Kooky kaleidoscope of Tea Party supporters provide a window into political paranoia.
Thursday, April 29, 2010
When Tea Party organizers chose the Washington Ellipse as the setting for their Tax Day protest, they were undoubtedly thinking of its theatrical potential. Behind looms the Washington Monument, an obelisk to the hero of the American Revolution and Constitution and a fitting symbol of the Tea Party’s esprit de corps. In front stands the White House, whose occupant, according to protesters’ signs, is busy plotting more taxes, more communism and the end of America. Those who took the podium borrowed from the surrounding majesty to endow their struggle with an epic righteousness:
“We are going to keep faith with every generation since 1776 that has successfully passed the baton of freedom to the next generation. We will not allow that… chain of freedom to be broken on our watch,” declared Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. But beyond the rhetoric and amid the crowd of a few thousand, the concerns were on a smaller scale – like incandescent light bulbs.
That’s what inspired Dot to drive down from Montgomery County, Penn. Dot is concerned about the deficit and the healthcare bill that “nobody read.” But most of all, she is panicked about light bulbs. “The government is already starting to fine people if you have the incandescent kind,” she said, “but if cap and trade passes, then you’re going to have each home audited, and that information is going to be listed to real estate agents, and you won’t be able to sell your house.”
Dozens of Tea Partyers I spoke with repeated some version of Dot’s tale of government intrusion. “With this consumer protection agency,” one man told me, “the government is going to make it illegal for you to have more than two credit cards.”
What does this kaleidoscope of kookiness add up to? According to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, Tea Partyers are richer, whiter, better educated, older, more male and more likely to be employed than the rest of America. For those on the left who believe that government should act as an agent of redistribution, this evidence should put to rest the idea that the Tea Party is a constituency we can work with. The question is, how useful are they to the GOP?
Earlier in the day, a coalition of groups, including FreedomWorks and the Tea Party Patriots, unveiled the Contract From America. Comprising slogans like “Protect the Constitution” and “Stop the Pork,” mixed with reversals of Democratic proposals like “Reject Cap & Trade” and “Defund, Repeal, & Replace Government-Run Health Care,” the Contract is almost entirely bereft of policy ideas, a rebuke of Republicans like Congressman Paul Ryan, who released the detailed “Roadmap for America’s Future” earlier this year, and House minority whip Eric Cantor, who’s urged the GOP to put forth a specific legislative agenda.
The Contract is just 613 words long; the Roadmap goes on for 43 pages, and covers issues like tax codes, Social Security, job training and universal healthcare. Ryan frames his program in the language of shared growth and opportunity.
All this fails to capture the heads and hearts of Tea Party patriots. Fed a steady diet of paranoia, they appear uninterested in the details of governing, to which even the Republican Party’s elite pay lip service. Their logo and logic is simply “Don’t Tread on Me.” That might work, for now, in securing enough “haves” to muck up GOP primaries. But it is hard to see how, in a nation still tilting toward the “have-not” column, the Tea Party approaches anything close to an enduring national political force. Heaven help us if I’m wrong.