Let’s face it: you either love the Tea Party for being tireless advocates of a stricter interpretation of the Constitution as a way to cure what ails our economy and society, or you think they are undereducated morons who are enjoying way too much media time. There’s not much middle ground. Which is why reading nearly bipolar texts on the movement, Dana Milbank’s Tears of a Clown: Glenn Beck and the Tea Bagging of America and Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue and America By Heart, is such a fascinating exercise. Milbank is a longtime journalist with impeccable credentials who has finally been given the chance to opine by The Washington Post; Palin governed a state that received more federal assistance per capita than any other before deciding there was a hell of a lot more money in giving speeches to people who already believed what she was going to say.
So these two people should have radically different views about the Tea Party and what it means for America. Thankfully, they do.
For those who don’t follow cable news with the scrutiny of a pajama-wearing blogger living in their mother’s basement, a few sentences of Tea Party background is apposite. CNBC journalist and commodities expert Rick Santelli went postal on the air about two years ago, declaring he was going to host a tea party to stop wasteful spending. He may be a charming host when entertaining at home (or even know a thing or two about crumpets), but his job is to analyze currency and commodities from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. He is not a government official, nor does he seem to have aspirations of becoming one. But in that moment he was mad as hell and wasn’t going to take it any more. You can see the rant on YouTube. It’s actually pretty fun TV. He didn’t like the reform of the Trouble Asset Relief Program, the federal stimulus package, or the skinny guy with a funny name who had just been elected president.
That’s part of what is so engaging about the Tea Party movement: its initial purveyors were not just fiscal conservatives. It wasn’t a Fox phenomenon, or a talk-radio bastard. Those who sparked the movement had already used their knowledge of financial markets to make some serious bank before getting their panties in a bunch about government support for those Americans who haven’t. In other words, Rush and Hannity didn’t invent this movement — they didn’t see that horse coming — but boy do they like riding it now that it’s here. Because the Tea Party is making some people seriously rich.
Governor Palin decided that shilling for the Tea Party would ensure financial security for her family far more effectively than her government job. Glenn Beck, the self-acknowledged alcoholic whose recovery seems to require him to point out supposed public-policy addictions at every turn, couldn’t refuse Fox News when they dangled a large check in front of him.
The pair succeed because we all seem to know we are participants in a corrupt system — lobbyists have too much control, too many unions leave us with the impression that competency isn’t required for advancement, and it’s hard to find American voters who believe their voices are being heard, no matter what party they belong to.
But the Tea Party isn’t the answer, for more than a few reasons. Their fear-based approach is not unlike what some of us experienced as young campers when some strangely single 45-year-old campfire manager recounted chilling ghost stories. “Forkhand! The one-handed murderer who killed the newlyweds!” These stories scared the hell of out us, but then we woke up and realized that they weren’t nearly the threat our own imaginations were. This is what made the campaigns of two U.S. senatorial hopefuls, Sharron Angle of Nevada and Christine O’Donnell of Delaware, intriguing. If you spend your time around a campfire telling stories about how gays and liberals and Woodrow Wilson have undermined the country you hold dear, and you’re surrounded by people who believe the same way, you don’t sound like an idiot, even if your opinions are less than rational.
But when the people who are in agreement with you in internet chat rooms and near-empty VFW halls have convinced you that you’re right, you have a different problem. Angle looked like she’d just been told that gravity didn’t exist when she announced to an aging audience that Social Security should be abandoned. Despite craving to agree with her, they just couldn’t drink that Kool-Aid. When O’Donnell had to say with a straight face that she wasn’t really a witch, a lot of people who wanted to support her cringed.
The Tea Party is useful. We need people to tell us to stop spending, even when they’re wrong about the details and have only read the Constitution selectively. The problem is that too many Tea Partiers get together in venues that never brook any opposition, and suddenly decide that they are the best judges of which Amendments should be honored and which should not (they like the Tenth; not the First or Fourteenth). In other words, they’re campfire girls. They get scared by easily woven tales about the corruption of everything decent that the Constitution is intended to protect us from. And that would be laughable if their primary spokespeople weren’t commanding so much money and so much media time.
But they are dangerous, too. Just watch Glenn Beck, and listen to Sarah Palin. The danger is not that these people are getting attention and cashing enormous checks — crackpots make money in America, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The danger is that too many people refuse to believe that Beck and Palin are crackpots. When Beck interviews people and has them agree that the Constitution is “hanging by a thread,” he’s referring to an overthrow of the government. When Sarah Palin puts targets on Congressmembers who disagree with her ideals, she’s not inciting violence, she’s rewriting the “Anarchist Cookbook.” And both view the Founding Fathers as apostles for their part in drafting the Constitution. (If you take the time to read the biographies of these men, you wouldn’t be so impressed with their personalities. In fact, what’s so damned impressive about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is that they were written by such deeply flawed individuals.)
The more reasoned response, to quote the maps of the Founder’s time, when we now face un-navigable waters, waters that might resemble the health care debate, waters wild with a $14-trillion federal deficit, waters that might make us think that a wrong decision now might damage our country for decades, is actually quite simple. The old-school descriptions defining these wild oceanic spaces on the map was “there be dragons.”
Indeed there are. Be wary of them. Be wary of Beck and Palin as their books emerge and inspire. Be wary of them because, to many of our neighbors, they can appear so reasonable. Read them, take them seriously, and in the most polite voice you have speak up once in a while to say, “Yes, I understand their position, but they’re wrong about that.” Your reasonable friends will be grateful you’re not screaming, or crying, or blaming everyone who disagrees with you for being not American enough. •