Conspiracy Tea Served Up As Constitutionalism

Probably the most oft-heard refrain from the Tea Party adherents is a vague, undefined notion that by dressing up in costumes, shouting and spitting at members of Congress, they are somehow acting in defense of the United States Constitution. Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin (de facto prom king and queen of the Tea Party) are forever claiming that their protestations against “big government” and taxes hail from a deep reverence for the Constitution, which they say has been victimized–indeed, mortally assaulted by Democrats under the guise of economic reform.

Is the Tea Party movement “constitutional” or is it something else?

Are we really supposed to believe, for example, that Glenn Beck (a shock jock with no legal training whatsoever) and Sarah Palin (a celebrity-cum-failed-politician known for celebrating her own ignorance of U.S. history and civics) somehow have an understanding of those aspects of the U.S. Constitution that, say, would come into play when the mandate to purchase health insurance was extended to the States in 2014?

To even ask that question is to immediately grasp how ridiculous the claim is that the Tea Party movement is somehow defending the Constitution.

Tossing aside the word “Constitution,” a much better word to describe Tea Party politics would be “conspiratorial.”

If we take this word “conspiracy” and we hold onto it while we look at the latest coverage of the Tea Party rallies in Searchlight, Nevada or Washington, DC, we begin to see more clearly what holds together this movement.

What Tea Partiers share is not an understanding of the founding document defining the form and function of our system of government. What they share is an embodied sense that the United States government has been “taken over” by a conspiratorial movement. Where other Americans still a government operating within the framework of the Constitution, the Tea Party activists see a government whose every lever has been gripped by the many hands of conspiracy. To be a Tea Party activist filled with enough rage to lean back and spit in the face of an elected official is to know in your bones that “Constitution” has been displaced by “conspiracy”–and your job is to kick the conspiracy out and put the “Constitution” back in place.

If you ask: which aspects of the Constitution have been compromised, Tea Party members inevitably respond with the word “Taxes.” But if you point out that the Constitution Clause of the U.S. Constitution allows for exactly the kind of economic reforms the government has enacted during the Obama administration–indeed it allows for reforms even stronger–the Tea Partier inevitably responds with another word: “lies.”

To talk about the Constitution in any detail with a Tea Party member results, in fact, with little more than an accusation that you (or I) are part of the conspiracy, part of the lies. Tea Party activists are convinced at a deep emotional level that the conspiracy now running the government has been perpetrated by tyranny, masked as justice–evil, masked as good.

There is, in other words, a circular and nonsensical kind of argument that is characteristic of the Tea Party: either you believe the conspiracy exists–or you are part of it.

“Conspiracy” and “Constitution.”

It would be fascinating, for example, if a journalist were to put Sarah Palin in a position of having to explain which aspects of the Commerce Clause she felt the recent health insurance regulation bill violated. If Sarah Palin claims to be the leader of a Constitutional movement, she should have no trouble explaining her position on the Commerce Clause.

Here, for example, is a law professor Mark Hall explaining why the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Constitutional power of Congress to tax income, easily allows for the health insurance mandate:

Constitutional attacks fall into two basic categories: (1) lack of federal power (Congress simply lacks any power to do this under the main body of the Constitution); and (2) violation of individual rights protected by the “Bill of Rights.” Considering (1), Congress has ample power and precedent through the Constitution’s “Commerce Clause” to regulate just about any aspect of the national economy. Health insurance is quintessentially an economic good. The only possible objection is that mandating its purchase is not the same as “regulating” its purchase, but a mandate is just a stronger form of regulation. When Congressional power exists, nothing in law says that stronger actions are less supported than weaker ones. An insurance mandate would be enforced through income tax laws, so even if a simple mandate were not a valid “regulation,” it still could fall easily within Congress’s plenary power to tax or not tax income. (http://bit.ly/9P483O)

Some individuals may not agree with the mandate, but the Constitution allows for this kind of regulation, such that arguments to the contrary certainly will not stand up to Judicial scrutiny.

As you might have guessed, though: if you so much as try to make this argument to a Tea Party activist, they will respond that you and Prof. Hall are both part of the conspiracy.

This leads to an interesting conclusion about the nature and makeup of the average Tea Party activists: if a deep understanding and reference for the U.S. Constitution is not what draws them to the streets, what does? The answer seems to be: a tendency among certain Americans, often deeply ingrained, to buy into the idea that the world is run by hidden cabals.

Is it any wonder, then, that these Tea Party events have drawn in people whose lives are steeped in other conspiracy theories besides the most recent health care taxation plot?

Other conspiracy theorists at Tea Party events include gun rights conspiracists (who think the government is conspiring to take away their guns), anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists (who think Jews are conspiring to take over the world financial system), racist conspiracy theorists (who think blacks are conspiring to take over white America), Christian conspiracy theorists (who think non-Christians are conspiring to destroy Christianity)–and so on.

The racism and outbursts of violent rhetoric at Tea Party rallies that has shocked Americans has been a product of all these various forms of conspiracy theory merging into one cacophonous mass of screaming voices. Some of these conspiracy theorists are drawn in by the vague talk about defending the Constitution, but many more are just there because they find a common way of speaking about nefarious plots threatening the world.

The sad reality is, however, that conspiracy theory makes for good TV, which means it is very unlikely that anyone in the mainstream media will ever sit people like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck down and force them to answer questions about the Constitution they claim to be defending. Beck and Palin have become experts at stoking people’s sense that the conspiracy is not just out there, but that it is just minutes away from breaking down the door and dragging us all off to the gulag. And for those whose lives are saturated with conspiracy theories, consuming the rhetoric of Palin and Beck is not unlike an alcoholic slipping into a bottle of gin: it consumes them.

How to stop all this?

At every step, the media and elected officials need to stand up and refute the idea that the Tea Party is about the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution not only allows for economic regulation and taxation, but the health and prosperity of our nation depends on those very aspects of the Constitution being faithfully applied. If we are willing to toss away our faith in the constitution because a bunch of conspiracists are standing on street corners shouting, that would be bitter tea indeed.

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