Liberals consider themselves tolerant and open-minded, in contrast to the close-minded bigots who inhabit the rightward end of the political spectrum. Witness, for instance, the way Juan Williams was summarily executed over at NPR for having the temerity to voice heterodox views on the enemy station, Fox News. Witness also the way Joe Lieberman – a previous Vice Presidential candidate, for Pete’s sake – was drummed out of the party (to the sound of vicious anti-Semitic slurs) for the heresy of supporting the Iraq War. Witness, too, the number of pro-life Democrats who get prominent speaking positions at party conventions. Real big-tent stuff.
So as the election nears and a tidal wave known as the Tea Party bids fair to capsize the Democratic majority in Congress, progressives have fallen all over themselves trying to understand who these people are and to put their movement in the proper context. That is to say, to tag them with some applicable social pathology so they can marginalize the whole thing.
First out of the block were the charges of racism. This is understandable. After all, Barack Obama is our first black president, and the racial makeup of most Tea Party rallies is less mixed than the regular population. So naturally, that means the whole thing is driven by racial hatred of the president. Note, however, that it’s also true that Richard Nixon was around 60 when he was president, and the student rioters of those chaotic days were mostly in their twenties – so by the same logic it’s a natural conclusion that the driving force that brought these kids into the streets and shut down campuses was hatred of older people. They even had a slogan: “don’t trust anyone over 30.” Of course, no one claims that, but the reasoning is the same. Despite the lack of any dispositive evidence, the NAACP is still trying to roast the racism chestnut. (Oh, goodness, “to roast” means to make something dark with heat – is that conservative code for a racist reference? If a Tea Partier said it, you can bet somebody on the left would claim it is.)
There are also broad, disparate attempts to paint the whole crowd as a bunch of crazies and extremists. After all, some of them do say pretty far-out things, like we ought to eliminate the federal Department of Education, which plans to spend $46.7 billion of taxpayer money in 2010 on a mission that the Constitution says does not belong to the feds and which has over the years done precious little to raise the educational attainment of the kids most in need of it. Is that extreme? As in unlikely, yes – but isn’t it useful to have the debate instead of assuming that just because it’s there we can’t question it? They like to suggest that some Tea Party candidates are extreme, too, like Sharron Angle, who, by the way, handily bested the Senate Majority Leader in debate last week, and stands an excellent chance of winning the seat. Same too with Rand Paul, whose opponent has been so unable to make the “extreme” charge stick that he has resorted to portraying a silly college-days prank as a definitive illustration of Paul’s character. And they love Christine O’Donnell, and hang on her every gaffe as if to say, “see? I told you so.” Like when she apparently put her ignorance of the Constitution on display in a debate last week – before a group of law school students, no less – asking, “where in the Constitution is the separation of Church and State?” The haughty students laughed outright, as did the liberal commentariat – Bill Maher, Rachel Maddow, etc. It probably doesn’t matter that O’Donnell was right. The Constitution never says church and state must be separate, only that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The literal text does not mean separate – it just means that Congress can’t tell people how, where, or to whom to worship. The rest of it has been larded on, and, again, is worthy of debate. On this, at least, O’Donnell was right.
And I wonder why the media is so fond of labeling the Tea Partiers as mental deficients or extremist crazies, and they leave Democrats like Alvin Greene alone. This guy, the duly-nominated Democratic candidate for Senate in South Carolina, can barely speak in full sentences. I heard an extremely friendly interview of him on CNBC, and all he could say – repeatedly – was, “the recession is Jim DeMint’s fault.” Interviewer Lawrence O’Donnell (no relation to Christine, I’m betting) lobs the following softball – “your nickname in high school was turtle. Where did that come from, and what does it tell us about how this race might end up?” (psst – here’s where you bring the hare and the tortoise metaphor) “DeMint started the recession. DeMint is responsible for the recession.” That’s a precise transcript, except my insertion. But it’s the Tea Party where the kooks are.
Then there are those who like to do the religious pseudo-analysis. I heard recently on a progressive talk show a genuine-sounding (ie, Southern) religious figure discussing “The Four Gods of America,” a current book that seeks to categorize our faith. You see, there are those who believe in an Authoritarian God. These people, like GW Bush, believe in a God that is highly judgmental, labels good and evil, and rains death and despair on those He sees as straying. Adherents of this God are fearful, and their behavior shows it; they like their guns, they don’t like foreigners, they tend to be conservative. Then there is the Critical God. He is not quite so interventionist as the Authoritarian God, but He is keeping score, and you’ll get your deserts when you reach the afterlife. His people are also fearful, and guess what? They tend to be conservative. Contrast this with the Benevolent God. This is the God of the Beatitudes, the God of compassion. His believers do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, not because they are afraid of punishment. This is Barack Obama’s God (said, apparently, without a trace of irony, and with no reference at all to the teachings of Jeremiah Wright). Finally, there is the Distant God, the God as Great Key-Winder. Adherents of this God do their best to find spirituality on their own, and generally are trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. (That last bit was my sarcastic interpretation). Needless to say, the latter two groups, the ones with a healthy, self-directed and expansive spirituality, are the progressives.
Complete and utter tommyrot. And yet, it gets a hearing.
Liberal journalist Andrew Sullivan recently came out with a different explanation. They are not racist or extremist, he said. They are confused and frustrated that the world they knew and found comfortable, a world of white people in charge, where men married women, and the latter cooked and raised the children, where there were good guys and Communists, and where America was the world’s industrialist, this world was gone forever. It is being replaced before their eyes by a totally unorthodox society of mixing races, sexualities, spiritualities, and economic forces. And they just can’t handle it. When they talk about taking the country back, they want to take it to a place where it can never go again. Ozzie and Harriet have long since passed into the video beyond. So don’t be harsh with them, poor dears, they are just struggling to come to terms with a world where their place is far less certain that it had been.
It sounds compassionate and understanding, but at its heart it is so patronizing as to be laughable. He doesn’t get it either.
Finally, there is Barack Obama himself who offers his own pseudo-psychology: the reason “facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time is because we are hardwired not to always think clearly when we’re scared. And the country is scared.” In other words, the only reason Democrats are not way out in front in this election is that people are so frightened (of what, exactly, except the policies of Obama’s administration?) that they are driven to such social pathologies as Tea Party membership and voting Republican. Back in the fall of 2008, of course, when people were equally frightened but in a productive way, they voted Democratic by the millions, but we don’t want to bring up that comparison.
And let’s not touch on the implications for the Darwinian theory of natural selection in this notion that humans start running amok when they are scared. I wouldn’t think that would actually help ward off attacking sabre-tooth tigers. And here I thought the Democrats worshipped at the altar of science.
All of these attempts at explanation resemble nothing so much as the blind men (pun intended) variously defining an elephant a like a tree; a snake, a leathery curved wall, a bone. The real picture is so large in front of them they can’t perceive it.
The Tea Party is the first truly grass roots conservative movement in probably more than a hundred years. It has no national leadership – it is made up of many individual local groups that themselves are made up of regular folks moved to active participation, many of them for the first time in their lives. There is a national group that co-ordinates activities, and it has all of seven full time paid staffers. And they are animated by One Big Thing: spending. They see the course that this crop of Democrats have set us on, and it points to Greece; to France where the country is convulsed by riots at the suggestion that workers might have to work to the ripe old age of 62. They see the bankruptcy of California, of New York, Illinois, New Jersey. And they see that this government’s response is to spend more. They are frightened, all right – frightened of a combined national and state debt that has mortgaged the futures of their grandchildren, never mind their children. And they are angry – angry at the irresponsibility of generations of politicians of both parties who kicked this can down the road time after time, making the day of reckoning ever more painful. They see the arrogance of a Congress that passed a near-nationalization of health care without a shred of bipartisan support, totally heedless of the rising opposition that expressed itself in town hall meetings, polls, and elections and culminated in the loss of a liberal sinecure in Ted Kennedy’s old Senate seat.
They talk about old-timey virtues, like personal responsibility, citizen involvement and free markets, because they think the current Washington culture has progressively turned our country into a place where people look to the government first. They recognize the gravitational pull of a powerful central government, which is why they tend to favor states rights’ and federalism – they are Jeffersonians rather than Hamiltonians. And toward that end, they tend to be Constitutional literalists, because part of the drift of the Great Whirlpool in DC drawing all money and power into itself is the acquiescence of a Supreme Court that has winked at a steadily growing finger-weight on what the Framers intended to be an exquisitely balanced scale.
This is my take on the Tea Party. All the other stuff that progressives are trying to play up is just so much smoke. There may be a shred of substance for some of the claims, but then, an elephant’s leg can feel like a tree, too.