Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Thinking About Tea Parties

David Brooks has a good take on the Tea Party movement and what it might be saying about American society circa 2010. It would be easy to write the movement off and some have (including yours truly). But Brooks, being a student of history, can see some of the underlying currents in America that are being made manifest in the Tea Party. He cites that Americans have lost faith in institutions and the Tea Party is basically saying what others are thinking:

The public is not only shifting from left to right. Every single idea associated with the educated class has grown more unpopular over the past year.

The educated class believes in global warming, so public skepticism about global warming is on the rise. The educated class supports abortion rights, so public opinion is shifting against them. The educated class supports gun control, so opposition to gun control is mounting.

The story is the same in foreign affairs. The educated class is internationalist, so isolationist sentiment is now at an all-time high, according to a Pew Research Center survey. The educated class believes in multilateral action, so the number of Americans who believe we should “go our own way” has risen sharply.

A year ago, the Obama supporters were the passionate ones. Now the tea party brigades have all the intensity.

The tea party movement is a large, fractious confederation of Americans who are defined by what they are against. They are against the concentrated power of the educated class. They believe big government, big business, big media and the affluent professionals are merging to form self-serving oligarchy — with bloated government, unsustainable deficits, high taxes and intrusive regulation.

The tea party movement is mostly famous for its flamboyant fringe. But it is now more popular than either major party. According to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 41 percent of Americans have a positive view of the tea party movement. Only 35 percent of Americans have a positive view of the Democrats and only 28 percent have a positive view of the Republican Party.

Again, most of us in the "educated class" have written these people off as silly idiots. And while I still think there is a lot of silly and even dangerous thinking coming from these folks, they are also on to something. Think about: over the last few years, we have seen governments unable to do anything as a major American city is inundated with water, get bogged down in two wars and run up massive deficits. When Americans look at business, the picture is no better: banks that made stupid risks, car companies that made cars no one wanted, and all supported in some way by an inept government. In some ways, this goes beyond who is in the White House: people are mad at everyone and even worse, they think the only person they can depend on is themselves.

This is the challenge that both political parties have to face. I don't think that the Tea Party has the answer: if we followed their advice in the fall of 2008, we'd basically be living through the Second Great Depression instead of the Great Recession. But both Republicans and Democrats have to find some way to restore trust to American institutions. It's not simply about having a "public option" as it is about making sure that government is doing it's job well. It's about making business follow rules that benefit all and not just a few. It's about not going using military action unless we know we are going win. It's about trying to live within our means.

The Tea Parties want us to believe that we are on our own. I don't think that's true, but they have a point when you look at the landscape of the last few years.

As the Partiers go after mainstream Republicans, it's important that those establishment candidates speak to the underlying problems. What the American public needs to hear is that they will work to restore the public's trust.

That's why we need to listen to the Tea Parties, even if we don't like them.

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