NEW YORK – Ever since the first “Tea Party” convention was held last month in Nashville, Tennessee, with Sarah Palin as one of the keynote speakers, America’s political and media establishments have been reacting with a combination of apprehension and disdain. The Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, has called the Tea Party adherents Nazis, while the mainstream media tend to portray them as ignorant and provincial, a passive rabble with raw emotion but little analytical skill, stirred up and manipulated by demagogues to advance their own agendas.
To be sure, the Tea Party’s brand of aggrieved populism – and its composition of mostly white, angry, middle-class voters – has deep roots in the United States, flaring up during times of change. But observers who have drawn comparisons to the Know-Nothings, the racist, paranoid, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigrant party that surged in the 1850’s, are reading the movement far too superficially.
Indeed, those who deride and dismiss this movement do so at their peril. While some Tea Partiers may be racist or focused on eccentric themes – such as the validity of Barack Obama’s birth certificate – far more of them, those who were part of the original grass-roots effort, are focused on issues that have merit. If you actually listen to them, instead of just reading accounts transmitted through the distorting mirror of the mainstream media, you hear grievances that are profound, as well as some proposals that are actually ahead of their time.
For example, Tea Party activists, using a group called End the Fed, were among the first to focus critical attention on the unelected and unaccountable US Federal Reserve Board. Now legislation is being put forward to establish greater transparency at the Fed – surely a laudable outcome.
While those attracted to the Tea Party movement are a diverse group, some common themes emerge. They see a struggle for the soul of the Tea Party between true libertarians, who are worried about individual liberties, and traditional conservatives.
Many who spoke to me directly in my Facebook community believe that Congress is utterly broken and regard faith in either of America’s major parties as naïve. They view the Democrats and the Republicans alike as obstacles to change, drowning out the voices of the people as they kowtow to special interests. They are concerned about concentrated Federal control, spiraling debt, and the loss of individual rights.
Are they really wrong? After all, the movement took shape following the US government’s massive – and bipartisan – bailout of Wall Street banks. And, at a time when the Chinese government, America’s main creditor, has begun sending clear signals about its preferences for US domestic policy – even as it ignores American criticism of its human rights record – are the Tea Partiers merely being paranoid?
As little as I like Sarah Palin, the fact is that entrenched lobbying and other special interests mean that a “changing of the guard” in Washington is too often only a change in branding. As Barack Obama submits to the pressures of a US Department of Defense in which private contractors comprise 65% of the staffing budget, proposes preventive detention of Guantánamo detainees, and perpetuates the status quo in myriad other ways, her question – “So how’s that whole hopey-changey thing workin’ out for ya?” – is not the wrong question.
Indeed, for nearly a decade, concentration of executive power has threatened America’s system of checks and balances and given the Federal government the authority to spy on citizens, withhold information, and aggressively arrest and even Taser protesters – or to hire private contractors to do so. In these circumstances, the Tea Party activists’ focus on supporting states’ autonomy – and even on property rights and the right to bear arms – can seem like a prescient effort to constrain overweening corporate and military power in national government.
That is why the elites in general are so quick to ridicule this movement. A movement that is genuinely populist in origin poses a threat to their own position in the power structure. For once, a grassroots movement has arisen that is composed of people – some with Ivy League degrees, but many without – who are taking seriously the Internet-age promise that you don’t have to yield leadership to an established class of politicians and pundits.
This is also why the Republicans are seeking to capture the Tea Party movement’s energy for partisan purposes, overrunning it with well-paid operatives, particularly from former Representative Dick Armey’s fundraising and advocacy organization. Moreover, Tea Party gatherings have increasingly become a platform for Republican candidates seeking the support of a highly mobilized electoral base.
I hope that the Republican establishment does not succeed in co-opting the Tea Party – and that the Democratic establishment does not, either. And I hope that the movement captures the imagination of progressives, who are equally disgusted with the corruption of the status quo, and who can agree on many thematic goals, even if their policy proposals might be different.
At its worst, any populist movement can descend to demagoguery. But the Tea Party movement at its best (or in its origin) is constitutionalist. That is an awakening – and long overdue – sentiment in America, and one that spans the political divide.
The Tea Party movement’s adherents are angry – and, in many respects, justifiably so – but most of them are not crazy. That diagnosis better suits those who prefer to ignore them.