A reader writes:
Erik, as someone who lives in the Mighty Whitey Elite NY-DC Corridor, but who comes from Tea Party America, and who has lots of friends and relatives highly sympathetic to the Tea Party movement, I want to say that I think you and Freddie are both right, though your point in defense of the Tea Partiers is a more difficult one for people who live in your (our) social and professional milieu to grasp.
Like Freddie, and I think also like you, I don’t have much time for the Tea Partiers. Their protests are incoherent. Whether they realize it or not, they are setting themselves up as tools of the Republican Party (I’m a registered Republican, by the way, though a deeply disaffected one). In conversations with these people, I am impressed, and not in a good way, by how totally unrealistic they are about the problems facing our country, and the possible solutions. They think Sarah Palin is untouchable, and when you actually try to talk to them about what she stands for, they can’t do it. "Palin good, anti-Palins bad!" is the response I get. They hate "Washington" (and who could blame them for that?), and they hate "big government," but as far as I can tell, their rage is inchoate — which is to say, ultimately pointless, though it can do a lot of damage before it plays itself out. As a conservative who thinks the GOP is pathetic and bereft of ideas, I find the Tea Party movement frightening, when it’s not silly. Strange that a movement can be both ridiculous and unnerving, but that’s how I see them. I think Freddie is right to point out that there’s a lot of bad, crazy stuff going on with those people. To me, the worst thing I’ve seen and heard from them is flat-out racist commentary about President Obama.
But when I read or hear people like Freddie portray these people as nothing more than whiny babies who have lost their "privilege" and who can’t deal with it, I instantly sympathize with them, for reasons you’ve articulated. Look, I know these people. I grew up with them. I am related to them. For all their flaws, I can say confidently that they are in most respects the backbone of this country. They live their own lives, work hard, treat people fairly, and expect to be treated fairly in return. They’re patriotic and proud of what they have, which is too often not a hell of a lot (you don’t see many upper middle class or wealthy people identifying with this movement). It’s easy for people like Freddie to hate on them, not only because some of them make it easy with bigoted statements, but also because they are The Other, and are pleased to identify themselves in opposition to people like Freddie. We are constantly admonished by the media to be understanding and accepting of "diversity" among the various peoples of America, but these white working class and middle class people are the only ones it’s okay to define only by their flaws. I’ve struggled with the same thing many educated Southerners of the post-civil rights generation have: how is it that people who can be so good, so deeply kind and selfless and brave, can be so completely blind and ugly on the question of race? That is, thank God, less of an issue today than it was 20 years ago; times change, and so do people. But the fact is, there are few people, or peoples, who are all good or all bad, and learning to see the people I come from in Tea Party America as fundamentally good despite their (often nasty) biases has been for me a moral education. If you were stranded on the side of the road in rural Alabama, your best friend is likely to be a redneck churchgoing Tea Partier who would come out in the middle of the night to rescue you, and either put you up for the evening or buy you a hotel room. It might not make sense, but I’ve seen this kind of thing happen a thousand times.
The tragedy of these people — hell, my people — is that they don’t grasp how the Republican Party and Fox News exploit them. Did they benefit from the depredations of Wall Street? Hell no! The Republicans and the Democrats both allowed that to happen. In my view, the Republicans have made an art of appeasing the Tea Party types (before they were called that), while really pushing hard for the interests of Wall Street. And the Democrats, despite their pretenses otherwise, consider these white people to be an embarrassment at best, but more often than not a menace. Who is really for them? Nobody, not really. No wonder they’re angry, and confused. I dearly wish they had real leadership, and weren’t taken in by that clown Glenn Beck, that cynic Dick Armey, and that nitwit Sarah Palin. Their grievances are real, and legitimate. But, as Freddie understands, they have chosen whom they’ve chosen, and however sympathetic I am to their plight, I cannot entirely blame people for scorning them for the way they have chosen to express those grievances.
It’s a real mess. In my state’s Republican primary this year, I’ll probably have to choose between a party hack or a Tea Party loon. I don’t know how I’ll vote, if I vote at all. Choices on the Democratic side seem as bad or worse. We’re in a bad fix in this country.
I agree with pretty much all of this. I still think that the tea party members are more diverse than we give them credit for, and not all of them are as Utopian in their vision of a small-government America as the most vocal ones, but I still see no political home there, any more than in the GOP (let alone the Democrats).
I’m just going to go start my own political non-movement. Let’s call it Beat Conservatism. We’ll all be bums and rail against the centralization of power, against war, against modernity and all that jazz. We won’t be pissed off all the time, we’ll write poetry. We won’t rally or make signs or go on TV or run candidates – we’ll just embrace our ineffectualness. The great irony of true conservatism, if I may call it that, is that at its heart is a distrust of power. So to really embrace it you must give it up, let go of power, let go of political ambition. Become political pacifists. Embrace the culture and not the war. That’s what my non-movement will be about. (P.S. if anyone has any literature or references on the end-days of Jack Kerouac I’d appreciate hearing about it. He was a life-long Republican, and toward the end of his life re-embraced Catholicism. Quite a fascinating, but terribly sad man and story.)