Photo above: The Hertford Bridge in Oxford, England. Used by Permission. © Tom Ley 01302 782837

Friday, May 28, 2010

Three Certainties in Life: Death, Taxes and Protests

Dr. Mary Manjikian
Robertson School of Government

April 15 has in recent years become a strange sort of national holiday in America. Stores offer citizens free coffee and donuts as consolation for having to pay taxes, while newscasters sympathize with viewers completing last-minute paperwork. Citizens line up at the post office and increasingly take to the streets to protest against wasteful government spending.

It is easy to look at these developments and label them a new phenomenon, with no roots in historic precedent. That is particularly true when it comes to describing Tea Party activism in America. Many analysts see Barack Obama’s election as the Tea Party’s birthday — arguing that these protesters aren’t really anti-taxation, as much as they are pro-racism, pro-hatred and dislike of the poor and pro-intolerance. In this narrative, analysts describe a misguided and ill-informed grassroots backlash against social programs aimed at uplifting the disenfranchised.

However, such facile analyses miss the mark on two counts. First, opposition to spending and distrust of the government’s agenda is not new, and it did not begin with Obama’s election.

Pew Research Foundation data shows increases in political cynicism and distrust of government programs dating back to the early 1980s. Even 20 years ago, more than half of all Americans believed that government was not doing a very good job, and that public servants could not be trusted.

In addition, social critics have noted a large-scale American withdrawal from public spheres during that time frame. Since the 1980s, Americans have moved out of urban areas into gated communities, where their demand for safety and security has been met by private firms rather than government agencies. More than 10 percent of all American schoolchildren now attend private schools, while nearly 4 million children every year are homeschooled. Political scientist Robert Putnam argues that many Americans today have few close friends, do not know their neighbors well and do not participate in community activities the way they did in the 1950s or 1960s.

Clearly, American distrust of government and disengagement from public spheres is not new, and it did not start with Barack Obama. Rather, current social protests rest on a basis of resentment, anger and suspicion that has been brewing for quite some time — though it may have only recently erupted into open protest.

In addition, those who distrust government are not some fringe group of lunatics, nor are they retrogressive citizens with a desire to return to the past. The World Values Survey indicates that roughly 65 percent of American respondents throughout the 1990s said they had little or no confidence in government.

These numbers don’t vary greatly by gender, marital status, level of education or level of religious practice or belief. Instead, widespread suspicion of government is evenly distributed throughout our population.

In other words, the fed-up individual at a rally asking government to step back and narrow its scope might be a friend, neighbor or coworker. He or she might be wealthy, poor, educated, uneducated, urban or rural. But chances are he is not illogical and he did not undertake his protest on a whim. Rather, it is likely the result of long-held beliefs that have only recently moved him to action.

So the question we should ask is not why these activists are so mobilized or so angry, but rather, why the rest of the majority of Americans dissatisfied with government are so silent. We also need to realize that these so-called insurgents and anti-government activists are not extremists. Rather, as the data indicates, they speak for the majority of citizens who — free coffee or not — resent their annual donations to the government coffers and question whether that government has the ability to spend their money wisely or guide their country appropriately. Until then, I think it’s safe to say that tax day protests will likely become an annual event.

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