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Liberals are blind to what drives the Tea Party

Christine O'Donnell

Calling the Tea Party "crazy" is just liberals' way of saying they are aloof and clueless

Over the past week, US politics has been dominated by talk of the Tea Party. Its favored candidates won upsets over more moderate Republicans in some primary elections last week: most notably, for the Senate in Delaware and for the Governorship of New York State. These victories follow other unexpected gains in recent months.

Liberals are having a hard time trying to comprehend what’s behind the apparent growth in the Tea Party’s popularity. Over the past year, liberals have used various derogatory terms to describe the Tea Partiers, and most recently their preferred slur was to call them racists. But now, after the electoral wins, they are throwing their hands up and calling the Tea Party “crazy”. They point to supporters like Christine O’Donnell, winner in the Republican primary in Delaware, who has made statements about her witchcraft past and her opposition to masturbation.

Taking the lead are comics like Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, who mock the Tea Party. That comedians poke fun is not surprising; it’s what they do. But what’s more revealing is that it seems that many liberals want to fall behind them, as they believe mockery is the only effective response to Tea Party “lunacy”. Stewart is even organizing a rally in Washington, to “restore sanity to America” (yes, because it’s gone insane).

When the Tea Party was just a small protest group (which was only about a year ago), it was one thing to label the organizers nutty. But in doing so today, after election victories, liberals now have to claim that a significant minority of voters are irrational too. In turn, the Tea Party feeds off that, as a significant part of the electorate knows that it is being condescended to by liberals. Voting for a Tea Party candidate is a way of saying f-you to them.

The real issue is that, when it comes to the Tea Party, liberals have two big blind spots that render them unable to understand what’s going on. The first is that they fail to appreciate the depth of popular alienation from the political establishment. Voters are generally disenchanted with politicians across both parties. A New York Times/CBS News poll found that congressional Democrats’ approval at 30 percent, and congressional Republicans’ approval even lower, at 20 percent. A separate survey by Gallup found that approval of all of congress is at an all-time low of 18 percent (down from a peak of 39 percent shortly following Obama’s entry into the White House).

When you have such dissatisfaction in American politics, is it so surprising that some look to alternatives like the Tea Party? Furthermore, given that Democrats control the White House and congress, it is surely no shocker to find that an emerging protest movement is close to the Republicans and explicitly anti-Obama. While the Tea Partiers tell everyone how angry they are about the current politic situation, liberals express none of that passion. They’ve been let down by Obama, but their criticisms are more in sorrow than anger. They can’t fathom that people would really be seriously opposed to Obama and the Democrats. It is their unwavering support for their favorite members of the political class that makes them blind to populist opposition.

If you think the Tea Party's politics are bad, just remember, it is just an index of how dissatisfied people are with the mainstream parties, especially the Democrats.

The second liberal weakness is that they cannot resist spending their energies being preoccupied with the Tea Party. They see the partiers’ rise as an independent phenomenon, but it is as much their own creation, especially by those in the media. Before the Tea Party represented much of anything, liberals drew attention to it, and warned of the dangerous consequences if it got close to power. It could have been dismissed as a fringe, and a sign of weakness within the Republican Party (given that it arose outside of the party’s structure). They also crowned Sarah Palin queen of the Tea Party, even though many if not most Tea Party activists reject her politics, especially her socially conservative views. In the event, liberals’ fear of the Tea Party’s rise has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as shining the spotlight has given this “party” the aura of being something new, different and willing to have a go at change.

Focusing on the Tea Party has only given it strength, and liberals continually fail to learn this lesson. According to a report in the New York Times on Monday, White House advisers have been considering national advertisements that would depict the Republicans as taken over by Tea Party extremists. The White House later issued a denial, and I doubt they would resort to nation-wide commercials, but there is no doubt that the Democrats' talking points - as evidenced on last Sunday's TV news programs - are all about the divided Republicans.  

It’s bad enough that the party in power would not run on its record, and instead go negative against its rivals. But it’s even worse for that ruling party to focus an electoral campaign against a minority faction within the opposition party. A negative campaign from the governing party won’t be lost on independent-minded voters in November.

With all this focus on the Tea Party, you might be surprised to learn that in most contests around the country, there is no Tea Party-backed candidate. And even where there are such candidates, their policy positions can differ widely. That’s because the Tea Party is not really a party: it has no leaders, with few principles or common policies. Consequently, people can self-designate themselves as supporters of the Tea Party.

And so, the tremendous attention paid to the Tea Party results in a distortion of political discussion. It also means that Democrats are ducking some uncomfortable realities. For example, polls indicate that majorities oppose many of the Democrats’ favorite policies, like healthcare reform. In some swing states, like Ohio, establishment Republicans (that is, not Tea Party) are leading Democrats by big margins in congressional races. Instead of facing up to this, Democrats prefer to shadow-box the Tea Party.

Labelling the Tea Party – and those who vote for their candidates – as “crazy” does little to illuminate the forces behind the movement’s rise. But it does reveal a lot about liberals, and how aloof they are from the today’s political dynamics.

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