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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Altered Consciousness: A reaction to Tucson

Published: January 21, 2011
Section: Opinions

The recent massacre in Tucson fueled raucous debate across the nation. Observers wondered what gave rise to this heinous act and how we can prevent something like it from happening again. What were the motivations of assassin Jared Loughner?

As the dust cleared, we learned that Loughner was likely delusional, possibly even schizophrenic. Yet these facts did not put to rest calls to reduce the rhetoric that has, at least in past years, come mostly from the right.

There is no doubt that there is a palpable tension in American political discourse. What is less obvious, though, is that the source of this frustration has arguably been epitomized by the Tea Party Movement.

Some critics will contend that the anger we are witnessing today is primarily the product of the sensationalists of Fox News and talk radio. Others view this dynamic through a sociological prism; the right, they would claim, is aggrieved by the fact that President Obama is African-American, or that America will, within the coming decades, become majority non-white. Yet more will argue that the seemingly endless recession we are stuck in has aggravated—and brought needless suffering upon—hard-working Americans.

Certainly these factors may contribute to the harshness of the debate we have been hearing as of late. Yet I think that most commentators often overlook a crucial issue: the role of individualism.

The Tea Party, more than anything, seems to unite around common policy grievances. The main message that is constantly heard from this group is, “no more bailouts, cut government spending reduce the deficit.”

There is a common thread that runs through these complaints: the powerful institutions that dominate the public and, to a lesser extent, private sectors have simply gotten out of control. The federal government under both Democratic and Republican administrations has spent upwards of trillions of dollars every year on everything from Social Security to the FDA without a hint of concern for the deficit and growing national debt. Financial institutions that, with the tacit approval of complicit regulators and encouragement by government policies, irresponsibly drove the economy into a ditch are now being backed by U.S. taxpayers. Add to this the Detroit bailouts, uncompromising unions and related issues, and you get a toxic and aggravating blend of moral hazard, anti-elitism and general disillusionment with how our society, and the systems and bureaucracies underlying it, is administered.

All of this ultimately leaves the average member of the Tea Party thinking that he or she is an oasis of stability and sanity in a rather senseless world. In this sense, the right wing, particularly now in this chaotic age, celebrates the rationally self-interested independent individual that can look out for his or her own needs and self-regulate, as opposed to flawed and, at times, mismanaged institutions like government.

Make no mistake: conservatives do not wish for an anarchic, Hobbesian world. Instead, these people believe that more political, economic and social power should be invested back into the individual because when it is in the hands of some nameless, faceless bureaucracy, it inevitably is misused.

The right does have a point.  America is exceptional for its famous brand of rugged individualism and because, unlike say, European social democracies and welfare states, it never had a strong socialist movement.  And indeed, expanded choice and ability to make independent decisions is synonymous with individual freedom.

What I think conservatives and the Tea Party lacks though is specifics.  Everyone knows that the right is against the bailouts and health reform, for instance.  But conservatives also appear wary of cutting entitlements and specifically-defined benefits; the line “Get your government hands off my Medicare” exemplifies this contradiction.

In short, the question to ask, in policy terms, is what is the proper balance between the individual and organizations like government?  This is a question that has characterized American political debate since the birth of the republic.

Regardless, the right has a powerful message: empower average, everyday people—this should not be taken for granted or misconstrued.