Sept. 21, 2011

Law professor's talk on the Tea Party triggers heated debate

Love it or hate it, when it comes to the Tea Party, most people seem to have an opinion. This was evident Sept. 19 when William A. Jacobson, associate clinical professor of law at Cornell Law School and founder of the conservative blog Legal Iinsurrection, ventured into a crowded room at the Cornell Club in Manhattan to assert that the Tea Party is one of the most influential -- and positive -- forces in American politics in a generation.

Jacobson traced the origin of the Tea Party, defended it and argued that it was the driving force behind the current political focus on deficits and the national debt.

"There has been an absolute onslaught by the media," he said, "to portray the Tea Party as racist, as extremist, as a whole lot of things that nobody should want to associate with. In fact, if that is what it was, I wouldn't want to associate with it either."

Rather than a group of extremists, Jacobson suggested the Tea Party is an extension of the frustration first articulated by "Joe the Plumber" in 2008 and Rick Santelli (whose February 2009 outburst on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange went viral on the Internet).

"I think that there was a feeling that people were not being appreciated, not being understood; that the direction that the people who claim to know the best were taking the country was not where the country wanted to go," Jacobson said.

The Tea Party, he argued, is not organized around social issues, he said. "It is not a so-called religious rights movement," Jacobson said. "It is not a socially conservative movement. It is an economic movement." This approach has electrified many Americans, Jacobson said. "It's truly amazing. There are a lot of people who have never been involved in the political process before. ... Depending upon which poll you read, between 20-40 percent of the American population supports the Tea Party movement's goals," Jacobson said.

Some, like writer Jane Mayer of The New Yorker magazine, have posited, that the Tea Party derives much of its power from the deep pockets of billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch. Jacobson, who has attended Tea Party rallies in upstate New York he said, and who was a vocal supporter of Scott Brown (whose successful bid for the U.S. Senate was called "The Tea Party's First Electoral Victory" by The Christian Science Monitor), disagrees with that characterization.

"There is no money behind them," Jacobson said. "There is nobody organizing them." He argued that while there are some national groups involved in large events or elections, on the local level, the Tea Party movement is grassroots, unfunded and often disorganized.

While a number of alumni in attendance were receptive to Jacobson's remarks, several disagreed. "I think that, in contrast to what you've said, there is an immense amount of money that has supported this movement," said David Hirsch '57, kicking off a heated discussion that ran for 28 minutes, delaying dinner. "There is no question," Hirsch continued "that there is good reason to have immense dissatisfaction. You can't have 10 percent of people unemployed and a lot more who have just given up trying to find jobs, without immense dissatisfaction."

The discussion also ranged from entitlements and regulation to spending and the war.

Claire Lambrecht '06, a freelance writer in New York City, interns with Slate and The New York Times.