"Do you realize," CNN's Susan Roesgen asked a man at the April 15, 2009, tea party in Chicago, "that you're eligible for a $400 credit?" When the man refused to drop his "drop socialism" sign, she went on, "Did you know that the state of Lincoln gets 50 billion out of the stimulus?"
Roesgen is no longer with CNN, and CNN has only about half as many viewers as it did last year. But her questions are revealing. They help us understand that the issue on which our politics has become centered -- the Obama Democrats' vast expansion of the size and scope of government -- is really not just about economics. It is really a battle about culture, a battle between the culture of dependence and the culture of independence.
Probably unknowingly, Roesgen was reflecting the mid-century sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld's dictum that politics is about who gets how much when. If some guy is getting $400, shouldn't he just shut up and collect the money? Shouldn't he be happy that his state government, headed recently by Rod Blagojevich, was getting an extra $50 billion?
But public policy also helps determine the kind of society we are. The Obama Democrats see a society in which ordinary people cannot fend for themselves, where they need to have their incomes supplemented, their health care insurance regulated and guaranteed, their relationships with their employers governed by union leaders. Highly educated mandarins can make better decisions for them than they can make themselves. That is the culture of dependence.
The tea partiers see things differently. They're not looking for lower taxes -- half of tea party supporters, a New York Times survey found, think their taxes are fair. Nor are they financially secure -- half say someone in their household may lose their job in the next year. Two-thirds say the recession has caused some hardship in their lives.
But they recognize, correctly, that the Obama Democrats are trying to permanently enlarge government and increase citizens' dependence on it. And, invoking the language of the Founding Fathers, they believe that this will destroy the culture of independence which has enabled Americans over the past two centuries to make this the most productive and prosperous -- and the most charitably generous -- nation in the world.