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Matt Welch: Tea Party people are all alienated from government but divided on Palin and other issues

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Joining us again is Matt Welch. He’s the editor-in-chief of, Reason Magazine. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So, from a libertarian perspective, or at least from your libertarian perspective, who and what are the tea baggers?

WELCH: I wouldn’t use that term. The tea party activists. I think “tea baggers” is a sort of a pejorative, you know, nose-tweaking thing. As much as I like to be pejorative towards everybody in America, lower on my totem pole are people who actually aren’t part of the political parties. But it’s an open question who they are.

JAY: Are they libertarians?

WELCH: I think it’s more that what they’ve been talking about has been very consistently a libertarian message. Are they personally libertarians? I think that they themselves might say no. I was at the 9/12 rally here in Washington, where there was close to 100,000 people wandering on the streets, and I was very curious myself. Who are these people? Where were they when the same policies were being enacted under George W. Bush? To what extent, if it’s at all determinable, are they motivated by things that I would consider to be kind of ugly, whether racism or something else like that? I was genuinely curious. And looking at the signage, talking to people, it was a overwhelming sentiment that everything was about limiting the size of the government, limiting the scope of the national debt, limiting government spending, getting government out of health care. It was an anti-government or anti-growth of government message that was totally consistent. Now those same people have huge disagreements with themselves, with me, about things such as national security, I’m sure immigration, a bunch of other things. But a fundamental thing to realize about the tea party movement, that it’s actually a decentralized movement, it is different in Tennessee than it is in Utah, than it is in California—and that has sort of befuddled people who are trying to make sense of it and trying to put a face on it.

JAY: Now, for the tea activists movement—. Is that how [inaudible]

WELCH: However you want. I’m just talking about the language I use.

JAY: It appears, ’cause I don’t know them that well, but it appears Sarah Palin is one of the figures they’re rallying around. Sarah Palin I can’t imagine has anything to do with libertarianism. Like, she’s for the military—not just for the military; she’s for the thousand military bases; she supports the wars abroad; she supported George Bush’s foreign policy. I mean, Sarah Palin’s got nothing to do with being a libertarian, does he?

WELCH: Her record as governor before she became this national culture war figure was actually more interesting—I wouldn’t call it libertarian, but more independent bent than most politicians’ are. It’s a very strange thing how her personality and public persona just changed on a dime once she became this kind of lightning rod. I was talking to a friend who’s involved in Alabama tea party things, and I was asking this exact same question: “What’s up with the Sarah Palin thing? How does that describe the people that you know?” And he says, according to their kind of internal polling, about a third of their tea party people that they know totally love Sarah Palin; they just adore her. About a third are kind of indifferent and, “Okay, I don’t really get it, but whatever.” And a third are hostile toward her. She is a polarizing figure in every element of society, including the tea party movement. Now, I think what you see is that within the tea party thing they’re not talking most of the time about foreign policy; they’re not talking about social issues like abortion or school prayer or immigration, which is a semi-social issue. They just aren’t talking about it. What they are talking about is: let’s all agree on this stuff. And then that’s where you see things like Sarah Palin endorsing Rand Paul, son of Ron Paul, for the Senate seat in Kentucky to replace Jim Bunning, even in her statement was like, we disagree on a lot of stuff; however, we need to shake things up. So I think she’s trying to glom onto the tea party movement more so than the tea party movement is demanding leadership from her. But for sure she has some strange rock-star like quality in American politics, for good and for bad, in terms of [inaudible]

JAY: But so much of this movement seems to be driven by Fox News, and Fox News is out at the rallies, and they’re watching Fox News, and Fox News seems to really just be giving a populist voice to the far right of the Republican Party, who when back in power are going to be back to where Bush and Cheney were in terms of all the policies, domestic and foreign.

WELCH: I would dispute that it’s Fox News-led type of thing. I mean, there are some characters on there who certainly stoke it, and including Glenn Beck, who’s not—you know, he gave a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference here that said Republicans are just as bad. I mean, that’s what he spent his time doing. Even Sarah Palin at the tea party convention, which was sort of a strange event of its own, she encouraged people to go after Republicans in primaries. So I don’t think [inaudible] definitely a right-of-center movement, don’t get me wrong, and I think the majority of people either are or have been Republicans at some point. At the same time, there’s a strong sense, when I was talking to people, of personal shame that they weren’t giving George Bush a harder time, and a sense that if Republicans—you know, if we back a Republican and they turn out bad, you know, we’re going to twist the knife. I don’t necessarily have much faith in that. I think that you shouldn’t have faith in the two major political parties in this country, end of story. And for me the tea party movement at its best and at its most promising is less partisan. It actually swarms toward moments of enthusiasm to try to affect legislation, to try to affect governments or elections or whatever, and it’s less an appendage of the Republican Party, because you’re absolutely right: the things that they are saying that they are excited about right now are things that the Republicans, under unified Washington Republican government, did really badly themselves. And to not acknowledge that right up front as part of [inaudible]

JAY: Because the Republican game’s always been in the name of small government. You wind up having massive tax cuts for the rich, but on the other hand an expansion of the military expenditure. You actually don’t wind up with smaller government; you just wind up with different big government.

WELCH: But—not only that, but under—basically beginning in around 1998, when George W. Bush and John McCain became the two leading Republicans in the country, they both campaigned against small-government philosophies—compassionate conservatism, national greatness conservatism. This was a way to—I mean, George Bush doubled the size of the Department of Education instead of getting rid of it. He increased regulation, including financial regulation, more than any president since Richard Nixon. He increased the size of government more than any since Lyndon Johnson. I mean, the limited-government part of the Republican Party has been missing in action, with a couple sprinkles of exceptions, over the last ten years.

JAY: The small-government rhetoric from the Republicans, in my opinion, is essentially fraudulent.


JAY: On the other hand, it appeals to this movement. But within the Republican Party and the war that’s coming for control of the Republican Party (one assumes), what happens to the kind of clarity of message that was coming from Ron Paul type libertarians on foreign policy? ‘Cause Paul was so clear on Afghanistan, so clear on the foreign-policy issues, but the tea baggers movement certainly isn’t. So is he compromising that to get support from the movement?

WELCH: I don’t think that Ron Paul compromises. I mean, you’ve seen him and probably talked to him. He’s going to say what he’s going to say. He has his own principles. They are very easy to understand. They are what he believes in. I think that’s part of the reason why he’s popular, including winning the [inaudible] aforementioned CPAC conference. People are attracted to men of genuine principle. I think Ron Paul is a man of genuine principle. I don’t think that the Republican Party as a whole is ready for someone like that to be its main nominee or main spokesman or whatever. So what you will see is a softening of some of those messages by people who would claim to have the Ron Paul mantle going forward. But it’s an open question. They have not figured out their ideas about foreign policy. There is still this hugely militaristic idea about foreign policy that’s very popular among Republicans, I would say among a plurality, a majority of Republicans. And when they are put in a position where they actually have to make decisions about that stuff, you will see all of these fissures reemerge.

JAY: Now, the tea movement gets used—I don’t know how to say it now that you told me [inaudible] completely screwed me up. They’ve become an ally of the insurance industry, because in the name of small government, you attack any kind of health-care reform, indirectly become an ally of Wall Street, because in the name of small government you don’t want regulation on Wall Street. So with the bugaboo being big government, the Wall Street, pharma, health care, and other corporate monopolies don’t get touched by this movement. Don’t they see the contradiction that?

WELCH: I would say: don’t you see the contradiction in this? Which is that the bank bailouts, the bailouts of Wall Street, are exactly what’s unpopular. That’s what has caused a bunch of this. It’s not—.

JAY: But why isn’t the Ponzi scheme unpopular too?

WELCH: It is unpopular as well.

JAY: Well, how are they going to deal with a Wall Street that wants to sell—.

WELCH: By letting them go bankrupt. If you want to punish these people, let them fail. If you want to publish greedsters, scamsters, fraudsters, let them eat dirt.

JAY: Right, but they won’t be eating dirt alone. A lot of these tea activists, tea baggers, are going to be out of work, and they should understand that.

WELCH: They’re out of work now. I mean—.

JAY: Well, but when this crashes there’ll be millions more.

WELCH: Well, I don’t think that’s a solved question. I mean, you remember when Barack Obama said we need to pass the stimulus or else, the “or else” was, you know, we might get unemployment above 8 percent. Well, they passed a stimulus, and unemployment went north of 10 percent. I think it’s not solved at all.

JAY: But you know the contrary argument is instead of the multi-billions of dollars that went to bail out the banks could have been used as stimulus social spending. They could have let the banks burn, let them go down. I mean, there’s a lot of people agree with that idea. You know, let them go bankrupt. But you still need government to have done something about the fallout of that crash.

WELCH: And I think that you would actually have plenty of sympathy for that point view within the tea party movement. I think the fundamental thing that Americans—forget about tea party activists for the moment. Americans hate the bailout. They just hate them. They’ve been unpopular every step of the way. There’s a fundamental sense that this is unfair, these are people who made their own bad decisions, and yet we’re paying for them and not them. There’s something wrong with that, whether that’s in Detroit, whether that’s in Wall Street. And, in fact, the health-care reform you’re talking about, the insurance industry and the whole medical industry has been bought in and bought off every step of the way. This is reform that they helped write. And there’s an understanding among the tea party activists that you’re talking about. I mean, it’s not being on the side of insurance to be against a reform. The insurance companies are at least half bought into at this point. I think they’re making a critique that you can’t just extend the status quo and the entrenched players who are in the status quo and expect to get our support. This is sort of a government-first approach.

JAY: Well, we go back to our health-care interview we did previously, which is you’ll find a lot of agreement amongst people who support a single-payer plan with all of that.

WELCH: Sure.

JAY: And they have the same critique. They think the current legislation just actually reinforces the monopoly of the insurance companies.

WELCH: Yeah, and, you know, a lot of the most stirring critiques of the Obama care has come from the left. It’s come from people like Jane Hamsher, who are upset both with the tactics of how this was sold, how it was done, how it broke promises on a lot of different levels. And, you know, it’s much to the credit of people who come from that side of the aisle, I think. But I don’t see the tea party people as being handmaidens to kind of greedy corporate overlords. They tend to have the same distrust towards them that you’ll find elsewhere. What they don’t like to see is individuals and companies benefiting, or at least being propped up, by taxpayer money for their own bad decisions. There’s something fundamentally wrong with that, and they believe that the economics are bad, and that’s putting off the pain for some future date that’s going to be even worse than we have today.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.

WELCH: Thank you.

JAY: Thank you for joining us The Real News Network.

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Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason magazine. Welch's work has appeared in The Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, Los Angeles Daily News, Orange County Register, LA Weekly,,, Wired, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Daily Star of Beirut, and dozens of other publications.