At the Tea Party: Minutemen and Birchers, yes; Birthers no6 min read

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The organizers of last Thursday’s Tea Party event in Pleasanton, one of scores of similar affairs held in connection with this year’s income tax deadline, pointedly dis-invited Orly Taitz, the mother of all birthers. They seem to be working hard to show, and telling anyone who asks, that they’re just traditional American activists, not kooks.

And from the looks of the star-spangled 10,000 or so who showed up Thursday at the Alameda Fairgrounds, the scariest things about them, notwithstanding some of their bizarre 18th century costumes, is their ordinariness. Nice everyday folks. As the national surveys have shown elsewhere – they’re overwhelmingly white, older than average, better educated, as measured in college degrees, and better off. Sixty-three percent, told a New York Times survey that their prime source of news is Fox, nearly triple the national number.

Most of them seem to have a hard time sounding really angry. Their chief complaints, as elsewhere were about the socialist Obama, Barbara Boxer, the local House Democrat, Jerry McNerney, and taxes – TEA has become Taxed Enough Already.

But it’s hard to tell what they’re for. The real anxiety seemed to stem from discomfort about a country that no longer dominates the world as it once did; that’s grown increasingly brown and Asian; that’s presided over by the black son of an immigrant, and which is home, even if it’s not welcoming, to 12 million undocumented immigrants, most also brown. .

Nor can they be very comfortable in a state where whites are just another minority, and a rapidly shrinking one at that, and where many of the young no longer think twice about dating or even marrying someone of another ethnicity or sometimes even of the same gender. This is not the country they grew up in.

The Pleasanton event – to call it a rally would imply too much focus and organization – drew virtually every right wing group you can think of, from the local Republicans to the NRA, the Golden Gate Minutemen (how’s that for an oxymoron) , the Birchers, and variety of Tea Party groups from around the area.

There were booths to “stop voter fraud” displaying a lot of Republican pins and gewgaws that was collecting signatures for the initiative, officially sponsored by Sen. George Runner, maybe Sacramento’s most indefatigable conservative, that would require all voters to show a government-issued ID card.

There were placards demanding that we reject “Cap and Trade”; calls for the repeal of AB32, the law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There was even a woman with a black T-shirt that said “I love my carbon footprint.” And of course, there was the beef-du-jour, the Obama health care plan. There may have been signs demanding “keep government off my Medicare” but I couldn’t find a single one. Maybe the word’s gotten out that that’s a non-starter.

But, befitting the occasion, the main theme was taxes and jobs. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, in what seems to be a trademark red outfit, gave her stump speech: Barbara Boxer, she said “doesn’t have a clue where jobs come from. People who create jobs and the American dream aren’t in Washington. They’re at this rally today.”

But, like other Californians, many of the people at the rally last week, seem to have come in Japanese cars – Toyotas and Hondas mostly – that most of them must have bought long before Obama moved into the White House, and while some of the bikers may have arrived on Hogs, the bikes I saw were mostly BMWs.   

And everywhere there was the firm conviction – as old as the Republic — that Americans are overtaxed by meddlesome governments that waste prodigious amount of money, much of it in harassing innocent citizens. In California, of course, that includes the state as well as the feds.

It’s an honorable American tradition. What the Tea Party activists now say about health care, many in their grandparents’ generation said about Social Security and their parents said about Medicare. What’s was said about Barack Obama at the Tea Party events around the country was said about Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s and Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. They, too, were socialists leading the country over the cliff. To the Birchers in the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower was “a dedicated communist agent.”

In fact, most of the stuff about high taxes is myth. Americans pay less of their income in taxes than the citizens of every other developed nation on earth. And, contrary to the nonsense coming from the radio and television frothers (who were again in full voice last week as Tax Day approached), counting Social Security, sales and other taxes, the rich pay a smaller share of their income in taxes than the poor and the lower middle class.

The same, notwithstanding all the official blather, is true in California. Yes, the largest share of state income taxes is paid by the rich – hardly surprising since they have the money – and their share of income (and thus wealth) has been rising steeply in recent decades. And, yes, that makes state income tax receipts volatile with the ups and downs of the market and the capital gains and dividends it produces.

But as a new report from the California Budget Project again showed, counting all taxes, including sales and property taxes, the bottom fifth among California families pay 11.1 percent of their incomes in state taxes, compared to 7.8 percent for the top one percent and 8.7 percent for the four percent just below them.

And while California income tax rates are high, California’s total taxes as a percentage of personal income put the state at 19th in the union – high in personal income tax, but low in property, gas and tobacco taxes.

Given the data, some day historians may look at the Tea Party phenomenon and decide that it had more to do with age and culture than with politics. This is the vanguard of the generations who, without radical fixes (including higher taxes), will stretch Social Security and Medicare far beyond the breaking point. This is the group in the economy that will necessarily have to give way to the brown and Asian children of the new immigrants: There’s no one else. Maybe deep down they sense something that they just can’t bring themselves to say. 

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Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America will be published in 2010.

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