Crashing the Tea Party Joyride

The Tea Party has done us all a favor. It has pointed out how absent we've been in building a common narrative about modern American citizenship. Their candidates are fascinating -- like watching campaign season through beer goggles. But every time I hear one of them speak in public, I realize what an advantage the rest of us have -- real stories, real characters, real democracy.

The Tea Party is taking a joyride through the world of American ideals. Along the way, it has grabbed the best revolutionary symbols, the cinematic frustration of the masses, and an irreproachable sounding plan (Fiscal responsibility! Constitutionally limited government! Free markets! Yay!)

But it's all emotions and fantasy. Despite the symbolic appeal, Tea Partiers don't really speak to tradition. They speak to nostalgia. These signals resurrected from the past are not representative. They are kitsch.

Their problem is that they actually prefer Bill O'Reilly to the Bill of Rights. Judging from the demographics, the Tea Party is the last act of the cynical Boomers, hence, a vision of government that doesn't go beyond shouting and a soundtrack. Their story has no characters or plot. It ends with the Winnebago driving off the cliff. How romantic and awesome! And then what?

Its time to take what they have started -- a participatory impetus for change -- re-brand it, and run away with it.

The argument is basic, and drawn in stark relief. Is there an US in the USA? Do we have a common purpose? Will we be able to evolve our collective identity to meet the needs of the modern era?

They have the "what" but we have the "how". Last week, I attended the Reinventing Governance conference in Colorado. Everyone there had an example of citizens taking the initiative, solving problems at the local level.

The Tea Party is the crowning achievement of the conservative rise in American politics. Who needs evidence when you have good optics? The right is not required to meet the challenge that the rest of us face -- that of governing ourselves. They are in eternal opposition, even when in office.

Conservatives have achieved this public relations coup because, on the right, the intellectuals and the propagandists are the same people (Gingrich, Rove). In contrast, those who defend the public sector -- public intellectuals -- have gone missing for years. We do have more civic firepower. Its just that our academics and operatives disdain each other. One group is polishing their footnotes and the other group is dialing for dollars. They rarely meet each other.

Moreover, conservatives prioritize communication as much as subject matter -- the right's mother ship Heritage Foundation spends nearly half its money on marketing. Meanwhile, those who believe in the common good work under a myth of omniscience. We believe that because an idea is right it will be obvious and because it is obvious it will be implemented.

These connections are fallacies. They don't exist. To be influential, ideas need a long-term infrastructure behind them. For example, "Islamophobia" is not an accident, it is an outcome. "Ground Zero Mosque" "Jihad Jane" etc. Conservative operatives have in place a network of relationships and one-liners that can surge to meet the needs of the day's headlines. If it is politically useful for them to marginalize Muslim Americans, they do it.

I worked on Capitol Hill in a progressive office during Republican reign. It was like fighting a well trained army with a pickup team. My side was always in the library and in the streets, but never in the room. This is not the same for conservatives today.

The Obama administration certainly could have communicated more consistently and forcefully over the past two years. But our president lacks the philosophical audience to back him up. Where are the people who can explain governing? Who empathize with institutions? Lots of us do, but we are not intentional about it.

Hope and Change still remain to be translated into a story about the rest of us. The path forward is staring us right in the face. Our greatest strength is our immense ability to connect with others, including those in power. Over the next decade, we will create new norms of democratic participation in which -- by definition -- corporations cannot preempt citizens. DC will be the last stop in this movement for change. You act on behalf of the common good dozens of times a day and don't even think about it.

I would argue that we have not even begun to assess our own power. Speaking as a former Hill staffer, the relationships forged on behalf of ideals are viewed differently than the purchased relationships beholden to private commercial lobbies. As Craig Newmark says, "Trust is the new black". We have that in our corner.

Government is changing rapidly. There are dozens of new transparency requirements and rules for openness. But information without interpreters is just more noise. To be politically useful, it requires a civic filter. Every Member of Congress went to High School. You long-time friends, make an appointment with the local office and ask. What are some basic public interest issues that you vote on? What do you need information about? How can we support you? You will be amazed at how many topics have no constituent input.

This kind of individual initiative -- citizens putting a stake in the ground on behalf of the collective -- is powerful. Telling your leaders what you're doing in your community will provide the characters and plot for our narrative.

The American people long for a novel, not a sitcom. We want a good story about who we are and where we're going in the world. Most of all, we want the happy ending, the one where nobody gets left out. Whoever tells this story best will win.

The Tea Party wants a knife fight and we've been showing up with chop sticks. This has to change.