The Tea Party still no big deal?
E.J. Dionne responds to my post yesterday on the Tea Party, raising two objections. First, he contends that he really has not "vilified" the Tea Party on the grounds that it is racist. Second, he says he's not backing down from his assertion that the Tea Party represents "a minority view in our country."
As to his defense on race, he points to the portion of his column on the NAACP in which he cautions against using the race card. His advice in that column was strategic: "The minute you say there are racist elements in the Tea Party -- reflected in signs at rallies, billboards and speeches from some of its major figures -- the pushback goes from cries of persecution to charges that those who are criticizing divisiveness are themselves the dividers." But he certainly doesn't quibble with the notion that the Tea Party contains more than its share of racists: "The racists are the Tea Party's flag-burners. It's fair to ask the democratic left to condemn extremism. It's fair to ask the same of the democratic right."
E.J. has raised the race issue more than once in his criticism of the Tea Party, although he has used the caveat that the Tea Party isn't only about race. In this column E.J. argued: "So, yes, parts of this movement do seem to be motivated by a new nativism and by racism. But it would be a mistake to see the hostility toward Obama only in terms of race." Again, he's not saying they are all racists, just a bunch of them are. That's a frequent theme in E.J.'s writings. ("Part of the anger at President Obama among Tea Partyers does appear to be driven by racial concerns. Saying this invites immediate denunciations from defenders of those who bring guns to rallies, threaten violence to 'take our country back,' and mouth old slogans about states' rights and the Confederacy. So let's be clear: Opposition to the president is driven by many factors that have nothing to do with race. But race is definitely part of what's going on.")
At the Brookings Institute last October E.J. made clear what he thinks of the Tea Partyers' views on race. Jane Mayer of the New Yorker asked if the Tea Party wasn't a newer incarnation of conservative racism. E.J. commented, "I just want to give a one-sentence answer to Jane's question, which is, if you'll get their language, their references to the Constitution, their attitudes toward the peril the country faces as they see it, I think in so many ways the Tea Party is the old right with a cable network, a group of talk shows, social networking, some rather wealthy donors, Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck."
It's not gone unnoticed among conservatives that one of the more prominent liberal pundits has repeatedly made the case that racism is a significant part of the Tea Party movement, although not the only thing animating the movement. He doesn't agree that amounts to "vilification," but in American politics accusations of racism, even with caveats, are just that.
As to his insistence that the Tea Party doesn't represent the views of a majority of Americans, the evidence is overwhelming that the small government, anti-statism, anti-debt philosophy that is the heart of the Tea Party ethos has taken the country by storm. John Judis writing months before the 2010 midterm tsunami in the New Republic put it well:
I can understand why liberals would want to dismiss the Tea Party movement as an inauthentic phenomenon; it would certainly be welcome news if it were. . . .But the Tea Party movement is not inauthentic, and--contrary to the impression its rallies give off--it isn't a fringe faction either. It is a genuine popular movement, one that has managed to unite a number of ideological strains from U.S. history--some recent, some older. These strains can be described as many things, but they cannot be dismissed as passing phenomena. Much as liberals would like to believe otherwise, there is good reason to think the Tea Party movement could exercise considerable influence over our politics in the coming years. . . .
There are no national membership lists, but extensive polls done by Quinnipiac, The Winston Group, and Economist/YouGov suggest that the movement commands the active allegiance of between 13 percent and 15 percent of the electorate. That is a formidable number, and, judging from other polls that ask whether someone has a "favorable" view of the Tea Parties, the movement gets a sympathetic hearing from as much as 40 percent of the electorate. . . . If the GOP wins back at least one house of Congress in November, the Tea Parties will be able to claim victory and demand a say in Republican congressional policies.
As 2010 progressed the domination of the Tea Party became even more evident. In September more polling emerged:
Once considered a fringe element that spoke only to the most disaffected, a new poll reflects broad support among Republicans for the Tea Party movement. A new poll released by Wall Street Journal and NBC News demonstrated the Tea Party's support among Republican voters. 71 percent of Republicans support the ideals expressed by the Tea Party, a significant majority that shows the Tea Party "isn't a small little segment, but it is a huge part of what's driving 2010," according to Democratic pollster Peter Hart in an interview in The Wall Street Journal.
The Tea Party did help sweep into power 87 new Republican House members and six Republican senators, who have sharpened the debate on spending restraint. Unless one believes that midterm voters didn't understand the political philosophy of those they were elected, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the Tea Party philosophy, if not the movement itself, embodies the most dominant strain in American politics today.
| February 22, 2011; 11:37 AM ET
Categories: Conservative movement
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