Let me be up front. I am hostile to the Tea Party movement. It gravitates toward leaders who seem to me lack any seriousness of purpose in terms of fixing the country’s problems. The tea partiers, like most people, are frustrated with the current economic situation in America, and the long term economic trends that are working against the middle class in this country. Beyond that, though, I feel they generally do a terrible job of diagnosing the country’s problems, have no clue what causes those problems, and have no good ideas when it comes to fixing those problems. And their leaders are lying demagogues who are happy to ruin the country if it helps line their own pockets.
For the lowdown on the Tea Party movement, check out Matt Taibbi’s article, Tea & Crackers, in the Rolling Stone. If you’ve been following this phenomenon, it won’t surprise you, but it captures the essence of the movement pretty well. I think this description fits:
The world is changing all around the Tea Party. The country is becoming more black and more Hispanic by the day. The economy is becoming more and more complex, access to capital for ordinary individuals more and more remote, the ability to live simply and own a business without worrying about Chinese labor or the depreciating dollar vanished more or less for good. They want to pick up their ball and go home, but they can’t; thus, the difficulties and the rancor with those of us who are resigned to life on this planet.
Anil Dash made a similar point in his Ignite talk, Defending the Indefensible. Do read the article and watch the presentation, they’re both great.
There is a question that remains, how should progressives react to the Tea Party. One thing most articles about the Tea Party leave out is the context. Yeah, they are hung up on social issues, but the Tea Party is also reacting to the economic changes in America over the past few decades that have radically changed the future prospects for many Americans. As jobs have disappeared and industries have waned, there are parts of America that are shadows of what they once were. The town I come from almost certainly has fewer stoplights now than it did when I was in high school. The chemical plant that was the town’s best employer when I was a kid has been sold off in pieces to a variety of companies, none of which offer the benefits or pay that the original company did. In the end, these sorts of changes are the real source of the energy behind the Tea Party.
People from across the political spectrum are justifiably frustrated with these problems and the many other symptoms of long term decline that politicians are not addressing. The framework of employer-provided health insurance is collapsing. There’s no willingness to do anything all about global warming. And whether you support less immigration or more, our current immigration policy is a joke. Last week Ken Silverstein, the Washington editor for Harper’s Magazine, explained why he’s giving up. He’s as angry and disillusioned as anyone at a Tea Party rally.
So proceeding from the position that the Tea Party is generally wrong on the facts but understandably frustrated, here are three recommendations I’ve seen recently. Stanley Fish argues convincingly that ridicule is not the answer:
Commentators who explain smugly that O’Donnell’s position on masturbation (that it is a selfish, solitary act) is contradicted by her Ayn Rand-like attack on collectivism, or who wax self-righteous about Paladino’s comparing Sheldon Silver to Hitler and promising to wield a baseball bat in Albany, or who laugh at Sharron Angle for being in favor of Scientology (she denies it) and against fluoridation and the Department of Education, are doing these candidates a huge favor. They are saying, in effect, these people are stupid, they’re jokes; and the implication (sometimes explicitly stated) is that anyone who takes them the least bit seriously doesn’t get the joke and is stupid, too.
Matthew Yglesias argues that people who are obviously wrong on the facts are the ones we should argue with first:
Sometimes I think that smart people actually spend too little time responding to the dumbest forms of arguments. It takes a certain kind of hubris to think that I’m going to persuade people who adhere to strong arguments that they’re mistaken. By contrast, I really do think I can persuade people that their bad arguments are wrong.
And finally, Clay Johnson argues that Washington is, in essence, a closed system and that we should work on local issues instead. Here’s his summary of the problems in Washington:
To an extent the Tea Party and the Deaniacs from 2004 have something in common. They’ve caught on that their government is not representative to them, and feel that the Federal government is more accountable to “special interests” like big corporations and labor unions than it is to them. But Washington is actually more accountable and responsive to the rituals, rules, and limitations of Washington than it is even the big corporations and labor unions.