Dems Make a Mistake Ignoring Tea Parties

By Joe Queenan, The Guardian - February 8, 2010

This weekend, the fledgling Tea Party movement has been holding a convention in Nashville, Tennessee. White, middle-class, contemptuous of Wall Street, Washington and academia, the Tea Party insurgents view themselves as the descendants of the militiamen who whipped the British at Yorktown. Ironically, with the exception of George Washington, most of the firebrands of the revolution were intellectuals: Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Ben Franklin, John Jay, John Adams, James Madison, Samuel Adams. Only Paul ­Revere worked in retail.

The Tea Party insurgents have had a nice run recently, disrupting public hearings, shouting down elected officials, scaring the bejesus out of incumbents. They insist they are amateurs, that their movement is spontaneous, though critics suggest otherwise, insisting they are funded by those who wish to see Barack Obama fail. The Tea Partyers despise Obama, the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, and the treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, and are fiercely opposed to the government bailout of Wall Street. They hate taxes, the stimulus package, the media and Hollywood, and believe they are the last remaining bulwark of democracy, preventing the US from slipping into socialism. They have put anyone running for re-election on notice that if they fail to toe the Tea Party line, they will walk the plank.

All this presents a huge problem for Democrats, because they haven't been able to figure out a way to hold spontaneous tea parties of their own. Traditionally, when populist rage erupts, the Great Unwashed descend on Washington for mass rallies. Such rallies are easily countered by even bigger rallies, the sort of thing Democrats have been good at. It's always been a snap to get young people and old movement lefties to turn out by the tens of thousands. These rallies contributed enormously to the triumph of the civil rights movement and bringing the war in Vietnam to an end. Even someone as contrary and insular as Richard Nixon couldn't ignore that many protesters. Tea partyers, by the way, are basically Nixon's silent majority in a less reticent mode.

Tea Party rallies are different. They are often quite small, and mostly conducted at the local level. They don't attract celebrities like Bruce Springsteen or Sting, as there is no such thing as a rightwing Sting, much less a libertarian Bono. And unlike the great anti-war rallies of the 60s, there is nothing "cutting-edge" or "hip" about Tea Party rallies. The Tea Partyers are mostly pasty-faced middle-Americans, holding the sorts of smallish, grassroots, inbred gatherings that could easily be ignored in the pre-viral era before cable television and the internet. No more. Now 212 angry white people shouting down a rattled congressman in rural Idaho can command as much media attention as a roadside bombing in Iraq. An 18th-century political movement is using 21st-century technology to persuade America to return to its bedrock 19th-century values. The 20th century "“ income taxes, going off the gold standard, abortion, hip-hop "“ was a mistake.

What is it about tea parties that make them off-limits to Democrats? Well, for starters, everything. The Democrats control the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives, so at least until they get massacred in the November elections, they will have a hard time portraying themselves as a persecuted minority. Democrats neither hate nor distrust the federal government and do not automatically object to higher taxes, though, just like the Tea Party types, they do hate Wall Street.

A more pertinent explanation, though, is demographics. The Democratic party, always a weird melange, is now truly the party of the rich and the poor, with millions of civil servants and intellectuals filling out the mix. Rich people don't attend tea parties, not only because they can find ways to hide income and avoid paying taxes, but because tea parties are corny. After all, Sarah Palin was there. Poor people don't go to tea parties because poor people don't go anywhere. Civil servants don't go to tea parties because they've got nice pensions "“ so who's complaining? And intellectuals don't go to tea ­parties because the whole iconography of populist insurgency repels them.

Since the 60s, Democrats have been reluctant to wave the flag and are uncomfortable with anything that evokes the spirit of '76. Words like "patriot" and "minuteman" unnerve them, not only because they have been co-opted by the right, but because they are used to christen nuclear weapons and vigilante groups along the Mexican border. And the ethnic monochromaticism of the Tea Party movement is equally abhorrent. Latinos and blacks are not invited to tea parties. Well, maybe as caterers.

One of the things that helped get Obama elected was that he was really cool. This made Democrats feel cool. Tea Party types are not cool. But there are an awful lot of them out there. The Democrats thus find themselves in a bind. They cannot continue to cede the public stage to the Tea Partyers. They cannot simply sit back and do nothing. Maybe they should try torchlight parades. Or coffee claques. Perhaps even fistfights. But they better try something soon. Trouble's a-brewin'.


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