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The American Tea Party, which staunchly dissents with the Affordable Care Act, created the circumstances within the House of Representatives that caused the government shutdown. The Tea Party has drawn criticism from political commentators, some of whom have referred to the faction as the “Taliban wing of the Republican party.” To determine the validity of this assertion as well as the ethical legitimacy of the Tea Party’s actions we can consider several frameworks. Albert Hirschman is an ethicist and Martin Luther King Jr. was an activist for civil rights. Their frameworks provide helpful ways to ethically evaluate seemingly subjective actions.

First, the issue must be situated in the context of officiality of dissent and actions. Officiality is the first significant difference between the Taliban and the Tea Party and helps us to know which frameworks make sense. The Taliban is a terrorist faction, that lost its legitimate power in the Middle East 2004 and has since become an insurgency in the Afghan government. They employ violent methods trying to undermine and overthrow the existing government. Because the Taliban is no longer the ruling government and thus no longer has a monopoly on violence, their way of expressing dissent is to operate outside the confines of the law. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his 1963 letter from Birmingham Jail explains that when the governmental system as a whole is just, the only legitimate way for citizens to protest is through non-violence (King 1963). This allows for dissent while maintaining respect for the system as a whole (King 1963). King, Jr. delineated the ethics of civil disobedience, which applies to anyone outside of the government system, and is thus an unofficial action (King 1963). The Taliban is unofficial like many dissenting groups, but is extremist unlike many. It is extremist in that it does not respect the entire governmental system as ethical. The faction’s fundamental belief in Sharia law, which differs from official Afghan law, explains, but does not ethically justify, why they operate outside the confines of the law. King Jr. said sometimes laws must be broken when there is a higher moral law at stake (King 1963). To King Jr., the higher moral law was Christianity but to members of the Taliban, this higher moral law is Sharia law. Social and cultural relativism plays an important role here, muddling efforts to ethically evaluate the Taliban’s methods of dissent. However, King Jr. would argue that the Afghan government is overall just so no legitimate authority to use violence exists.

The Tea Party is an elected group and employs official disobedience to stop the enforcing of a law while the Taliban operates outside the governmental system. This difference determines the validity of using violence because the government holds the monopoly on violence. The Taliban employs violence without legitimate authority while the Tea Party uses non-violent methods operating inside the government, which holds the monopoly on violence.

In evaluating official disobedience and methods of employing it, Albert Hirschman presents a framework to use. The options a government official might consider in dissent are voice, exit, disloyalty or any combination of the above (Hirschman 1970). Voice can include protesting to superiors, the public or the press (Hirschman 1970). Exit involves resignation and disloyalty is any subversive and secret behavior that occurs within the system to further the individual’s goal (Hirschman 1970). The Tea Party’s actions to hinder the advancement of “Obamacare” can be evaluated as a combination of voice and exit called “issue ultimatum” (Hirschman 1970). They used voice when they identified and dissented against a single issue, publicly and to their official counterparts and superiors (the President). There are more traces of disloyalty than exit in this strategy, a deviation from Hirschman’s traditional definition of issue ultimatum. The politicians are risking their exit by ignoring public opinion about their action and assuming the risk of being voted out of office. There are even stronger traces of disloyalty by the Tea Party with their use of power to cause a government shutdown until their issue is resolved, a sabotage on the system.

Hirschman, an ethicist, would argue that the Tea Party’s form of dissent is ethical and legitimate and King Jr., an activist, would reject the Taliban’s methods of protest as unethical and illegitimate. A parallel between the actions of the Tea Party and Taliban are not legitimate. The Taliban is an extremist faction that operates outside the system without authority and the Tea Party carries out legitimate forms of official protest.

 -Corinne Jurney

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Letter. 16 Apr. 1963.

Hirschman, Albert. Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1970. 

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