The Tea Party convention has come and gone, and we need to look past the speculative bubble surrounding Sarah Palin's possible presidential ambitions and examine the Nashville gathering more closely. A fact-based analytical look at this developing phenomenon is much needed. There is no call to get snarky about the foibles of these Tea Party-types, however much the blogosphere lends itself to the small pleasures of poking fun at others. Neither will pulling down some off-the-shelf theory devoid of hard data give us the handles necessary to tackle this terribly new situation in real time.
During the past year the Tea Parties have managed to capture the angst and the sense of political and social dispossession felt by a definite strata of middle and working class white people. In the process, they have demolished whatever remained of the notion that the conservative, far right wing movement was dead. Street protests in April and July laid the basis for something akin to a civic uprising during the town hall meetings last August. While the Massachusetts election of Senator Scott Brown is now credited with derailing health care reform by virtue of his possible vote to sustain a filibuster, it was in fact the town hall events that first threw Democratic health care plans off the track.
Tea Partiers have already started to run campaigns for political offices small and large in the 2010 Republican primaries. There will certainly be some Democrats who wish them well, using a partisan-based logic that leads to disaster. If you hope that a more radical Republican Party will make it easier to elect moderate and liberal Democrats, you ignore the simple fact that when Republicans have been pulled further to the right, Democrats have usually followed. Worse is never better, it is always worse.
Over the next nine months, other issues -- immigration reform, a possible jobs bill, the Employee Free Choice Act, climate change -- will raise the ire of the Tea Parties, but it would be a mistake to regard this as an issues-based phenomenon. These are, after all, people who marched in the streets of the nation's capitol with the defining slogan "Take Our Country Back." Theirs is a cry for the restoration of a nation that does not exist. It is a "Christian nation," according to the words uttered most often. And it is a "white" nation that does not dare speaks its name. Unlike hard core white nationalists, who have deified the concept of race into a idol they worship, the whiteness of the Tea Party's imagination is assumed rather than spoken. It is "their" country they want back.
Any response to the Tea Parties must address the issue of race forthrightly. A new website, www.usforallofus.org, has posted a statement on the subject that needs to be endorsed. "We reject the racism that keeps us divided. We celebrate our interdependence and our capacity to love our neighbors as ourselves." I signed the statement and urge others to do so as well. It is not necessary to agree with every paragraph in the statement, I certainly did not agree with every word or phrase. But it is important to draw a line and say that this is a United States of America for all of us, and those who want to make some kind of exclusive claim on its heritage and history and future need to be told no, its for all of us. Signing this cyberspace statement by itself will not be enough to turn the Tea party movement back. But it is one place all of us can make ourselves heard.
We also need to borrow from elements of the trade unions' response to the Tea Party's actions last August. Instead of laying down and being quiet, AFL-CIO leaders issued a statement saying, "We want your help to organize major union participation to counter the right-wing 'Tea Party Patriots.'" The unions sent pickets to a number of the town hall meeting sites in the only organized effort to respond to the Tea Parties at the local level. One-time picket lines, while however helpful in slowing this we-want-our-country-back crowd, are just not enough to stem this Tea Party movement. Much more needs to be done.
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