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How the Tea Party captured our minds and is fighting to steal our hearts

August 7, 2011

The Tea Party movement has many of its roots in Ron Paul's beliefs.

The story of the Obama presidency is, thus far, not about the 44th president, one who may or may not have accomplished more than meets the eye. Instead, it is the story of a faltering economy trying to squeeze the last nickel out of the squealing piggy bank before either the stern hand of sanity smacks everyone into a well-dressed line or a collapse whose reverberations will be felt around the world occurs. It is, just as importantly, the story of the Tea Party, a group of citizens and politicians that has attached itself to Republicans and forced the Grand Old Party to adhere to a new set of rules that, ironically enough, just so happened to be the United States’ original rules: The Constitution.

The Tea Party can be traced back to one character, a small man from Texas who simultaneously resembles one of Tolkien’s wizards and one of the Great Depression’s hobos. Ron Paul (R-Texas) is the original member of the Tea Party, someone willing to lose votes 434-1 in order to uphold principles and hop his vote across the theoretical aisle in order to stand up for his beliefs. His presidential campaign in 2008 was the typical third-party hail mary — more of an effort to make his ideas heard than a legitimate run. It coincided, though, with Sarah Palin, a little-known governor from a distant state getting the nod as Sen. John McCain’s running mate.

The mainstream media leapt at the idea of Palin, someone who had actually been an excellent governor in Alaska until she walked away to pursue her own monetary and political ambitions, as a lunatic. Instead of considering where Palin’s views fit into modern American politics, they turned her into a series of embarrassing soundbites and asked a series of increasingly bizarre questions about Palin’s progeny.

Then, after the McCain/Palin ticket lost, they didn’t stop. In fact, Stephen Colbert, Keith Olbermann and John Stewart widened their targets, adding Michele Bachmann, Christine O’Donnell and other increasingly vocal leaders of the Tea Party movement, trying to turn the organized libertarianism into a national punchline. In the process, however,  they missed something important about political narratives in America: We love the noisy underdog who refuses to quit, and the media played into the idea of itself as the bully elitist and dressed the Tea Party in the underdog’s clothing by constantly poking fun at it and refusing to take its ideas, the people behind them or the citizens who supported them seriously.

Never mind that the Tea Party is predominantly made up of white men making more than $55,000 a year. Now they could claim that the Liberal media was after them and that their views weren’t being taken seriously by the leaders of the establishment and they had the clips to prove it, further cementing the party’s underdog status.

Never mind that the party’s ideas about the economy are more in line with Jefferson’s dream of an agrarian republic than a nation fighting to balance itself on the industrial and the technological tightrope that represents the 21st century’s cutting edge. The thing is, the Tea Party is okay with stepping out of the world’s spotlight and focusing on the heartland. They don’t care if some of their ideas seem like relics because that’s exactly what they are.

According to the same Gallup poll cited above, 28% of Americans consider themselves supporters of the Tea Party, 26% are against them and 38% are ambivalent. These numbers — particularly the support and oppose ones — show that the Tea Party has achieved prominence in America, but the recent debt ceiling episode was likely a better indicator of that. House Majority Leader John Boehner was constantly afraid of irking his Tea Party supporters and losing his party, meaning that when Boehner was willing to blink and the Tea Party wasn’t, Boehner had to leave his increasingly dry eyes open just a little longer.

The deal got done, yes, but the consequences were being felt as early as Friday afternoon, when Standard & Poor’s downgraded the United States’ credit rating. As The Economist noted, it was odd to note that the Tea Party considered the final deal a win of some sort, the thinking of a group more aware of its ideals than of the realities of running a country. Furthermore, Felix Salmon wrote:

… there’s a serious constituency of powerful people in Congress who are perfectly willing and even eager to drive the US into default. The Tea Party is fully cognizant that it has been given a bazooka, and it’s just itching to pull the trigger. There’s no good reason to believe that won’t happen at some point.

In this sense, the Tea Party resembles Daisy Buchanan from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. You remember her, right? The beauty who justified her own careless driving by saying it takes two to make a wreck happen? The Tea Party seems to think that it will take two to bring the government to an impasse and has thus far been proven generally correct, as Democrats have been willing to swerve off the road first, avoiding a head-on impact with the opposition.

Do you remember what happened to Daisy Buchanan, though? She ran over her husband’s mistress in an attempt to stave off a very real threat to her love, and then Myrtle’s husband killed Gatsby, an unwitting third party whose only crime was loving Daisy. There’s a lesson in there somewhere about repercussions and inadvertently harming your supporters, but something tells me that, like Daisy Buchanan, the Tea Party won’t want to hear it.

Politicians can play games and fight for their beliefs, but ultimately a spirit of compromise and willingness to look past personal codes to find the greater good are what set America apart. It is not a spirit of divisiveness and bitter conflict that have forged our nation, but one of hearing what the minority is saying and compromising in a way that aids the most citizens possible.

The real shame is that the Tea Party has legitimate ideas and represents a minority worth hearing. There is quite a bit to be said for reducing the national debt and cutting back on government spending, someone just needs to figure out a realistic way to do it. By playing more political gamesmanship than we have seen in quite some time, however, those ideas are getting lost in the shouting of cable TV and the discussions are being hidden behind the half-grins of Sunday morning talk shows.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 8, 2011 12:00 am

    I applaud you for mounting a defense of Palin and the Tea Party. I wouldn’t define the Tea Party so narrowly in terms of Ron Paul, though. Defining the Tea Party is a losing game. It’s inherently indefinite, which is perhaps best epitomized by Rand Paul and Michelle Bachmann both claiming to lead the Tea Party during each of their campaigns. The Tea Party’s power is in its vocality. If it lowers its voice or softens its principles even slightly, it loses its influence — the unthreatening minority behind the megaphone is revealed. In my opinion, they don’t have much choice but to be as loud as they can. In terms of their size, they’ve raked in serious political capital by doing so. Perhaps their ideas are lost along the way, or perhaps pinpointing the Tea Party’s ideas — like defining it — is the losing game. As much as we talk about the Tea Party in terms of principle, its practical influence is definite.

    • Adam Wagner permalink*
      August 8, 2011 12:07 am

      I’m not so sure it’s a defense (see the final four paragraphs) as an investigation into causality. The Tea Party is the closest thing to a third party that we’ve had in a very long time, and, as such, can’t simply be written off. As you touched on, much of its power comes from the broad definitions of its principles and ability to make a whole lot of noise. We’l see if it moves past that, but until it morphs from a slippery kind of pseudo-party into something more formal I don’t see that happening.

  2. August 8, 2011 12:45 am

    I appreciate your balanced view, and believe you are trying to be fair, but here is the problem: you seem to understand that, whether in perception or reality, the Tea Party is the “underdog.” What you seem to miss, however, is even your own barely perceptible bias toward the status quo.
    “By playing more political gamesmanship than we have seen in quite some time, however, those ideas are getting lost in the shouting of cable TV and the discussions are being hidden behind the half-grins of Sunday morning talk shows.”
    The government has grown too large – and the elitist culture too entrenched, to go about it any other way. They call a balanced budget amendment a “crazy” idea – even though 74% of Americans support it. And 49 states have such legislation. The majority of Americans were, and still are against the HCR bill, heck-a federal judge ruled it unconstitutional! But they pushed it through and continue to implement it anyway. The Senate STILL has not passed a budget – though they are required by law to do so!
    Sadly, we have come to a point where a leaders no longer listen. They no longer seem to believe they are bound by the will of the people or even the Constitution. This is not hyperbole, this is fact, and though I don’t have space to sight example after example, if you are a journalist I would hope you are aware. But most journalists simply look at this as expedient, or needful, or simply “politics as usual.”
    The fifth estate is too thoroughly entrenched in the Washington culture, and too cozy with the politicians to fulfill it’s proper roll as watch dog. It has chosen instead to be propaganda minister, informing the little people of what they ought to think.
    We are coming to an existential question of whether we are to remain a self-determined, free, people – or whether we will decide to abrogate all responsibility for ourselves and just let our “betters” make our decisions for us. Again, I don’t have space, but I could lay down about 100 quotes from the founders on the dangers of government to back up my point. I’ll assume you have heard of or can find them.
    If we play the game by Washington rules we lose. I’m supposed to care if David Gregory smirks about the Tea Party why? If we play the game by our rules, the rules we live by and expect others to live by: be honest, do right, and stand up for what you believe in, we win.
    Pundits may not be kind to us, but I believe history will be.
    We, the People, spoke in November 2010. The Tea Party Representatives in the house were apparently the only ones listening, so I guess we will just have to speak a little louder in 2012.

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