea Party, but the April 12 New York Times/CBS poll revealed that 61 percent are Protestant, 39 percent Evangelical, 22 percent Catholic and only 1 percent are Jewish. Ironically, this woman was one of the 20 percent minority in our survey who thought we should cut aid to Israel. “My parents were German Jews who barely escaped the Holocaust. If it weren’t for the U.S. military, I’d be a bar of soap. But today, we have too many problems at home to be giving our money to other countries. I think we should cut ALL foreign aid.”
On the question of supporting high-paid private security contractors like Blackwater (Xe) that take jobs from the military, the group was split down the middle. Half agreed that unaccountable contractors sullied our country’s reputation and those jobs should be returned to the military. The other half said that as long as we don’t have a draft, we need private contractors. “They are entrepreneurial, they make good use of former military with marketable skills, they keep us strong,” said Jerry Walker, a small businessman from Arlington, Virginia. When I asked about the high cost to taxpayers, he said it’s worth it, and that to stop the income disparities vis-à-vis the soldiers, the soldiers should be paid more. So much for trimming the budget!
Responding to the question of where cuts could be made in the military budget and how those funds should be redirected, most said we should cut waste, fraud and obsolete weapons systems, with the savings going to pay down the deficit, beef up border security, build new weapons systems and/or lower taxes.
The final question was whether the Tea Party and peace movement could work together to cut government spending. Some said they were not interested in an alliance with leftists; others said we could work together to cut waste and to call for greater transparency and accountability; the non-interventionists said we could join forces on the broader issue of our military footprint overseas. They cited alliances between left-leaning Cong. Dennis Kucinich and libertarian Republican Cong. Ron Paul as an example to expand on.
Cong. Ron Paul’s message of cutting the welfare/warfare state has attracted an enthusiastic following within the Tea Party. While progressives are turned off by his call for ending all kinds of domestic social programs, his anti-war/anti-empire message and consistent votes against war funding is a refreshing turn from liberal Democrats who decry war but always vote to fund it.
At the Tea Party Tax Day gathering, Cong. Ron Paul was one of the last to take the stage at the evening rally. He began by chastising liberals for their social spending, and then took on the conservatives for wanting to be the policemen of the world. “We’re stretched too far with all this government spending overseas,” he said to fans who had waited all day to hear him. “We should just mind our own business.”
New York Times/CBS Tea Party poll showed Ron Paul lagging far behind the popularity of hawkish Sarah Palin (only 28 percent had a favorable opinion of Paul, 15 percent unfavorable, and a surprising 56 percent said they hadn’t heard enough about him). But Paul won the presidential straw poll at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference and in a time of soaring deficits, his anti-empire message may be catching on.
He certainly seems to have influenced Tea Party darling Glenn Beck. The day after tax day, Beck announced that he was ready to take on his own sacred cow—national security—and that he was moving more and more towards a Ron Paul position.
It was shocking to hear the right-wing Beck talk about out-of-control military spending. “
I’m tired of being the world’s policeman,” he groused, complaining about the decades we have been in Germany, Japan and the Korean Peninsula. “We need to have a ‘no loitering’ policy.”
While Beck is no dove (“Take the military off the leash; if you decide to go to war, unhook those dogs and get the hell out of the way,” he said on the same show), he thinks it’s time to shift our money out of foreign aid and long-standing overseas commitments. “We are not an empire, we are a republic. And it’s time we start acting like the republic that we were meant to be.”
Tea Party leaders have been trying to keep this huge division between supporters of republic and empire under wraps. Aside from Ron Paul, you’ll rarely here them mention the raging wars or bulging military coffers. Their new Tea Party Contract from America, which talks about a limited government and an end to budget deficits, doesn’t mention military spending.
But you can’t have small government with a humongous military traipsing all over the world. Sooner or later, Tea Party leaders and manifestos will have to articulate their foreign policy positions.
One of the most sophisticated people I talked to all day was 22-year-old college student Andrew Barth from College Park, Maryland. “The hawks represent the old guard—so do both the Republican and the Democratic parties. With a few exceptions, they all love war and empire. But a small-government movement worth its salt can’t just be anti-Washington, it has to be anti-empire. If not, I’m outta here.”
It’s not hard to read the tea leaves on this one. As the Tea Party totters precariously between empire and republic, the fragile threads that are holding it together will fall apart on the rocky shoals of foreign shores. Maybe then, Libertarians and social progressives can make common cause against expansive—and expensive—empire.
Medea Benjamin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is co-founder of CODEPINK: Women for Peace and Global Exchange. Contact her if you are interested in pursuing new allies for the peace movement.