06/13/2011 10:29 am ET Updated Aug 13, 2011

Reflections on the Tea Party

The County of Albemarle, formed one year after the birth of its most famous citizen, has always prided itself on being a home for individual expression, the "illimitable freedom of the human mind" that its native son, Thomas Jefferson, so rightly prized. And so on a recent Wednesday evening, during "public time" at its Board of Supervisors meeting, twelve members of the local Tea Party rose, each in turn, to speak for their allotted two minutes. The focus of every presentation was their desire to end the county's participation in the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), a group whose charter describes it as a "growing Association of local governments dedicated to sustainable development..." ICLEI provides information, training, software, and other tools for its nearly 500 city and county member governments worldwide. For $1,200 a year, Albemarle County's participation in ICLEI is aimed at helping it meet its stated goal of reducing carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050.

The speakers collectively charged ICLEI with being an international organization, dominated by other nations and even New York City, aimed at degrading freedom and property values by taking decisions out of local hands. One speaker threatened to unseat all Board members except one: Kenneth Boyd. Boyd had, with their support, unseated his predecessor and totally reversed his earlier position in support of county participation in ICLEI, now stating that: "We are being infiltrated in local government by an agenda that is set by this international organization."

ICLEI, to be clear, does not make decisions for any of its member cities and counties. As a result, it would be easy to dismiss the Tea Party speakers as poorly informed, misguided, and hysterical -- bent on ending a useful source of help to the county due to a total misreading of ICLEI's intention and operations. It would also be profoundly wrong.

Those who spoke wore everything from business suits to jeans. They were men, women, and one recent immigrant convinced that participation in ICLEI would deny him the freedom that drew him to America. One speaker said that the Tea Party's agenda was "the Constitution." Their short speeches varied from the carefully written and calmly read to the extemporaneous and emotional. It was also clear that this was a carefully planned demonstration of their concerns -- but in which each person used his or her own words -- and part of an ongoing agenda against ICLEI that appears on their website. Each speaker received applause (mostly, it seemed, from their other speakers and supporters who came to the meeting), ignoring the Board Chair's rule that the audience should hear each speech without audible reaction.

Whether one agrees with the Tea Party's opposition to ICLEI or not, what they displayed was an organized, energetic, determined opposition to what they perceive as a loss of control by ordinary people over their own lives. Their sense that their government is ignoring their concerns and unwilling to listen is as unmistakable as is their desire to use their voices and votes to force a change.

The Tea Party, if this demonstration of its emotional roots and power is an example, will not be ignored. Nor will it be reasoned with through typical appeals to polite, "let us reason together" dialogue. It is touching something deep in many American psyches -- the fear that everything around them is changing in ways that seem dangerous and unpredictable. While they may misread the language of the Constitution (there is nothing unconstitutional about a local government making a local decision by majority vote to participate in ICLEI), they sense that the Constitution's core values of limited government and the protection of personal liberty are being violated. Their fear that distant forces are making decisions against their own interests is as real as their determination to stop them.

It is in this sense -- that their lives are out of their control - that members of the Tea Party actually occupy common ground with many liberals, though both groups would deride any such connection. But liberals share the concern about loss of control to distant forces, hence their opposition to big business and big finance. The Tea Party abhorrence of big government is a difference in defining the culprit, not a difference in the anger at outside control of their lives. Liberals also share a sense that government is too often out of touch, evidenced by their opposition to the power of money in politics.

This is not a prediction that political odd-cousins will find common ground -- though it would help American politics if they could at least see and then talk about their shared interests. It is a prediction that the Tea Party is on to something in America, and that this something is important to understand. The Tea Party may just be the canary in the coal mine, the harbinger of a looming explosion. We may ignore its current words and we may even ignore the group itself. We should not ignore the concern that brings both forth.