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The Steep Slope of a Tea Party America

2010 October 23

I sat down recently with an erstwhile American resident (still a citizen) who has spent the last few years abroad.  He’s been hard at work but managed to keep an eye on American news while he was away.  Nonetheless, no sooner had we sat down than he asked me what the political lay of the land was.  We shared a few moments of awkward silence — and then I asked him how much time he had.  This political year is, after all, the year of years.  Never, in my (admittedly brief) lifetime has there been a midterm election where so much was at stake.  Just a few months ago it seemed like it was a question of whether we’d be going from a wholly Democratic government to a much more Republican one.  Then there was a load of Tea Party candidates who won primaries and this became a whole different ball game.  This is back-up-against-the-wall, fight-to-the-death campaigning.  And, as of 10 days to the election, things have only become that much tighter.

There are a lot of seats up for grabs, but the most publicized seats are those that are up for contention with a tea-partier on one side.  Why?  Because the Tea Party represents something of a sea-change in conservative politics.  Where, for the last fifty years or so, the only real drama when it comes to elections has been Presidential (that is, when the biggest fuss is made over “where” America is headed) — this is the first time in a LONG time that a reigning President has had to deal with a extremist, revolutionary movement that is taking the fight to Senate seats and congressional districts.  The conventional wisdom is that all politics is local and, as I’ve said, that usually only gets tossed aside in the national style campaigns of Presidential election years.  But take a look at the lay of the land in 2010, here we’ve got a national movement (running in local elections) in direct contention with the executive branch.  Its not just the “other party.”  This is a brand new beast.

It seems like some people just think of the Tea Party as the GOP on steroids.  A dangerous assumption.  After all, the Tea Party is not simply a bigger, stronger GOP.  It doesn’t share the same across-the-board ideals as the GOP.  It doesn’t build upon the same coalitions.  It doesn’t subscribe to the same academic principles.  The Tea Party is sui generis.  It is a fringe element that has taken over the host.  If I may geek out for a minute, the Tea Party is to the GOP as Venom is to Spiderman.  They LOOK pretty much the same.  You can see how they might be confused for similar entities.  But the difference between them is so vast and undeniable that it is truly disturbing.

As I explained to my friend, the Republican Party is being eaten alive from the inside out by the Tea Party.  A coherent movement that describes itself as being somehow related to the Tea Partiers of ye Olde Revolutionary days.  Sort of self-described Original Patriots.  It is a reactionary movement that seeks to build upon the revolutionary impetus of the Founding Fathers and run rough-shod over the current fragile American landscape.  In and of itself, that is kind of alarming.  As a liberal, I’m alarmed because the fire seems to be in their eyes, and not ours any longer.  I feel like part of the hulking establishment and under siege by a large and unquenchable enemy.  Still, one takes comfort in knowing that those who oppose us should at least have the American concept at heart, even if I disagree with how they seek to achieve it.

The trouble with the Tea Party is: I don’t think they really have a clue.

Now, there has been story after story about the Tea Party.  How it was created by young 30-somethings who are or seek to be small business owners, who see the current government spending as alarming for future state of the country they are going to inherit, and who want to take the reigns of a bad situations that spiraling horribly out of control.  A beautiful — even stirring — narrative.  And it sounds very promising.  So why is it that nearly every high profile Tea Party candidate is, in some way, a colossal idiot?

The most popular of them all is Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell — a woman who’s first general election ad starts with the proclamation: “I’m not a witch.”  Its so absurd it could just as easily be performance art.  The woman has publicly claimed that there are scientist making mice with human brains somewhere and that there is no such thing as the separation of Church and State.  She flies not in the face of intellectual abstract wisdom, but in the face of conventional wisdom.  After claiming that she was a expert on the Constitution and that she would “use” the Constitution as her only means of voting on legislation, she was incapable of naming a single recently Supreme Court case that she could take issue with.  Not a one.  She blanked.  She promised to give us an answer the next day (she did not).  With all due respect for her as human being, I have to say: I think she is criminally uneducated and show now signs of being able to become a competent legislator. In more crass language: she is a fool.

Let’s move along to Sharon Angle of Nevada (who is running to unseat the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid).  Here is a candidate who, in the only debate performance I’ve seen, didn’t seem to know damned thing that she was talking about.  I wrote her off as soon as she explained her opposition to the Health Care Reform bill and suggested that people barter for health coverage instead of buying it. She seriously suggested (and then defended) people bring chickens to a doctor in return for medical services.  Beyond that Angle, like O’donnell, refuses to speak to the media.  She is happy go on FOXNews and speak her piece, but she has been known to practically run away from independent press at her own functions.

Here in New York, we need only look as far as the Governor’s race.  The Republican candidate is Carl Paladino.  Otherwise called — by those who know him — Crazy Carl.  This is a guy running for the highest seat in New York State who’s campaign promise is that he’s going to clean up Albany with a baseball bat.  A candidate who’s very rhetoric is the stuff of ignorance hate-spawned violence.  Who came down to New York City and spent a couple of days explaining that he’s fine with homosexuality — as long as he doesn’t have to deal with it personally and he can explain to younger generations that it is not a viable or acceptable “lifestyle.”  A man who, having fathered a daughter with a mistress, is currently raising children in two separate families and yet has the audacity to say that his opponent, Andrew Cuomo, is a “bad father” because he took his daughters to the Gay Pride parade.  His descriptions of the parades activities was something like (and I paraphrase): naked men in speedos grinding up against one another — it disgusting.  And this from a guy who sends bestiality emails to his circle of friends.  Really?! In what alternate universe is this someone who could realistically get a major party’s nomination for Governor of New York?

Of course it doesn’t stop there: Rand Paul in Kentucky, Joe Miller in Alaska,  and Marco Rubio of Florida.  And at the helm, Senator Jim DeMint and the ever-present, seemingly omnipotent (as far as conservatives are concerned) Sarah Palin.  Talk about uber-conservatism!  But I want to stress that, while I would normally find that distressing enough to rail against them as Election Day draws near, I wouldn’t necessarily fall down weeping if they won some seats and power in Congress swung back toward the Right.  However, this movement is something altogether different.  It is not only an extreme conservative movement. It not only encourages jingoism, fear, and distrust of government officials.  Or even the usual vague disgust with academics (who are portrayed as cold, uncaring information sluts).  This is a movement that has opened the door, by and large, to the most overwhelming under-qualified group of candidates we have seen in a long time.  I know that if some Tea Party candidate sees this they’ll be able to say that that very under-qualification is what makes them so much better for the job than those who’ve been in Washington “too long.”  And that’s fine.  Its meaningless rhetoric, but it stirs up the voters, so I can’t begrudge them that.

But are we really going to allow a score of candidates to become actual bona fide government officials when most of them seem to have about a 9th grade level of understanding when it comes government, legislation, and economics?  I mean, how have we come to this point?  Where Sarah Palin is the figure-head of a serious political movement.  The same Sarah Palin who thought she could see Russia from her house, who couldn’t name a single newspaper that she reads regularly, who couldn’t think of a single Supreme Court ruling that she disagreed with (other than Roe v Wade, of course).  We’re talking about a champion of mediocrity.  Or perhaps, worse than that, a runner-up of mediocrity.  Not a B student.  Not even really a C student.  More like D+ student.
Well, it all comes down to this: when people start talking about the Constitution, I get worried.  The Constitution is a sacred document.  For me, it is the holy grail of modern democracy.  In ages to come, I believe it will be one of the defining documents of this epoch.  And it is a powerful document.  It is the work of the greatest and most devoted minds of its time.  And it has been the backbone of a nation that has proven itself to be capable of things great and wondrous over the centuries.  And I really dislike the idea of people who show themselves to be mental light-weights touting their knowledge and “interpretation” of the Constitution as some sort of definitive translation.  Perhaps, in a way, this echoes the very zeitgeist of the Tea Party — but I feel, without a doubt, that they are enemies of civilization.  The Tea Party is a reactionary and extremely regressive movement that threatens throw all progress and advancement askew with its mindless hunger for satiation.  Like an over-grown child that knows how to speak, but not what the words mean.

While they point at President Obama and Speaker Pelosi and scream about America being under attack by crazy liberals (though if you ask any liberal, they will tell you that the President is a pretty centrist guy) I am looking back at them and feeling old and sad.  They rage like Lear in the storm.  Angry, shouting, and insensible.

And ’tis a naughty night to swim in, indeed.

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