I met Barry Silverman at a gathering of the Rockland County Tea Party/Coffee Party at the New City Public Library, about twenty miles north of New York City, in January 2011.1
I arrived after the Pledge of Allegiance had been recited. Ten attendees were discussing their first order of business, supporting a Republican presidential candidate for the 2012 election. Silverman was quick to speak up when Bruce Weinfeld, the chair, asked participants to list the qualities they look for in a presidential candidate. Silverman announced, “If the Republicans nominate only RINOs [Republicans In Name Only] in 2012, they’ll be finished. They’ll go the way of the Whigs.” It was a prediction he would state repeatedly.
During the meeting Silverman, a White retiree who appeared to be in his sixties, said he had worked for a “Fortune 50 company.” He is a leader in the Rally for America Tea Party and has been a featured public speaker at Tea Party events.2 After the meeting, I struck up a conversation with him and a few other participants, including Larry Rosner, who handed me a card describing himself as the founder of The Society Project website, whose motto is “Control the Government Not the People.” I did not identify myself as a reporter, just as someone who was curious about the Tea Party movement.
Silverman and his colleagues all expressed radical right-wing politics. They don’t believe change can come through existing institutions, which they believe need to be restructured or even eliminated. When I asked them if the food stamp program should be terminated, they cried, “Cut it!” The same cry greeted the mention of Medicare, Medicaid, and unemployment insurance. They saved their greatest ire for Social Security: “Social Security is a fraud,” they said.
“It’s a pyramid scheme. The trust fund doesn’t exist.”
“Stealing from us in taxes is unconstitutional and immoral.”
“The government isn’t allowed to tax us.”
Silverman explained that Obama’s election had led to his political awakening. “I was asleep for thirty years. I woke up because of Obama. It was the bailouts and stimulus and healthcare. It was socialism.” He added that he felt isolated until he attended a protest in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2009 and found thousands of kindred spirits. “I had thought I was the only one yelling at my TV.”
Borrowing a line from libertarians, who make up a significant segment of the Tea Party movement, Silverman told me, “Equality of opportunity does not guarantee equality of outcome.” A young woman, the only African American in attendance, sat nearby texting on her cell phone during our discussion, often nodding approvingly at Silverman’s remarks. She spoke up only a few times, twice telling me to read Uncle Sam’s Plantation by Star Parker3 to learn how the welfare system keeps poor people in a state of dependency.
During the meeting Silverman had declared, “The government is stealing our wealth.” During our conversation he elaborated, explaining that the government subsidizes the poor.
“How?” I asked.
Silverman’s face jutted forward, his eyes bulged with incredulity, and he sighed at having to suffer a fool like me, before ticking off the evidence on his fingers. “They get welfare, food stamps, healthcare, unemployment, housing.”
I pointed out that unemployment is an insurance system: you have to work to qualify, and it excludes many categories of workers—but to no avail. To Silverman, it was a taxpayer-funded subsidy to the undeserving and a form of theft.
“Name one government program that is effective and efficient,” Silverman demanded.
“The interstate highway system,” I responded, but he immediately denounced that as inefficient. The topic came up again later, and when I suggested the Veterans Administration he became visibly angry, labeling the agency “corrupt” and “scandal ridden.”
I declined to point out that a recent study determined that the VA healthcare system outperformed the for-profit healthcare system across seven different categories.4 I also didn’t mention that the meeting and our conversation were taking place in a free public space paid for by taxpayers. The evidence was irrelevant. No matter how well a government program worked, it could never compete with Silverman’s utopian vision of the free market, which, in his words, would always be more “effective and efficient.”
The political scientist Peter Bratsis recommends that to understand the Tea Party, we start with the group’s name. “By evoking the Boston Tea Party,” he explains, “the movement is both referencing the national founding and celebrating patriotic pleasure and sacrifice.” He adds,
Tea Party supporters think that things have gone awry precisely because Americans are driven by the nihilistic pursuit of self-interest. … If greedy bankers and labor unions, corrupt and servile politicians, and free-riding law-breaking immigrants behaved in a more disciplined and principled manner, then we would finally be able to enjoy our own lives and the United States could go back to its former greatness.5
For Silverman, as I suspect for many Tea Party supporters, the rhetoric and imagery of a national refounding tap into heroic ideals. We live in a society suffused with banality, in which people are pushed at every turn to overcome their dissatisfactions through shopping and eating, spectator sports, television, and cruises. In contrast, the Tea Party offers a heroic narrative that lends meaning to a middle-class, consumerist lifestyle by uplifting unfettered individualism and the free market as the paths to restoring the country to its former glory.
- RFA Tax Day Tea Party Rally, Rockland County, NY 4/15/2010, April 16, 2010, accessed July 14, 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=va7pNcSxP78.
- Uncle Sam’s Plantation: How Big Government Enslaves America’s Poor and What We Can Do About It, by Star Parker. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.
- Bratsis, “Viagra for an Impotent America.”