Welcome to the Mad Tea Party
H. L. Mencken, that magnificent journalistic scourge of Holy Rollers, Rotarians, mountebanks and democracy, would have relished the spectacle. He would have taken a front-row seat and churned out reams of trenchant, rollicking, suitably irreverent copy. I like to think his merry ghost is hovering over the proceedings even now.
Deep in the heart of the American Bible Belt — at Nashville’s sprawling Opryland complex, in fact — the first annual national Tea Party convention is under way. The lavish three-day extravaganza, organized by prominent Nashville lawyer Judson Phillips and his wife, has riled numerous tea-baggers for its prohibitive entrance fee ($549 for the full weekend, or $349 for just the climactic steak-and-lobster banquet featuring keynote speaker and right-wing dreamgirl Sarah Palin).
I understand their disgruntlement. After all, the one unequivocally positive note to emerge from the Tea Party movement was that it appeared to be an honest expression of grassroots democracy in action… despite the superheated rhetoric, despite the sometimes-scary ultraconservative wingnut mentality. Well, it looks as if the convention’s organizers have thrown out the “grassroots” and kept the “wingnut.”
Even the convention’s spokesman, Mark Skoda, confessed that the organizers will “make a few bucks” this weekend. But of course he quickly defended the for-profit event:
“Have we gone so far in the Obama-socialist view of the nation that ‘profit’ is a bad word? In particular, if we’re using it to advance the conservative cause?” Skoda asked, with a rhetorical flourish guaranteed to tickle even the hearts of the less affluent Tea Party faithful.
But clearly the convention isn’t rolling out the welcome mat for the put-upon, overtaxed, anti-immigrant, mad-as-hell, conservative lower-middle-class Christian white people who constitute the heart of the Tea Party movement. So is the first annual Tea Party Convention just another vehicle for moneyed right-wing Republicans? Will the attendees be swapping business cards and chitchatting about the virtues of their respective country clubs back home? If so, what’s the point? Why not just wait until the Republican national convention of 2012?
Spokesman Skoda explained that “This convention is a way to galvanize the conservative movement in a way that the general [Tea Party] rallies do not.”
Having Sarah Palin address the dinner crowd will score big points in the galvanizing department, no doubt. (Some of the attendees might even feel that $349 was a reasonable price to hear the Divine Sarah speak.)
But there’s a question that keeps nagging my political subconscious, and I don’t know if Mr. Skoda or anyone else will be able to answer it honestly: Are wealthy Republicans using the hardscrabble Tea Party faithful as useful stooges in an attempt to consolidate the power of the conservative establishment? In other words, are the right-wing populists doing the right-wing elitists’ dirty work for them?
I suspect that the Republicans smile at all the overwrought, birther-inflamed, borderline-paranoid, anti-Obama rhetoric emanating from the populist right. The tea-baggers hate taxes; so do rich Republicans. The tea-baggers hate Obama; so do rich Republicans. If you’re a rich Republican, what’s not to like about the tea-baggers?
After all, the Tea Party movement began as a spontaneous protest against Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package. These were fiscal conservatives protesting the misuse of their hard-earned tax dollars. Yet the tea-baggers are anything but fat-cat Republicans. They tend to be small-time business owners and homeowners with staggering bills to pay. Yes, they share the fat-cats’ hostility toward big government and Obama. But (and this is where they part company) the tea-baggers are also righteously angry at Big Business for decimating their life savings in the Crash of 2008… and doubly angry at the way Big Business weaseled out of near-bankruptcy on the taxpayers’ dime.
I don’t think the Republicans should be taking the tea-baggers for granted. The movement is rippling with pent-up energy that must find release, constructively or otherwise. I’d like to see the Tea Party movement rediscover its populist roots, break away from the Republicans and form a long-overdue third party in America.
Why would a self-professed moderate encourage the formation of a successful fringe party on the far right? Simple: its creation would turn the Republicans into a de facto centrist party.
In other words, we moderates could sit back and let the tea-baggers do our “dirty work” for us. Instead of organizing grassroots centrist parties in every state… instead of canvassing homes and running centrist candidates with little or no financial backing, we could simply use the tea-baggers’ defection (and our voting clout) to tip the Republican party back toward the center, where it belongs. Yes, the Republicans — the party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower, admirable centrists all!
But I have another reason for wishing the tea-baggers godspeed. I believe their voice is authentic and sincere. While I don’t share most of their beliefs, I understand their resentment toward a government — and a corporatist economy — that shuns their needs and values. Their moment has arrived, and they deserve to make the most of it.
So here’s to the success of the Tea Party movement — within reason, of course, and without the paranoid hysteria. I hope Sarah Palin galvanizes the dinner crowd at the convention and beyond, all the way to those far-flung villages where tight-knit white Christian families still read the Bible, fear immigrants in their midst and seethe over the system’s apparent contempt for the middle class. Let them break away, and let the Republican party become our party!