You know the Tea Party has arrived when even Bill Clinton and Barack Obama give props.
Maybe not the highest of praise but they were a lot more generous than they could have been. Here’s Bill Clinton last month: “There are a lot of real people in this tea party movement that are saying something everyone should hear — which is, ‘Seems like everyone but average Americans are doing all right here. The people that caused the financial crisis are all back in great shape."
And when President Obama was asked about the Tea Party, he also struck a positive note. "I think America has a noble tradition of being healthily skeptical about government. That's in our DNA," he said. "I think that's a good thing."
As characterizations of the Tea Party go, that’s awfully generous. Clinton and Obama both went on say why these folks are misguided, but the sugarcoating of criticism, and the expressions of empathy are surely a sign of something - the political insecurity of the democratic party. They can’t afford to dismiss the Tea Party phenomenon and they won't call it what it is: The cynical exploitation of anger.
Perhaps I’m also being generous. After all, the Tea Party is not simply for the disillusioned and discontent. At its worst, it’s a vehicle for racism, xenophobia, McCarthyite paranoia, reactionary radicalism and an assault on our Constitution. It also features candidates who are as dumb as rocks. (When creationist, masturbation foe and tea party darling Christine O’Donnell debated her Delaware opponent and was discovered to be unfamiliar with the 1st, 14th and 16th Amendments to the Constitution, her excuse was: “I didn’t bring my Constitution with me. Fortunately, senators don’t have to memorize the Constitution.”)
President Obama is too cautious to comment on the incompetence or idiocy of the candidates or their followers. The Tea Party is seen as a populist movement and you don’t get far in politics by telling the people that they are stupid or wrong. In 2008, when John McCain’s economic advisor, Phil Gramm insisted that recession fears were exaggerated and said that we’ve become a nation of “whiners” he was pressured to resign from the campaign. Never mind that tea partiers have been whining at a fever pitch. Careful politicians like Obama know that Democrats are already susceptible to the charge of “elitism.” They believe they cannot afford to fall into this trap. That's too bad.
Whether the Tea Party really IS a genuinely popular movement or a well-financed vehicle for conservative political operatives or just an incoherent temper tantrum, has been the subject of considerable analysis and debate. To the extent that the Party represents more than a freak show, and is an actual force in American politics, it is one that plays on three themes:
1. Anti-Incumbency. This is the one constant in American politics today. It worked for Obama in 2008. It works against him now.
2. The Economy. It’s not all gloom and doom, but it’s not so rosy either. There’s never a good time to feel you pay too much in taxes. And in tough economic times, it's a resentment that grows.
3. Populism vs. Elitism. Us versus them. THEY are the “special interests” who go to Ivy League law schools, make backroom deals and export jobs overseas. WE are Joe six-pack, Joe the Plumber and the hockey Moms who love God and the flag. You know the drill. But too many liberals still DON’T know the drill. They cannot understand how someone as vapid as Sarah Palin can remain a celebrity and political force when surely her 15 minutes of fame should have expired by now. Perception of class and culture runs far deeper than many urban liberals realize.
Take these themes and mix in a dash of libertarianism, a helping of anti-immigrant hysteria and a spark of paranoia to re-ignite the culture wars, suggest complicity with Islamist terrorists and eulogize the decline of Western Civilization and there you have it – a potent brew of populist rage.
Just how potent remains to be seen. Tomorrow’s mid-term election results may tell us something. Or maybe not. The Democrats are expected to lose their majority the House and narrowly hold on to the Senate. Is the Tea Party responsible? Hard to say. It had been predicted that the Democrats would lose some quantity of Congressional seats anyway – partly because the economic recovery has been slow and partly because the Democrat gains in 2008 were so huge. Some recalibration had to be expected.
But it’s far from clear that the Tea Party movement has been of help to the Republican Party. While some Republicans credit the tea partiers with reigniting “the base” and putting the Democrats on the defensive, there are quite few races that were winnable for the GOP but will remain in Democrat hands simply because the Republicans are running a Tea Party candidate who is a train wreck. Delaware’s O’Donnell is one example. New York’s GOP Gubernatorial Candidate, Carl Paladino is another. Mainstream Republicans are increasingly finding themselves running away from the bigotry and ugliness of the Tea Party. Independent libertarians have distanced themselves too, going to so far as to form a separate movement, the Coffee Party. Even Big Business has reasons to fear the reactionary tendencies of the Tea Party. Anger is a poor substitute for vision, judgment and sound policy.
But you know what else is not substitute for sound policy? Humor. I hate to say so since humor is a tonic that we can't do without in these absurd times. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert lampoon the Tea Party brilliantly and this past weekend they held their much anticipated joint rally in Washington D.C. – Colbert’s rally to “Keep Fear Alive” and Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity.” They are very good at skewering the hypocrisy, the ignorance and the fear-mongering of the tea partiers (and their champion in the media, the clownish Glenn Beck). But as fond as I am of their brand of comedy, there are limits to what irony and satire can accomplish, a point made eloquently in Michael Kazin's recent article in The New Republic.
On the subjects of fear and demagoguery, the core specialties of the Tea Party, I am instead reminded of a statement made 40 years ago by Ed Muskie:
“There are only two kinds of politics. They’re not radical and reactionary or conservative and liberal or even Democratic and Republican. There are only the politics of fear and the politics of trust. One says you are encircled by monstrous dangers. Give us power over your freedom so we may protect you. The other says the world is a baffling and hazardous place, but it can be shaped to the will of men.”