I am not a supporter of the Tea Party. On the contrary, I believe their anti-government , anti-spending platform is bad for the country. But just because I don't agree with their agenda doesn't mean that I can't understand what motivates it.
I can understand that many responsible homeowners -- having seen their neighborhoods and property values gutted by foreclosures brought on by excessive debt -- would be leery of deficit spending, no matter how many experts insist that it is the only way to end the recession. Before the housing market collapsed, many of those same experts predicting unstoppable growth. Now, when you are terrified for your future, which are you more likely to believe: the talking heads attacking each others' competing economic theories or the evidence of your own personal experience?
I can understand that individuals -- having been lied to and jerked around repeatedly by big, impersonal bureaucracies -- would fear giving more power to government. The bureaucracies they are most angry at may well be the banks, but bankers aren't up for election while the legislators who bailed them out are.
Understanding means you're still on the hook for finding a way to move forward. When you simply dismiss another person's perspective as crazy, idiotic, or wicked, you render any type of civil dialogue impossible. You can just retreat into your separate corner and scorn (or scream at) the other. The good news is that you now have a ready-made excuse for no longer trying; the bad news is that all progress stops. Understanding, on the other hand, obliges you to address rather than to ignore concerns that you may not share. At minimum it demands a level of respect and civility even when disagreeing.
Naturally, there will be viewpoints beyond our understanding. I will never comprehend the philosophy in Mein Kampf or the thinking of terrorists who would kill innocent people at a wedding. In those cases, utter rejection is rightly called for. However, as John Stewart said at Saturday's Rally to Restore Sanity, "Not being able to distinguish between real racists and Tea Partyers, or real bigots and Juan Williams or Rick Sanchez is an insult -- not only to those people, but to the racists themselves, who have put in the exhausting effort it takes to hate."
We need to keep the bandwidth of understanding as wide as possible. Like it or not, the Tea Party has had a major influence on the way our government will look after Tuesday's election. And a nation in economic straits cannot afford to retreat into a corner and sulk.
Follow Melanie Billings-Yun on Twitter: www.twitter.com/billingsyun