The Triumph Of Delusion

Over this pre-election weekend, CNN will air a special called, "Boiling Point: Inside the Tea Party." Whether or not its right-wing fury brings a conservative wave to Washington, the network insists, "the Tea Party has earned a place in

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Over this pre-election weekend, CNN will air a special called, "Boiling Point: Inside the Tea Party." Whether or not its right-wing fury brings a conservative wave to Washington, the network insists, "the Tea Party has earned a place in history." But even more than its decibel level, none-too-thinly veiled race-baiting, casual incitements to violence and perfection of a corporate-backed grassroots façade, the rise of the Tea Party marks the triumph of delusion in American politics. Simply put, never has a modern political movement been so utterly wrong on basic matters of fact.

And as a new Bloomberg poll on taxes and economy revealed Friday, the know-nothingism is contagious:

The Obama administration cut taxes for middle-class Americans, expects to make a profit on the hundreds of billions of dollars spent to rescue Wall Street banks and has overseen an economy that has grown for the past five quarters.

Most voters don't believe it.

A Bloomberg National Poll conducted Oct. 24-26 finds that by a two-to-one margin, likely voters in the Nov. 2 midterm elections think taxes have gone up, the economy has shrunk, and the billions lent to banks as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program won't be recovered.

Of course, from the very beginning the cries of the "No Taxation without Representation" and "Taxed Enough Already" flew in the face of reality. President Obama and his Democratic allies as promised delivered tax relief to over 95% of working households. As Steve Benen noted, that $282 billion, two-year tax cut was the "biggest tax cut ever." By May 2010, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported, "Federal, state and local taxes -- including income, property, sales and other taxes -- consumed 9.2% of all personal income in 2009, the lowest rate since 1950."

Nevertheless, a CBS poll in February found that only 12%o of respondents thought that the Obama administration had already lowered taxes, while 53% believed they remained unchanged. But among the boiling-over Tea Baggers, the cognitive dysfunction was almost total:

Of people who support the grassroots, "Tea Party" movement, only 2 percent think taxes have been decreased, 46 percent say taxes are the same, and a whopping 44 percent say they believe taxes have gone up.

It's no wonder, as former Reagan Treasury official Bruce Bartlett lamented, "For an antitax group, they don't know much about taxes."

Or just about anything else.

After all, majorities of the Tea Party faithful doubt Barack Obama was born in the United States and up to a third wrongly believe he's a secret Muslim. The Tea Baggers' refrain of "keep your government hands off my Medicare" only makes sense if you believe, as 59% of self-identified conservatives and 62% of McCain voters do, that the program that provides health care for 46 million American seniors is not in fact run by the federal government. It's no wonder three in 10 of the elderly still believe what PolitiFact deemed the 2009 Lie of the Year, government "death panels."

Then there are the Tea Party's cognitive problems when it comes to basic math. In the telling of the Tea Party faithful and their media echo chamber, the 70,000 marchers at their 2009 "9/12" event in Washington became an army of 2,000,000. As political statistician extraordinaire Nate Silver diagnosed this case of wishful thinking in a piece aptly titled "Size Matters; So Do Lies":

The way this false estimate came into being is relatively simple: Matt Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks, lied, claiming that ABC News had reported numbers of between 1.0 and 1.5 million when they never did anything of the sort. A few tweets later, the numbers had been exaggerated still further to 2 million. Kibbe wasn't "in error", as Malkin gently puts it. He lied. He did the equivalent of telling people that his penis is 53 inches long.

But the Tea Party's war on numbers isn't merely self-delusional; it threatens financial ruin for the country. Conveniently ignoring that Ronald Reagan doubled the national debt and George W. Bush doubled it again, the Tea Party Contract from America demands both that the Bush tax cuts be made permanent and a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. These posing deficit hawks like Rand Paul ("I'm not seeing it as a cost to government") play dumb about the Bush tax cut windfall for the wealthy accounting for half the debt added during Dubya's tenure and, if made permanent, contributing more to the U.S. budget deficit than the Obama stimulus, the TARP program, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and revenue lost to the recession combined. And after the Bush presidency produced only record income inequality, steep poverty and declining wages, those most ardent of Republicans are only too happy to back another budget-busting, $700 billion, 10-year payday for the richest 2% of Americans. As to what spending cuts they'll make to pay for it, both the rank and file Tea Baggers and the Free Lunch Republican politicians they support are predictably silent.

According to J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co., the Des Moines, Iowa-based firm that conducted the nationwide survey for Bloomberg, Americans' distorted picture of the economy is all Democrats' fault:

"The public view of the economy is at odds with the facts, and the blame has to go to the Democrats. It does not matter much if you make change, if you do not communicate change."

To be sure, President Obama and the Democrats must be among the world's least effective salesmen. But for two years, a willing media has amplified the right-wing Tea Party frenzy, unprecedented Republican obstructionism and GOP myth-making, all now backed by record quantities of secret campaign cash.

Charles Krauthammer and Michael Gerson notwithstanding, it's not elitism to point out, as President Obama did recently, that "facts and science and argument [do] not seem to be winning the day." It's called telling the truth.

Last week, the New York Times fittingly asked. "What if a president cut Americans' income taxes by $116 billion and nobody noticed?" Well, "reality has a well-known liberal bias" (as Stephen Colbert told George W. Bush in 2006). But not if no one is paying attention to it.

As for CNN's "boiling over" Tea Partiers, they've succeeded in proving one point if nothing else: being loud is the next best thing to being right.

For more background, data and charts, see:

UPDATE: C&L's own John Amato and David Neiwert have much more in their book, Over the Cliff: How Obama's Election Drove the American Right Insane. For a preview, see their Washington Post piece, "10 Fictitious Tea Party Beliefs."

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