It’s a Party in the USA

Democrats shouldn’t patronize the tea party movement

Today, America’s hottest protest movement begins its first national summit. Sarah Palin will headline the National Tea Party Convention at the illustrious Opryland hotel in Nashville, Tenn. Hundreds will demonstrate against elitism and reckless spending by enjoying steak-and-lobster dinners in their $500 seats.

Despite the discordant extravagancies of today’s events in Music City, there are significant and complex elements to the grassroots dimension of the movement, and Democrats need to take them more seriously. During our winter of malcontent, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann stooped to the level of Limbaugh, referring to Senator Scott Brown, who rode in on a tea party wave, as a “homophobic, racist, teabagging supporter of violence against women.” We need not give the movement undue credit—it’s wrought with internal contradictions and an irresponsible tinge of me-first-ism—but we do need to cease the condescension. Even if the movement doesn’t crystallize into a coherent political organization, its animating sentiments are not likely to disappear soon. Rather than patronizing the tea partiers, Democrats should take advantage of their political weaknesses and offer a clear and convincing narrative of why more expansive government is necessary to tackle our common problems.

Part of the reason Democrats patronize the tea party movement is because the mainstream media has done just that. Even wiser pundits who don’t dismiss the movement’s ideas unduly homogenize it. Moderate New York Times columnist David Brooks has characterized the movement as a mere populist surge against “the educated elite.” In truth, about half of the membership has undergraduate or advanced degrees. Most of its members couldn’t be categorized as populist by most rubrics—they want to live their lives as they privately see fit. Their participation in a civic movement is an ironic last resort. Although members are predominantly white and above  age 50, the movement is comprised of an eclectic mix of Ron Paul libertarians, George W. Bush social conservatives, hangovers from the 1992 Perot campaign, and states’ right-ers agitated by the mere idea of a National Tea Party Convention. Some want to form a third party, and others want to infiltrate the Grand Old Party. They are united by a dislike of President Obama, the debt, future tax increases, and the bank bailout, but currently little else.

But having tensions doesn’t mean they’re ignorant or simply opportunistic. Democrats should avoid making such caricatures. The best strategy is to let them tangle with the GOP machine and in the meantime reaffirm a progressive vision for America, coupled with tangible results. The President’s comment two weeks ago that the administration forgot to speak directly to the American people and their core values is dead-on. A post-election survey by Democratic pollster Peter Hart found that Senator Brown was elected primarily because Massachusetts working-class independents didn’t think the Obama administration was doing enough to address their economic concerns. Folks are upset at a lack of both efficacy and backbone. Democrats have to discard the image of a wonkish organization inextricably attached to Wall Street and an inept bureaucracy. Although this may not change the mind of fervent tea partiers in the short run, it’ll help weaken the movement’s influence on swing voters in the long run.

We need not cater to individualistic temper tantrums, but we also should not dismiss out of hand the views of a large part of the citizenry. Whatever happens in Nashville today, it shouldn’t be taken as a representation of the tea party movement. Democrats must better respond to the concerns of disconcerted Americans. A movement of “leave-me-aloners” can only form so much solidarity and might diffuse rapidly, but only if a compelling response is offered. Democrats need to reaffirm a narrative and clearly outline how our common sacrifices will help American families and communities. The message need not demonize anyone, but only reaffirm the principle that, as Tennessee’s great Aretha Franklin says, “without each other, there ain’t nothing people can do. Raúl A. Carrillo ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House.