Monday, 30 August 2010

Ignore the Tea Party at Your Peril

"Victories of “extreme right” Tea Party-backed congressional candidates in Republican primaries will help the Democratic Party retain control of the House by alienating independent voters who will determine the November election outcome, the House Democrats’ campaign chief said."
This was the leading paragraph in yet another article on the so-called Tea Party movement in the United States, casting it as a 'fringe group.' Yet this 'fringe group' seems to be having a lasting influence beyond the expectations of its detractors.

If you missed it, on Saturday, August 28, a mass-rally was held in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. to "restore America's honor." It was organized by Glenn Beck, the host of his own one hour show on Fox News. Beck has been at the forefront of a rage against what he sees as an emasculated America that is losing itself. While he was already an emerging star on radio and Headline News, it was his move to Rupert Murdoch's (and Waleed bin Talal's for that matter) Fox News that has really blasted him into the stratosphere.

The rally organized on Saturday in fact mysteriously coincided with Martin Luther King's famed "I have a Dream Speech" made 47 years earlier in the same location. There was an uncomfortable racial subtext to this choice, as the talk show host had just several months earlier accused Barack Obama of hating white people. While he feigned ignorance in the choice of the date for this week's rally, Beck himself said on his radio show, African Americans do not have a monopoly on the legacy of King. The featured speaker at the gathering was none other than former Alaskan Governor and Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, but it is Beck who has been at the forefront of orchestrating a mass movement in the United States. With his radio, tv, and web presence, he has been inspiring many of the activists that fit into the proverbial Tea Party camp. It was his 9-12 project that spawned this idea of taking back America; 9-12 representing the day after 9-11 when Americans, in Beck's view, were finally all united. In truth, he is seeking to restore America to Palin's "Real America". His show collects a lot of confused anger and frustration from many sources and channels them into a simple philosophy: things used to be good, they can be again, and only the government is in our way.

The Tea Party movement, which Beck influences but is certainly not under his control, is a loose set of parallel groups that mobilize across the United States against different types of government encroachment. They invoke the symbolism that the current government, like the British in the mid-18th century, are subjecting Americans to a form of tyrannical rule. Many Democrats would like to chalk the Tea Party up to a fringe movement that has no influence. The victory of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts of all places, for the Senate seat of the late Edward Kennedy, was a rude awakening. The Tea Party was shown to be beyond a fad or a minor player in Republican primaries. Even if disorganized, chaotic, and without a central leader, it was a new force in American politics.

What is increasingly clear is that there is a growing divide of perceptions in the United States. President Obama may have been a clear and popular winner in the elections in 2008, and enjoyed a brief honeymoon after his inauguration, but now he suffers from a far higher disapproval than approval rating. Many Democrats consider him a liability on the campaign trail for the mid-term elections this Fall. Obama for the Tea Partiers represents the change that they don't want to see. Yet, while racism lurks in the shadows, the fundamental aversion to Obama is influenced by policy. For many in the Tea Party movement, the Obama Administration represents a dilution of American power, identity, and individuality. With unemployment reaching ten percent, there is a feeling of helplessness around the country. In such times it becomes quite common that many would try to cling to what they know and be averse to what is different.

With such massive flows of immigration (legal and illegal) and rapid cultural shifts (i.e. on perceptions of homosexuality) underway in the 1990s and 2000s, it should have been expected that there would be a reaction rooted in insular mentalities in the United States. What is truly monumental, however, (and I do not use the word lightly) about the Tea Party movement, is its ability to dovetail cultural insularity with libertarian philosophy and hawkish defense policy. This wide base allows for the participation of religious groups fearing shifts on issues on abortion and homosexuality, alongside people simply concerned with illegal immigration, and others who want to ensure that 9/11 is not repeated.  It is the genetic evolution of Karl Rove's tent of Bush supporters in 2004 but that 'creation' has in fact evolved in its own right, so that it is not Republicans or others influencing the Tea Partiers, but the other way around. Many establishment candidates in Republican primaries are being routinely defeated by Tea Party-supported candidacies. Sure today, Palin is popular amongst this group, but she is not the director, but just another player on the stage. The same goes for Beck, and while he may be orchestrating parts of the movement, he is just one larger player.

That's why people like the New York Times Frank Rich, miss the point entirely, that this is some type of limited movement with undue influence. Yes, there are high-profile bankrollers. However, this movement is unique in its diffuseness. When 64% of Americans oppose the misnamed "ground zero mosque" it shows how some views that may be unpalatable to the New York Times or Washington Post, are embedded in American society. As the economy worsens, more and more people, including traditional Democrats, will be attracted to a philosophy that asks, why are we letting more people into the country? Why should we allow mosques to be built unfettered and be future homes of potential terrorists? How can we continue to fund entitlements like healthcare when we have declining tax revenues?

The fear is that the Obama Administration and others have not fully internalized the weight of this movement, and the concerns of its followers. It is easy to dismiss others as fringe. Yet, real concerns underlie whatever rallies are emerging on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The current national debt is $14 trillion in the United States. There is a yet-an-unsolved issue of illegal immigration within America's borders. And yes, Islam is a faith not understood or even familiar to many Americans. Is the answer an inward philosophy that resists change and is hostile to difference? Likely not - but what is the alternative being offered? Unless there is a significant realization of this fact within the Democratic Party and specific counter-philosophy presented in the next two years, we can be assured that Obama will be voted out of office in 2012. Ignore the Tea Party at your peril.

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