Somewhere, I read that stress can be measured as the distance between your expectations and your reality. I thought of this when I read the “manifesto” left behind by Joe Stack, the fellow who flew a plane into an Austin IRS building. My impression is of a man who expected something else entirely from his life than what he got, and he was stressed, and angry, about it.
Stack had issues with taxes going back to the early 1980s. He refers to particular parts of the tax code that were changed then, but he doesn’t make clear what was bad about them. Then in 1994 he and his wife did not file tax returns. The reason for this is murky, but my suspicion is that he came to believe he did not have to pay taxes. About that time there was a small movement of anti-government extremists who, through creative reading of the tax codes, had come to the conclusion that there was no law that actually compelled anyone to pay taxes. These people were active on the old USENET newsgroups, which is how I came in contact with them. Note that several of these same people believed the U.S. had been under martial law since the Civil War, and this was somehow connected to American flags with gold fringe around them.
Apparently Stack’s wife divorced him and filed for bankruptcy to get out from under her tax debt, but Stack seems to have stubbornly refused to acknowledge he had done anything wrong. And it appears this act of defiance wrecked the rest of his life. He had considerable financial problems, but he also owned a couple of small planes, which suggests he was far from destitute. Lots of people are worse off, in other words.
The diatribe Stack left behind doesn’t fit neatly into any one ideological cubbyhole. He was angry with government, politicians of both parties, corporations, unions, health insurance companies, the Catholic church and organized religion generally. We can only guess if the “tea party” movement had any impact on him. My impression is that he had been on a self-destructive course for a great many years.
However, it appears some current anti-government extremists are claiming Stack as a martyr to their cause. Frank Rich writes about this in his column today. Although whatever it is that passes for “leadership” among the tea partiers has not publicly embraced Stack, apparently Facebook and many right-wing sites are bursting with praise for him.
On the other hand, the crew at Free Republic is certain he was a leftie. See, for example, Joe Stack’s “manifesto” ends by bashing Capitalism and quoting Marx! (Comment: “This guy sound like a ‘right-wing extremist’ to you? He sounds more like Obama or one of his many revolutionary-left associates!”) (Note: Stack appears to have been mocking Marx more than approving of him, but again, Stack’s political beliefs seem to have been all over the map. Stack’s real beef with capitalism may have been that he failed at it.)
However, I suspect Rich is right about a connection between the Clinton-era right-wing fringe obsessed with black helicopters, citizen militias, Ruby Ridge, and the destruction of David Koresh’s compound in Waco and the current right-wing fringe who are rallying around “tea parties” and threatening secession.
And I think it’s also true that the Republican Party has little control over the tea partiers. Rich writes,
The distinction between the Tea Party movement and the official G.O.P. is real, and we ignore it at our peril. While Washington is fixated on the natterings of Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Michael Steele and the presumed 2012 Republican presidential front-runner, Mitt Romney, these and the other leaders of the Party of No are anathema or irrelevant to most Tea Partiers. Indeed, McConnell, Romney and company may prove largely irrelevant to the overall political dynamic taking hold in America right now. The old G.O.P. guard has no discernible national constituency beyond the scattered, often impotent remnants of aging country club Republicanism. The passion on the right has migrated almost entirely to the Tea Partyâ€™s counterconservatism.
I was also struck by this:
A co-sponsor of CPAC was the John Birch Society, another far-right organization that has re-emerged after years of hibernation. Its views, which William F. Buckley Jr. decried in the 1960s as an â€œidioticâ€ and â€œirrationalâ€ threat to true conservatism, remain unchanged. At the conferenceâ€™s conclusion, a presidential straw poll was won by Congressman Paul, ending a three-year Romney winning streak. No less an establishment conservative observer than the Wall Street Journal editorialist Dorothy Rabinowitz describes Paulâ€™s followers as â€œconspiracy theorists, anti-government zealots, 9/11 truthers, and assorted other cadres of the obsessed and deranged.â€
Interesting that the truthers have migrated to the Right. They used to be associated only with the Left.
Anyway — recent polling suggests that the tea partiers are disproportionately white, but have average income and education. I remember reading recently that they tended to be middle aged or older, but I can’t find a reference to that now.
What does this tell us? The “tea partiers” on the whole are not the most oppressed and downtrodden among us, just the most pissed off. They’ve got more distance between their expectations and their reality than most of the rest of us.
What are their expectations? What are they pissed off about, really? Because for all their screaming about taxes, most of ’em are not paying more taxes now than they were last year or five years ago. Certainly racism is a factor in much of their animosity to President Obama, but that’s far from the whole story.
According to the “Tea Party Patriots” website, their core values are “Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government, Free Markets.” On the surface, not the stuff of angry mobs.
But I don’t think you have to be a psychologist to understand that the anger is being fueled by something else entirely, some horrific chasm between their expectations and their reality. Essentially, you’ve got a lump of middle-class white people who have hit mid-life or older, and their lives haven’t worked out the way they expected. In that way, at least, Joe Stack was one of them. And hey, folks, join the club.
The problem is that when they look for the cause of their problems, they see black helicopters and Big Gubmint, whereas the rest of us see financial sector oligarchy and disaster capitalism. I think I’ve used this analogy before, but they make me think of panicked horses who run back into the burning barn. We laugh at their weird conspiracy theories, but the truth is that the real “conspiracy” is so much bigger and so much scarier than what they imagine.