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Benjamin R. Barber Headshot

The Tea Party: D.O.A

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Had too many sleepless nights recently worrying about the Tea Party and its anti-Washington, media-pleasing antics? Mad at the Republicans at the President's Health Care Summit last week for playing to Tea Party rage against "Washington" when these Republicans are themselves also Washington?

Take a deep breath and read the Pew Foundation's new report on its ongoing study of the Millennial Generation (13-29 years old), because the Millennials are our future, while the Tea Party is, demographically speaking, well, D.O.A.

Tea Party members are white, mostly Christian, predominantly suburban and rural and, most importantly, overwhelmingly old -- older than 50, many older than 60. I'm no age-ist, I am pretty old myself, but the political truth is the Tea Party (along with the rest of my generation, even if we are progressive) is all but over. That's no doubt what bugs its members. Don't be fooled by their youthful poster-girls, the occasional teeny-Tory like Keti Carender -- described in a Sunday New York Times front page feature story as being an improv performer from Seattle with a pierced nose and a conviction that the Tea Party is the "party of now". Uh huh.

Except that the Tea Party movement is not really a new Yippie youth phenomenon but a sad if toxic exemplar of last-gasp politics by Americans who fear change, fear time, fear the future, because they will not be part of it. They fear the America the Millennials comprise and embrace, the "other" that is not them, the America they will soon be unable to define or control.

America is growing ever more multicultural, with states like California, Texas, Florida and New York, majority non-white (or about to become so). America's school age population is already majority non-white, and the nation looks more and more like the "outside" world Tea Party members fear as "the other" but which, in our new world of interdependence, is actually "us."

The Millennials are not only part of the new multiculturalism but celebrate it. Diversity is seen by them as a virtue rather than a threat, and they are at ease with more or less everyone whether religious or secular, gay or straight, English-speaking or Spanish-speaking, American or Chinese.

Pew reports they are far less religious than their elders -- the least religiously observant generation Pew ever surveyed -- and they also sleep with cell phones next to their beds -- preferring Facebook (networking with peers) to prayer ( networking with God)?

Most significantly from the point of view of the Tea Party attack on Washington, the Millennials are more comfortable with institutions generally and with government in particular, than their democracy-distrusting elders, and are far more progressive than any previous generation. They went 66% to 32% for Obama in last year's election, while 53% actually say government should do more to deal with our problems rather than less, as if government might actually belong to us (it's called democracy)!

So, young or old, as you face America's future, do you want to bet on the past or the future? On dying grandpa's fears, or growing granddaughter's hopes? I am an old guy, but I like seeing the world through my 19-year-old daughter's eyes and listening to its voices through the ears of my six grandchildren. The Tea Party may be around long enough to screw things up temporarily for the kids, and may even persuade a few of the kids that grandpa knows best. But the multicultural kids willing to give the people's government a chance to secure the people's public goods are America's future. That's bad news for the Tea Party, but good news for America.