On the eve of tax-day, David Masciotra finds environmentalists, firebrands, singers, and lost souls talking the Tea Party line in Valparaiso, Indiana.
“Are you here to crucify us?”
That was the greeting I received from one of the volunteers with Northwest Indiana Patriots before their big tea party rally in Valparaiso, Indiana, April 14th, after I identified myself as a “writer covering the event.” Another volunteer, dressed in a skin-tight black t-shirt, torn blue jeans and combat boots, administered a laser-like glare through the cloud of his chain smoking.
I began talking with Faith Jones, a local woman with no prior political experience who founded and organized the group, and the defensiveness of the NWI Patriot volunteers and tea-party-tough intensity were palpable, despite the banal nature of my questions— “Why are you doing this?” “What are you trying to accomplish?” ….
Guards were quickly dropped once we shared in some humor and small talk – once I learned that the organization was created to counter the “exclusion” small town locals felt from the major tea party branch located in Indianapolis. Northwest Indiana Patriots had mobilized around a referendum on a county tax increase proposed to pay for improvement and enhancement of public transportation. Faith and other speakers skillfully tied this local issue, directly affecting Porter County residents, to the larger state and national concerns that spike the punch of the tea party.
The rally showed signs of success. A hundred, maybe 150, people gathered around the old courthouse in Valparaiso’s downtown square brandishing signs with slogans that ranged from the mundane (“Make Washington Listen to Us”) to the absurd (“Obamacare=Socialism=Slavery”). John Berry, a country hitmaker of the 1990s, was there to sing a new song called “Give Me Back My America,” and NWI Patriot members manned several tables selling self-promotional t-shirts, Sarah Palin mousepads, and “Don’t Tread on Me” baseball caps.
Ken, the same volunteer who thought I might nail him to a cross, worked one of the merchandise stands, spoke with me about his involvement in the group between sales, which left plenty of time. As far as right-wing activists go, Ken was a surprise (at least to me). He doubles his civic-participatory duty by also organizing Valparaiso’s Earth Day events and dreams of moving to Florida where he can follow his passion for converting homes and businesses to solar powered, energy efficient, environmentally friendly buildings.
Ken said that although his fellow tea partiers “don’t understand” his environmentalism, he has much more in common with them than not. He, like the rest of the volunteers and supporters I interviewed, spoke in the same two word slogans — “fiscal responsibility,” “accountable representation,” “limited government” — and expressed vague outrage when probed for deeper political thinking. As politically loaded as some of those slogans may be — especially “accountable representation,” which I heard repeated the most frequently and emphatically — none of them are even slightly disagreeable, regardless of one’s ideology. The populist anger of the Northwest Indiana tea partiers could be moved to a left-wing protest rally without much discernible difference. As much as the NWI Patriots seemed to hate Obama and health care reform, they also hate large corporations and the favorable treatment those corporations receive in Washington.
One member named Chris, a talkative combat veteran who is considering a run for the Indiana State Senate, discussed the necessity of “fair” and public campaign financing, which would allocate an equal amount of public funds to each candidate. The sole person who offered a specific policy proposal, Chris emerged as a wonkish exception to the group. Others, especially when attacking the president, relied on fright-speech (“Obama’s taking away our freedoms” or “Obama is destroying small businesses”) to explain the need for an oppositional movement, but they never named a single freedom violated nor any anti-small-business measure the current administration has taken. Instead, their justifications were abstract: “The freedom to innovate and be successful”…“There is too much red tape in the way of running a business.”
Protection of small businesses was a running theme among the Patriots, though I was unable to find a single small business owner in the crowd. The one small business owner and operator I did speak to sat behind the counter in a boutique she owns across the street from the rally. Pointing outside, seemingly towards the rest of the independent shops and restaurants around the square, she said with enough pep and charm to make Palin resemble Janet Reno, “All of these people live here, but I never see them. If they really want to support small businesses, why don’t they shop here? If I were you, I’d ask them where they shop and see what they say.”
Once I got over the humbling realization that she’d found a better angle than I ever could have, I circulated the rally again, asking each self-appointed small business protector where he or she shops; nearly everyone named a big box retailer. The Patriots’ financial situations, or incentives for patronizing Wal-Mart and Target rather than competing small businesses, are unknown. But the contradiction between political passions and personal purchasing habits was clear.
There was a disconnect, too, between the behavior of the tea party ralliers and the national media’s portrayal of them as racist, barbaric or lunatic. Faith gave me a long interview, all while taking care of three other things at the event; John Berry sang me a bit of the Chi Lites’ “Oh Girl” after I complimented the soulfulness of his voice. Most of the people I met were very kind, warm, and generous. There was an incongruence between the crowds’ knowledge and its passion (one twenty-something manicurist claimed to be there because she “wanted to find out what was going on and get involved”). Given the vagueness of their protest, there seemed to be a disconnect between the Patriots themselves and their political positions.
I think their concerns are largely legitimate, as are grievances about the quality of their lives and future of their children’s lives that are not being addressed in Washington by either party. Their wages have stagnated, while the cost of raising a family has crushingly increased. It seemed very possible that the aimlessly angered manicurist spoke for many tea party members nationwide when she essentially admitted to joining the group just because it was there. It also seems possible that if liberals were less elitist and the left was less suicidal they could organize many of the same frustrated working class voters, considering that populism manifests itself in protest against big banks, big corporations, and big media.
I don’t mean to imply that everyone at the rally seemed reasonable or reachable. Jerry Kaifetz, a “Christian author,” gave an address to the crowd that was as stupid as it was hateful. Easily the most memorable (and wildest) quote of the event was Kaifetz’s — spoken into the microphone without irony or hesitation: “I haven’t read Obama’s book, but someone who has told me that in it he says, ‘When push comes to shove I’ll stand with the Muslims.’”
The decency and sincerity of the Valparaiso audience was betrayed by absurdity like this. Why would anyone would want Kaifetz to represent them on a local level or Palin and Beck to do so on a national level? One woman, who was there simply to observe, turned and walked away in disgust during Kaifetz’s address, which followed John Berry’s second of four scheduled performances and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, “These people are assholes,” she said, “I need to go home to bathe.”
The classy and kind John Berry also left before Kaifetz finished, failing to play the rest of his songs as scheduled. However, most of the audience loudly cheered and raised fists during the speech.
When the group began their march around the square, I marched to my car, passing two high school students who were inexplicably chanting “Nascar” at the Patriots, an elderly man who pointed out the obnoxious contradiction of a man wearing a “Yellowstone National Park” t-shirt and holding a “Stop Socialism” sign, and the business owner who had given me my personal-shopping versus political-rhetoric line of inquiry. “What did you think of the event?” I slowed down to ask her while she sat in a chair set against her shop door, sipping on a Bud Light.
“They take up too many parking spaces.”
David Masciotra is the author of Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen (Continuum Books). For more information see www.davidmasciotra.com