What is most striking about the “Tea Party” is the complete discordance between what Tea Party supporters say about the Tea Party and its goals and what we “know” about these from the Tea Party’s outpourings. The sheer wealth of conflicting data is enough to make your head spin.
We progressives see lunatics – and we’re not alone. Tea Partiers present themselves as average, everyday Americans who have been pushed too far. From their perspective, they are us. They are America. But they are no America I know or am familiar with. Their America seems to be a phobic, paranoid little place rife with conspiracies intent on overthrowing “real” America.
Nowhere is this rhetoric, and the narrative of impending tyranny at the hands of a “black, non-American white-hating Indonesian Muslim,” more evident than in the phenomenon known as the Tea Party.
Asking, “What is the Tea Party?” might seem like a silly question at this point, but it is an important one; we cannot have a meaningful discussion if we cannot agree on our terms.
Yet there are problems. We might wish to establish the movement’s bona fides up front, but that is not easily done. David Barstow writes in the New York Times of the Tea Party as a “sprawling rebellion”: “The Tea Party movement defies easy definition, largely because there is no single Tea Party.”
We progressives criticize and then are told that there are actually two tea parties: the “Tea Party Nation” and the “Tea Party Movement.”The TPN is (so the story goes) a group that is trying to insinuate themselves (or itself) as the “leaders” of the movement (they would disagree). I am told these people are staunch Republican partisans and are attempting to co-opt the movement, the “true” Tea Party (Real Americans? Real Tea Partiers?). The explanation I get is that it is the TPN which is pushing more of a social agenda; the movement itself is based on fiscal issues.
If you visit the Tea Party Nation website, you will find that “Tea Party Nation (or TPN) is a user-driven group of like-minded people who desire our God given Individual Freedoms which were written out by the Founding Fathers. We believe in Limited Government, Free Speech, the 2nd Amendment, our Military, Secure Borders and our Country!”
If you visit the site of the “Tea Party Patriots,” the “Official Home of the Tea Party Movement” you find a similar mission statement:
“Tea Party Patriots as an organization believes in the Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government, and Free Markets.”
They also claim to be a “grassroots organization.”
There seems to be no difference between the two groups. They both claim channeling our Founding Fathers.
How can this be?
Will the “real” Tea Party please stand up!
It is significant that the TPN is supposed to be the group in thrall to the GOP. But the TPM – those fiscally minded folks – is supported by Freedomworks – not a libertarian group as you might have reason to suspect from the rhetoric – but a conservative nonprofit led by former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey. Freedomworks claims “FreedomWorks fights for lower taxes, less government and more economic freedom for all Americans.”
This does not advance our cause much –How can we know what we’re talking about when we talk about “Tea Partiers,” “Teabaggers” or “the Tea Party”?
In David Barstow’s study of the Tea Party movement(s) in the New York Times, he makes the following observation: “The ebbs and flows of the Tea Party ferment are hardly uniform. It is an amorphous, factionalized uprising with no clear leadership and no centralized structure.”
“At the grass-roots level, it consists of hundreds of autonomous Tea Party groups, widely varying in size and priorities, each influenced by the peculiarities of local history.”
It’s no wonder then when criticism is leveled that individual Tea Partiers cry foul and say “that’s not it at all!” It may not be – for them locally, or individually.
But can you be a Tea Partier without a party?
In a way, many of these protests remind me of Christians who say, when confronted with the horrors Christianity has perpetrated on the world for 2,000 years, “They weren’t real Christians,” and now the cry is, “They‘re not real Tea Partiers!”
Well, I answer, “They say they are.”
And I ask again, how do we tell them apart?
How do we tell them apart? The Media, which has a center-right bias, does not always appear to know (or perhaps admit) that there is more than one current flowing, and that these are sometimes at cross-purposes. It is in the interest of conservatives (and the media is conservative) to make the Tea Party appear to be one big happy – and conservative – family.
Lunatics R Us? That seems to be the finding of a conservative reporter writing for Newsweek who attended the Tea Party gathering in Nashville. Jonathan Kay writes that “Many of the tea-party organizers I spoke with at this conference described the event as a critical step in their ascendancy to the status of mainstream political movement. Yet with rare exceptions, such as blogger Breitbart, who was reportedly overheard protesting Farah’s birther propaganda, none of them seems to realize how off-putting the toxic fantasies being spewed from the podium were.” He further denounces the failings of the mainstream media, who don’t bother to catalog “these bizarre, conspiracist outbursts” of “radicalized conservatives [who] will behave like unhinged paranoiacs when they collect in the same room.”
Speaking at least of the TPN then, Mr. Kay writes that “That doesn’t say much for the state of the right in America. The tea partiers’ tri-cornered hat is supposed to be a symbol of patriotism and constitutional first principles. But when you take a closer look, all you find is a helmet made of tin foil.”
Where do the Tea Partiers themselves stand on the issues? That depends upon who you ask. As noted at the outset of this piece, there is a disconnect between what they say they’re saying and what we’re hearing.
The problem for the rest of us – and more significantly perhaps, for the Tea Partiers themselves – is that with them all looking and sounding so much alike, we can’t tell who has the tinfoil hats and who doesn’t.