It is very easy to dismiss the Tea Party protesters as a bunch of racist, xenophobic, gun nuts with paranoid mindsets who have a deep, irrational hatred of liberals and President Barack Obama because he is African-American. Judging from the hateful signs, open display of guns in healthcare town halls, and blatant use of racist and offensive imagery and symbols, calling them a bunch of yahoos and dismissing their perspectives as irrelevant is very easy.
That’s not what I am going to do here. I am actually going to try and take their perspectives seriously for a moment and think about what they potentially mean for American politics and how it is currently practiced as a contest between the two major political parties.
If you wade through all the racist and offensive garbage that is being spewed, you will find that much of the Tea Party anger has a familiar, populist ring to it. They are mad about the state of the economy, about the deteriorating state of American institutions and the country’s diminishing standing on the world stage. They are anxious about bread and butter issues, and they see the Washington DC establishment as corrupt, overrun by special interests and as a place where the interests of ordinary, working Americans are ignored. They see American democracy as broken, therefore, and in need of serious fixing. These perspectives are not that different from what I — an immigrant, minority, and a self-professed Progressive liberal — have been blogging about for some time now.
Thus, these Tea Party folks marched in Washington on September 12 — many of them people who have never participated in a political march before — to show that they are mad as hell, won’t take it anymore, and are ready to do what it takes to take America back. It is very easy to see and hear the shrillest and most militant among them, who hold the most extreme views, and see the kooks as representative of what the Tea Party movement is all about.
Let me know if you think I am totally off-base. But I actually think the Tea Party movement, because it is successfully tapping into a vein of populist discontent and anxiety about the state of American society, has the potential to develop into a legitimate, populist political entity that can present a real challenge to the dominance of the two major parties.
The societal anger and anxiety the Tea Party movement is tapping into is real. Many people are feeling very insecure about the state of America in 2009 and are feeling powerless to do anything about it and are finding in the Tea Party movement the vehicle for expressing this populist discontent.
I have written a lot about third parties and political movements outside of the two major parties. I see the Tea Party movement as an entity with the potential — I stress that point, the POTENTIAL — to mount a legitimate, populist challenge to the dominance of the two major parties. They aren’t there yet and much of the blatant bigotry and hate-mongering turns me off but something about their populist anger rings true and familiar to me.
As a Progressive, do I see myself working with or being sympathetic to Tea Party folks if they do develop into a legitimate political organization? What about the hatefulness, bigotry and blatant anti-social messages? What about the displayed contempt they have for liberals, Progressives, minorities and immigrants like me?
My answer to those questions:
1. If Tea Party folks forego racism, gun fetish and virulent hatefulness so they can work with their fellow political outsiders on serious and real reform (for example, the types of reforms I talk about in this post) I would work with them.
2. Political outsiders who disagree on specific policy issues have one big thing in common. They are political outsiders. Therefore, it benefits them to lay aside their differences in favor of working together on issues that have the potential to open up the political playing field for ALL political outsiders.
3. Greens, Libertarians, Socialists and independents have all experienced the same types of structural obstacles in the American political system. Yet these different groups have banded together on occasion to pool their resources and fight together in court for more equal treatment for minority political parties. Just because you disagree politically doesn’t mean you can’t find common cause with other political outsiders on issues that impact all who are outside the duopoly.
4. Third parties like the Greens, Libertarians, Socialists, etc., have been in the front lines of electoral and court battles for opening up the political system for years. The Tea Party folks, if they ever develop into a legitimate political entity, cannot afford to ignore the collective experience of these groups.
The Republican Party is already trying to hijack the momentum of the Tea Party anger for its own gains. I am making a bet that there are enough politically astute folks in the Tea Party movement whose anti-establishment anger are real and will see co-optation by the Republican Party of their efforts as a betrayal. There is, after all, nothing anti-establishment about supporting either of the two establishment political parties.
I am also making the bet that the anti-establishment populist anger driving the Tea Party movement — if you separate out the hate and bigotry and gun fetish — is the same anti-establishment populist anger that drives people like me to reject the two major parties and make the conscious choice to be independents or join a third party. And I am making the bet that sooner or later, many Tea Party folks will be making a similar connection in their minds. What happens after that? Well, that is something I would very much like to see.
My hope: that it lead to the formation of a true populist challenge to the two major parties. My fear: that hate and racism become its driving force and it evolve into a militant, virulent, blatantly racist, xenophobic organization — but one with resources and with a big megaphone in the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs of the world. As a populist I would rather the see a Tea Party movement that develops into the former rather than the latter.