Confronting the Politics of Rage

In mid March, a bankruptcy examiner suggested that executives at Wall Street financial giant Lehman Brothers used "materially misleading" accounting gimmicks to delay its collapse. At the same time, the national press speculated about the evolution of the Tea Party movement. The juxtaposition of the two articles raised the question, "What would Tea Party activists have done about Lehman Brothers?" How does inchoate rage translate into pragmatic political policy?

Sarah Palin's appearance at the Nashville Tea Party Convention was an opportunity for the movement to spell out what it plans to do about "too big to fail" banks and Wall Street corruption, in general. But her speech, like those of other presenters, was primarily a rant. After blaming Obama for America's woes -- "How is that hopey-changey stuff working out for you?" -- she recycled conservative banalities. When asked, "what do you think are the top three things that have got to be done?" Palin responded with platitudes, "We've got to rein in spending," "We have got to jump start these energy projects," and "It would be wise of us to start seeking some divine intervention again in this country so that we can be safe and secure and prosperous again."

The Tea Party movement has received a lot of press attention, but we know little about what they stand for. A recent CNN poll found Tea Party adherents are 60 percent men, 80 percent white, middle-income, non-urban, middle-aged, Protestant, self-described conservatives who usually vote Republican. New York Review of Books journalist Jonathan Raban attended the Nashville Tea Party convention and observed: "It wasn't until the last night of the event, when Sarah Palin came on stage, that the Tea Party movement, a loose congeries of unlike minds, found unity in its contempt for Barack Obama, its loathing of the growing deficit as 'generational theft,' its demands for 'fiscal responsibility,' lower taxes, smaller government, states' rights, and a vastly more aggressive national security policy."

After thirteen months, the Tea Party movement has emerged as a "party" of platitudes rather than of policies, a group united by fury rather than a unifying philosophy. After the financial crisis, the spontaneous mobilization of their resentment was high-jacked by the Fox News Network and by Freedomworks, a conservative advocacy organization, as documented in a recent AlterNet article.

Tea Party activists oppose anything Barack Obama is for -- including long-lived social programs such as Social Security and Medicare -- but lack alternative proposals and have little appreciation for history. Most Tea Party activists believe the financial crisis was started by Obama and Democrats, rather than by Republican policies instituted by Ronald Reagan, reaching their nadir under George W. Bush. Lacking a realistic perspective, they are prone to repeat falsehoods fed to them by Freedomworks and other conservative manipulators: "the government caused the financial crisis," "there wasn't a need for bailouts," "If left alone, the market would have corrected itself." This confusion was typified by a recent Tea Party sign: "Keep the government's hands off my Medicare."

Tea Party adherents share nostalgia for nineteenth century America when states' rights prevailed. Not surprisingly, some aspects of the movement are racist. Many Tea Party activists insist that Barack Obama stole the Presidency because he is "not a citizen."

One of the marks of contemporary liberalism -- at least, the brand practiced in Berkeley -- is the desire to reach out to those who do not agree with us. How should Liberals communicate with Tea Party activists?

A first step is to let them, as individuals, rant. Liberals should take the time to hear what Tea Party activists have to say. Search for points of agreement.

The second step is to agree that changes need to be made in America.

A third step is to search for common ground. Espouse the philosophy: These are tough times, but we're in this together. In the past, Americans got out of hard times by making government work for them. If citizens pull together we can make the necessary changes.

Next, suggest areas of agreement and focus on these. What about Lehman Brothers and the other firms that looted Wall Street? Don't you agree that they need more supervision? If this approach succeeds, move to more general themes: What about the banks deemed "too big to fail"? Don't you agree that they should be broken up? What about other monopolies?

A fruitful place to conclude is campaign finance reform. Grassroots activism, such as the Tea Party movement, is an American tradition. Don't you agree that we need to reform campaign finances to get big money out of politics?

Of course, some Tea Party activists are hard-core fiscal conservatives -- fed up with the Republican Party as much as the Democratic Party -- but many are Independents who lack a forum for their anger. The Raban article indicates that many of these Independents are potential allies if Liberals take the time to talk to them, to listen to their anger.