What would a Tea Party utopia really be like for women, disenfranchised voters and the poor? Don’t look to Slate’s Reihan Salam for answers

June 20, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
June 20, 2014

Reihan Salam, a conservative writer who became a regular Slate columnist this spring, has tried to picture how the United States would look if it were ruled by the Tea Party. He calls this conservative fantasyland Teatopia.

Most of Salam’s piece revolves around subsidiarity, which boils down decentralizing government. If the federal bureaucracy of Salam’s vision — which the author describes as a thought exercise, instead of as a future that he would necessarily endorse — isn’t exactly small enough to drown in a bathtub, it might at least be spare enough to fit in one:

Tea Party conservatives … favor voluntary cooperation among free individuals over local government, local government over state government, and state government over the federal government. Teatopia would in some respects look much like our own America, only the contrasts would be heightened. California and New York, with their dense populations and liberal electorates, would have even bigger state governments that provide universal pre-K, a public option for health insurance, and generous funding for mass transit. They might even have their own immigration policies, which would be more welcoming toward immigrants than the policies the country as a whole would accept.

More conservative states, meanwhile, would compete to go furthest and fastest in abandoning industrial-era government. Traditional urban school districts would become charter districts, in which district officials would provide limited oversight while autonomous networks of charter schools would make the decisions about how schools are run day-to-day.

Similarly, Salam postulates, social welfare policies would vary from community to community and state to state, and roads would be “owned and operated by public road enterprises that make spending and investment decisions on the basis of consumer demand rather than political imperatives.”

In Teatopia, Social Security would be transformed into a flat universal pension — everyone gets the same benefit, meaning “this much smaller … program could be financed by a smaller payroll tax.” Cities, counties and states could supplement this with their own retirement payments, if they wished.

To his credit, Salam recognizes at least one set of interlocking obstacles that might make this idealized Teatopia impossible to bring about in reality. In 1976, as the writer tells us, President Gerald Ford mocked Ronald Reagan — then a former California governor who was vying with Ford to become the Republican Party’s presidential nominee — for his plan of decentralizing government. While the federal government’s shedding of responsibilities indeed would allow it to lower taxes, Ford argued, this plan would also “force state governments to raise their taxes so that they could continue offering the same services.”

But there is one key fiscal difference between the federal budgeting process and that of the states, as Salam acknowledges: Most of the latter have balanced-budget requirements. The U.S. budget has no such constraints.

There’s also a political reality that the writer seems to overlook: The Tea Party credo, which held sway in conservative circles long before Barack Obama’s inauguration crystallized hard-line opposition to executive initiatives among Republicans. “Tea” is actually an acronym for “taxed enough already” (shades of Grover Norquist!), and its adherents are adamantly opposed to almost any form of government revenue enhancement. (The adamance seems to rise in proportion to the effect the proposed tax would have on wealthy people and corporations.)

In my experience in North Carolina, Democrats at the state and local level are relatively wary of tax increases. So subsidiarity’s net effect in many communities would likely be the reduction of government services, especially for the poor.

This extreme reluctance to increase taxes isn’t the only relevant factor that Salam seems to have overlooked. His thought exercise makes no mention of reproductive issues. Although conservatives generally favor small government, that principle is frequently suspended when it comes to abortion. A Mother Jones analysis of abortion restrictions proposed in state legislatures in 2013 found that 94 percent of bill sponsors were Republican. (The magazine acknowledges that its data isn’t comprehensive, but it’s hard to imagine the ratio being any less lopsided than a 60-40 Republican tilt.)

Salam’s piece also omits any references to voting rights, which the GOP tends to want to restrict under the guise of combatting the extremely rare problem of voter impersonation fraud. These limits often threaten to decrease eligibility and turnout for young and minority voters — but surely that’s completely unrelated to the fact that those groups tend to vote Democratic! (Just ask Pennsylvania Republican Mike Turzai!)

Eleven states enacted photo ID laws over a 21-month stretch beginning in January 2011; Republicans controlled the legislatures and governor’s offices in 10 of them. A group of voting rights experts found that of 10 state photo-ID laws introduced from 2005 through 2007, all were sponsored by Republicans. Across all the legislative houses, these bills won support from 95.3 of GOP members and just 2.1 percent of Democrats.

Salam writes that Tea Party enthusiasts love to picture an America where “[c]itizens would vote with their feet in favor of the social-democratic societies that would emerge in Vermont and the Bay Area or the laissez-faire societies that would emerge in large stretches of the Mountain West.” He also notes that it’s “a heck of a lot easier to move from one state to another that better reflects our political beliefs than to move from one country to another.”

What the writer may not have stopped to consider, however, is that the ease of pulling up stakes closely correlates with a household’s socioeconomic status. For the very rich, moving across the country can be relatively effortless; for the very poor, moving across town can be nearly impossible. Teatopia might be heaven to some, but it could very well be hellish for the impoverished people who are often get doubly hammered in conservative areas. Such residents are not only targeted by conservative budget writers, they’re also trapped in inimical circumstances due to their limited resources.

Another subject that escapes Salam’s consideration is the impact that wealthy people can have on politics, especially at the state and municipal levels. In 2011, during an interview about the outsized influence conservative businesman Art Pope has had on North Carolina electionsNew Yorker writer Jane Mayer noted that state legislative races are relatively cheap.

Figures bear her out. The average cost of winning a U.S. House of Representatives seat in 2010 was $1.4 million, per the Campaign Finance Institute; the average cost of winning a U.S. Senate seat was nearly $9 million. Over that same election cycle, according to figures compiled by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, average successful state House or Assembly run cost less than $90,000, and the average winning state Senate campaign consumed slightly more than $180,000.

In other words, as more power devolved to the state and local levels in Teatopia, the wealthy would more easily buy influence, especially as the Supreme Court continues to dissolve campaign-finance restrictions.

At the end of his column, Salam writes that “the Tea Party movement does indeed have a distinctive vision, which will come into sharper focus in the years to come. The Tea Party is not some temporary aberration that will seamlessly blend into the conservative establishment in a few years.”

I agree that the Tea Party agenda is distinctive, and that it will continue to emerge as different factions resolve their differences, and that the movement will indeed be both permanent and independent of the conservative establishment. (Perhaps I should stipulate that the Tea Party will be somewhat independent — many observers believe that the Tea Party philosophy already dominates the Republican Party, with the main difference between diehards and “RINOs” being the degree to which true believers eschew compromise.)

But consider the final phrase in Salam’s final sentence. The Tea Party, he writes, “is a real movement, and as America grows more diverse, and as American politics grows more contentious, it will grow.”

I myself wonder about the prospects for growth. As the Tea Party’s philosophy becomes clearer, and as more Americans understand just how skewed toward the well-off (and the socially conservative) that it really is, I think the conservative movement’s ability to attract adherents may instead dwindle.

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