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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Tragedy of The Tea Party

<u had told me in January of 2009 that as a result of Barack Obama’s election, there would be a huge group of newly engaged citizens, I would have been thrilled. A whole group of people is sick and tired of feeling not heard by Washington, you might have said. They feel increasingly like the country is run by a core group of elites, stacking the odds and rigging the system against everyone else. Not only that, but also those elites just brought down the system, either by deliberately doing so, or sitting back and relinquishing the responsibility to do something about it. Then, those same people are bailed out. These newly engaged citizens, you would tell me, are angry about the apparent disintegration of our values. Why are we rewarding bad and irresponsible behavior? If I had known that a newly mobilized force of the electorate would be coming forward with these feelings, I would have been ecstatic.

When Senator Obama became President Obama, there was real opportunity. He was pledging an era of civil discourse, one in which we do not demonize people who disagree with us, but rather try to empathize with them. Then the Tea Party arrived, representing everything liberal elites love to hate: emotional anti-government sentiment, policy ignorance, and a few colorful crazies who would enable liberals to paint the entire movement as nuts.

At that point, Democrats made a political decision. They would demonize the Tea Party as much as possible, equating those who paint Obama with Hitler mustaches to representatives of the Tea Party movement and by extension to the Republican Party. They would call another easy play out of the “let’s paint conservatives as racist ignorants” playbook. In the long run, they figured, we would see the Republican Party become more and more extreme, turning off critical independent and moderate voters. This would enable Democrats not only to reach their immediate legislative goals by being the voice of reason, but also to position themselves well for general elections in 2012 and beyond. It seemed like the right strategy, but it wasn’t; at least not if Democrats really wanted to usher in a new kind of tone and engagement, and really move the country forward.

It is incredibly easy to judge the Tea Party by what we see in the news. Of course, the morons and nut jobs are the ones who get on camera, so we naturally associate the few extremes with the whole. However, there is another side of the Tea Party whose sentiments very often are real and legitimate. Feelings of a loss of values and control are ones that anyone could understand. In this way, Democrats really blew it. Yes, they still might be in a great position in the future as the Republican Party becomes more and more extreme, but this turn of events is bad for the country, and that is what should matter to those interested in governing.

What Democrats should have done was to engage. They needed to speak to the real concerns of those making up the Tea Party. They needed to understand that while those in the extreme get the news coverage, those not at the core of the Tea Party give it its strength, lasting power, and ability to actually sway elections. For every one person with a Hitler sign, there are tons of people who have no patience for that type of imagery. Yet, they get involved because they feel something is fundamentally wrong in the country and need an outlet. Democrats could have been that outlet. Obama supporters could have embraced the underlying sentiments of those giving the Tea Party numbers.

Behind all of the “Obama is a secret socialist” rhetoric, there is a simple lack of trust. Government is supposed to be on our side, and now it seems they’re in the pocket of the very people screwing us over. They see a lack of clarity in what Obama wants to do, not enough explanation of why current measures are necessary and why they don’t signal a long-term expansion of government into the economy.

People are fond of calling America a center-right country. The reality is it isn’t. The contradictions in people’s viewpoints, all over the political spectrum, make it a confused country more than anything else. In fact, if you listen to normal Tea Partiers, they sound much more like Brandeis progressives than big business conservatives. Their frustration with feeling duped and out of control is right in line with Brandeis’ concept of “the curse of bigness,” an idea that doesn’t have to be Democratic or Republican. Yet Democrats chose to elevate the crazies, and thus alienate a good portion of Americans whom they could have engaged and neutralized, pushing them into Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh’s listening zones as a result. Now sadly, those who might have been open to engagement really have become part of the right wing machine of ignorant noise making.

Democrats will respond, “But the strategy is working!” Republican primary elections in Delaware and Nevada are giving Democrats new hope in elections they have no business winning! Perhaps. But the Tea Party didn’t even have to be a movement. If Obama Democrats had spoken to the underlying feelings of those now supporting the movement, maybe it wouldn’t have become the destructive force it is today and we wouldn’t find ourselves in this polarized position. Perhaps in addition we are able to get stronger health care and financial regulation, as well as a more effective stimulus. Without ears for misinformation to fall into, lies about Obama’s agenda do not spread, and his efforts get the support they deserve. By robbing the far right of their support, we would have robbed them of their voice.

Instead, we have a Republican Party that is becoming more and more extreme yet is going to be in the position of actually needing to contribute in the near future. We’ve got a whole new group of people who want to be in power, and will be, yet have no appreciation for the real constraints and choices that power entails. The nation faces enormous challenges that cannot be solved by an ignorant and polarized political class; but by demonizing all of the Tea Party, Democrats have unleashed just that. The Tea Party gave the Democratic Party a real leadership opportunity. They could have dismissed it as ignorant and stupid, which would be in line with the same political culture that angers so many Americans, or they could have engaged those voices within the movement who were willing to talk. In a time when we need action from people who actually have ideas, we have a party gaining more power that really has none. If Democrats feel themselves frustrated over the next few years by the ignorance and lack of concrete policy understanding of those on the other side of the aisle, they have themselves to blame. A polarized system helps no one, and prevents the country from moving forward. It’s just too bad, because it didn’t have to be this way.

-David Heifetz is a Carletonian columnist

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