Sunday, May 2, 2010

Tea Party Anatomy, or, Political Shortcuts and You!

Have you noticed how much respect we’ve gained for the tea partiers in the past year or so? Before, we were calling them teabaggers, dismissing them with the name itself (they did, to be fair, bring it upon themselves); now, because we essentially recognize their importance, we call them tea partiers. That, in itself, is as much a demonstration as to their political importance and viability as anything else.

In fact, they’re taken so seriously that Eugene Robinson, a Washington Post columnist, is able to write this paragraph, and it makes sense:
Activists for Latino and immigrant rights -- and supporters of sane governance -- held weekend rallies denouncing the new law and vowing to do everything they can to overturn it. But where was the Tea Party crowd? Isn't the whole premise of the Tea Party movement that overreaching government poses a grave threat to individual freedom? It seems to me that a law allowing individuals to be detained and interrogated on a whim -- and requiring legal residents to carry identification documents, as in a police state -- would send the Tea Partyers into apoplexy. Or is there some kind of exception if the people whose freedoms are being taken away happen to have brown skin and might speak Spanish?
Robinson is able to take the tea partier’s objections seriously before dismissing them, a key sign of a grudging sort of respect. Now, there’s an easy explanation for this that’s only sort-of rooted in race (which Robinson correctly labels a key factor). Let’s look at the key document, the founding document in the tea party movement:




Aside from the very key allusion to the winners subsidizing the “losers”, there’s also fun asides like how the ’54 Chevy was the “last great car to come out of Detroit” and how he’ll dump the “derivatives securities” straight into Lake Michigan and of course how this crowd of white trader dudes is the “silent majority” and indeed a fine statistical cross-section of America. Then, of course, there’s the constant rhetorical alliance with the Founding Fathers. You can call it right populism, and the very helpful new political taxonomy of Noah Millman’s places the tea party’s ideology pretty easily: they’re liberals (they like individuals and dislike the government); they’re right (they’re concerned with the winners of the world rather than the “losers”); and they’re reactionaries (things were better in the past than they will be in the future). They're concerned about the moral decadence of America, a type that's very common in every political persuasion (though the targets are always different).

On some level, the tea party is squeezed on one end by economic problems and on the other hand by what academics would label modernity. Shit’s changing, and they wonder why. Where a leftist is prone to blame such forces as conservatives and big businessmen, a rightist is more prone to suspect the “losers” among us, who are leeching our resources—only the strong survive and all that—hence the concern with those Latinos stealing our jobs. Which is the answer to Robinson’s question: race is a big part (the classic fear-of-the-other) but comparably as big is the “loser” part of the equation; hence the problems with mortgage modification and what have you. When things get tribal, a lot of people think the government’s out for someone else.

Liberals (to use the easy shorthand rather than Millman’s well-worked-out dichotomy) don’t really understand this because at heart we’re mostly cosmopolitans who really do want all of us to get along. In our hearts, we’re really sure the forces we hate can be reformed if shown the errors of our ways. We think the problem is rational, and a large part of anti-tea-party commentary revolves around its viral internet memes (those e-mails!) and its appeals to irrationality, fear, and character-based worries rather than policy (which it is wrong at when it does bother to address policy matters).

As you can probably tell from the preceding paragraph, I think these critiques are right—tea partiers are wrong on the policy issues of substance and they do make patently false claims—but unsatisfying. Liberals are perfectly willing to do viral e-mails. Like, take this e-mail I’ve received four or five times that’s originally by Tim Wise:
Let’s play a game, shall we? The name of the game is called “Imagine.” The way it’s played is simple: we’ll envision recent happenings in the news, but then change them up a bit. Instead of envisioning white people as the main actors in the scenes we’ll conjure – the ones who are driving the action –we’ll envision black folks or other people of color instead. The object of the game is to imagine the public reaction to the events or incidents, if the main actors were of color, rather than white. Whoever gains the most insight into the workings of race in America, at the end of the game, wins.

So let’s begin.

Imagine that hundreds of black protesters were to descend upon Washington DC and Northern Virginia, just a few miles from the Capitol and White House, armed with AK-47s, assorted handguns, and ammunition. And imagine that some of these protesters —the black protesters — spoke of the need for political revolution, and possibly even armed conflict in the event that laws they didn’t like were enforced by the government? Would these protester — these black protesters with guns — be seen as brave defenders of the Second Amendment, or would they be viewed by most whites as a danger to the republic? What if they were Arab-Americans? Because, after all, that’s what happened recently when white gun enthusiasts descended upon the nation’s capital, arms in hand, and verbally announced their readiness to make war on the country’s political leaders if the need arose.
I find this perfectly reasonable and a good argument, but I have no way how this would play to someone who’s not me or doesn’t think like me, politically speaking. I suspect not well, given, uh, the Arizona immigration law and the existence of the tea party, but how the heck do I know? The point is that like the tea party e-mails, we basically have our own coded signals and arguments that only really work on each other whose main purpose is to rally the troops and what have you. I suppose you could call it a bad sign of the times (if only we could talk to each other civilly!) but it’s far more common than you’d think in American history for political factions to think the other’s not merely full of shit but threatening to fill others with shit also and then do something really crazy. (where crazy = communists/race war/hippies/giveaways to big business/imperial war and whatever)

And of course liberals have their fair share of character-based judgments too, fair or not. Where liberals saw Bush as a cross between Captain Ahab and Jack D. Ripper (the general in Dr. Strangelove), only stupider, tea parties tend to see Obama as something like Gollum from Lord of the Rings: a weak schemer prone to temptation from evil. It’s gotten to a kneejerk type of reaction for more-or-less good reasons, if you happen to be a liberal hating Bush or a conservative hating Obama. And, you know, you probably should.

I don’t want to make a false equivalence because I do regard the tea party movement as disturbingly untethered from reality. But tea partiers happen to be the same as all of us in that in an increasingly complex world. The problem, then, isn't with the tea party's facts, it's with their ideas. All of us don’t understand most of the tasks that government is charged with and we tend to do shortcuts with policy. It’s hard to be rational and informed about all policy in sufficient detail over a sufficiently long period of time. I’d venture the guess that the vast majority of us knew nothing about oil well technology until a week ago, and now many of us are experts criticizing Obama for his slow response. In a world where you can’t know everything about oil well technology, you develop shortcuts like, oh, I hate Obama, to help you decide about oil well technology vis-à-vis policy.

And that’s fine. There aren’t enough hours in the day. The problem here is that the reason for the shortcut—the complexity of the world—is the reason the shortcut doesn’t work: Obama (or whomever your betes noires are) can’t possibly be the sole moving political force. So you’re stuck with a dilemma. Now, I think there’s a perfectly reasonable pair of options here. Either a) make the President much less important in our daily narrative so we’re forced to develop a more sophisticated set of shortcuts to evaluate the world or b) give the Presidential party more governing power such that when we blame them for screwing up, they actually are the ones screwing up. Because we’re preparing for a 2010 election where 60+% of voters believe Obama’s policies are either “just right” or “too conservative” and yet Democrats will get a pounding at the polls. And that’s just not a result that makes much sense at all (which is appropriate for the tea partiers, don’t you think?).

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