Trying to figure out the tea party movement puts one in the position of the blind man trying to understand the shape of an elephant by touch.

He puts his hand on its tail and he thinks it’s like a snake. He feels the leg and it’s a tree. The ear seems like a blanket to him.

So too, the tea party is made up of a lot of disparate elements–anti-abortion, anti-taxes, anti-immigration, anti-health-care expansion, anti-government in general. If it weren’t for guns, they wouldn’t be pro anything.

Basically, however, it’s their feeling about government that binds them together. Someone once told them that the government that governs least governs best and they believed it.

They remind me of Huck Finn’s father. He reappears early in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” fresh out of jail and drunk. He virtually kidnaps his son, who has been adopted by the Widow Douglas, and takes Huck to his shack out in the woods, where he bemoans his lot.

“Call this a govment! Why, just look at it and see what it’s like. Here’s the law a-standing ready to take a man’s son away from him–a man’s own son, which he has had all the trouble and all the anxiety and all the expense of raising.

“Yes, just as that man has got that son raised at last, and ready to go to work and begin to do suthin’ for him and give him a rest, the law up and goes for him. And they call that govment!

“A man can’t get his rights in a govment like this. Sometimes I’ve a mighty notion to just leave the country for good and all…Says I, for two cents I’d leave the blamed country and never come a-near it again. Them’s the very words.”

And, coincidentally, them’s the very words of tea party fellow traveler Rush Limbaugh, aren’t they? Didn’t he say that if the health-care bill passed he’d leave the country? (Though if the object were to get away from national health insurance I don’t know where he’d go. Somalia, maybe.)

Americans love to talk about how much they distrust government, always have. All of our great philosophers–Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau, Reagan—have sung that tune. But Americans still cash their Social Security checks, demand their unemployment benefits, and are happy when someone answers their 911 call. It’s the other guy’s government benefits that bother them.

The level of hostility engendered by the health-care bill is a little puzzling, however. None of the arguments against it hold water.

  • They say that we can’t afford it. How can that be? Every other industrialized country on Earth has some form of national health insurance. How can they all afford it and we can’t?
  • They say that it constitutes a government takeover of health care. It doesn’t. I wish it did. It filters care through a system of insurance companies, and each of them takes its cut.
  • They say it will lead to rationing and long lines. Only if we don’t cut costs by eliminating tests and treatments that are unnecessary or don’t work. Republicans don’t seem willing to do that. Besides, you think we don’t have rationing and long lines right now?
  • They say we already have the best health-care system in the world and shouldn’t mess with it. Nonsense. We may have the best care, but a system that leaves 15 percent of the people uninsured is far from the best.
  • They say the health-care bill is unconstitutional. Oh, come on. Do you really think that when Washington, Franklin and the rest of that crowd were discussing the Bill of Rights, they said: “We have to make sure that the people are assured freedom from health care?”

On the other hand, given recent Supreme Court decisions, constitutional isn’t what it used to be.

My own feeling is that anything that makes Rush Limbaugh want to leave the country can’t be all bad.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Donald Kaul

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

OtherWords commentaries are free to re-publish in print and online — all it takes is a simple attribution to To get a roundup of our work each Wednesday, sign up for our free weekly newsletter here.

(Note: Images credited to Getty or Shutterstock are not covered by our Creative Commons license. Please license these separately if you wish to use them.)