There's a debate shaping up in progressive circles about what the Tea Party movement means for the future of the nation. Are they just a bunch of disgruntled, disorganized kooks who are best dealt with by ignoring them? Or does the rise of this movement pose a threat to recent progressive gains, and to the nation as a whole?
As a journalist who has covered the right for more than 15 years, I see a profound threat in the rise of the Tea Party movement. To examine it through the prism of today's kookiness and disorganization is to look at a snapshot of where the movement is now, not where it might be in a year or two. A recent Gallup poll reported that 37 percent of Americans have a favorable impression of the Tea Party movement -- a percentage that equals the number those who self-identified as independents (which is not to say that all independents regard the movement favorably).
That's what prompted me to write a comprehensive piece of analysis for AlterNet that makes the case for taking the Tea Party movement seriously.
There are thoughtful progressives who see things differently. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones sees the movement's relatively small number of supporters (18 percent of the general public, according to last month's New York Times/CBS News poll) as evidence of an outsized level of attention he believes it has received from the media, and Richard Kim of The Nation wonders aloud how a movement fraught with the most ridiculous of conspiracy theories could ever make its way into the mainstream.
Then there is an unthoughtful progressive who, apparently, simply wishes to distort the work of another journalist in order to make the case for his own moral superiority, as syndicated columnist David Sirota did in this space on Wednesday (and cross-posted on OpenLeft). Sirota, after attributing my work to different publication than the one in which it appeared, blockquoted three sentences from my 5,000 word piece to accuse me of "deifying white privilege," all the while refusing to name me as the author of the piece.
That's a pretty serious charge to make against an author you refuse to name.
My point is this: The threat posed by the Tea Party movement is not in the numbers it encompasses now, but the numbers it could in the future. The movement is built not on an internally consistent ideology, but on resentment that has been activated by the nation's dire economic situation. Race plays a substantial role in the narrative of that resentment.
Yet, as ably demonstrated by Thomas Frank in What's the Matter With Kansas?, middle-class whites often vote against their own interests, buying into the scapegoating of others as the cause of their woes. If progressives are to thwart the growth of the Tea Party movement, they must make the case to fence-sitters that the progressive economic agenda is in their own economic self-interest.
While it's true that Barack Obama, as Sirota points out, was elected by a multi-ethnic coalition, he would not have won without the votes of suburban whites, many of whom voted for him only reluctantly, in the wake of the economic destruction wrought by the Republican Party. To maintain a coalition that includes those white suburbanites -- even as the unemployment picture remains bleak despite signs of economic recovery -- will require progressives to make the case for what they stand to gain by staying in the coalition.
Nowhere do I say that this kind of strategic messaging should be done at the expense of messaging on racial equality, or in confronting racism in all its forms. Yet, that is exactly what Sirota accuses me -- oh, excuse me, "the article" -- of doing. He then uses my article as an example of all that is wrong with the progressive movement, which he sees as a willingness to sell out non-white people.
I agree that the power structure of the progressive movement is one of white privilege: I might say, white male privilege. I do my best to remain conscious of my own skin privilege which, ironically, has been one of my passports into the right-wing world I cover as a journalist. I know I'm not perfect in this regard, but I hope that I'm a work in progress.
But aside from his obvious insult to me and my work, Sirota's attack carries real danger at a time when progressives hash out legitimate disagreements about how to confront the growing Tea Party movement. This is a time for progressives to debate strategy on its substance -- not to attack other progressives on baseless claims (even if such claims enhance your own sense of moral rectitude).
Through his own industriousness -- and much to his credit -- Sirota has a syndicated newspaper column, meaning his words carry beyond the progressive blogosphere, to the very people the Tea Party movement would like to recruit.
As Media Matters demonstrated in a 2007 report, the conservative voice far outweighs the progressive one on the op-ed pages of most newspapers, which are still read by people over 45, from which the ranks of the Tea Party movement are drawn. That means that in certain areas, Sirota's voice is the lone progressive one in a local newspaper. And that carries with it a special responsibility -- one that David Sirota would do well to take up.