Befuddled Democrats

The left’s response to the Tea Party was wrong from the start


I am not now — nor have I ever been — a member of the Tea Party. As a lawyer, I may be too cynical to embrace any mass political movement. As an academic, coming from a world in which the quality of one’s thinking is (at least for conservatives) judged on the degree to which it is “nuanced,” I find political passion difficult. I have written here before that the government cannot save us. Neither can politics.

I am not even sure what the Tea Party is. It seems too diffuse to view as a single political organization or even as a group of organizations. It is too disparate to identify with a single set of ideological propositions.

To the contrary, the various Tea Party movements seem to have come together more around what they want to stop. They do not want an ever-expanding state. They oppose European levels of taxation. They distrust ambitious plans to centrally manage things like health care and carbon emissions. They do not regard illegal entry into the country as something that enhances our diversity.

In short, the Tea Party united behind opposition to liberal elite opinion. It set itself against not only the political left but against the values of the professional classes whose symbiotic relationship with the state and preference for “socially sophisticated” values has turned the northeast deep blue.

The Tea Party sought to assert the truths of the corner bar and backyard fence over those of the faculty lounge and the boardrooms of those who specialize in moving money around rather than in the creation of wealth.

A great many people were caught up in this opposition, and, as a result, the voters went medieval on the Democrats in this year’s midterms. The Democrats, perhaps because they are Democrats, still don’t understand why.

The political left’s response to the Tea Party was wrong from the start. It fed the perception that liberals reject the values of ordinary folk by indulging in snickering references to “teabagging” — a term for a sexual practice that is unknown to most Americans.

Tea Partiers were denounced as racists threatened by a black president and perhaps even wishing him harm. One major news organization beat this drum with a photo from the rear of a well-armed Tea Partier until it turned out, from a different perspective, that the man was black.

As the rallies grew, the derision stopped and was replaced by befuddlement. President Obama could not understand why the Tea Partiers opposed his rapid expansion of the state and a stimulus package that, while unpaid for, at least put money in some pockets — for a while. The Tea Party “amused” him. “You would think they’d be saying ‘thank you.’”

As the polls turned, the amusement gave way to “understanding” anger that was “misdirected.” This has been a common Democratic trope throughout my ever-lengthening adulthood. Democrats believe they lose because voters are stupid.

After all, they come offering gifts of redistribution. How can people possibly object to taking other people’s money? You’d think they’d be saying thank you.

The irony in this is that it is those ungrateful hoi polloi who have a more sophisticated understanding of the way economies work and societies thrive. They are built on initiative and cultural capital that has always rested uneasily with too much state assistance and regulation.

Americans, as opposed to much of Western Europe, have always sought to strike a balance weighted more heavily to initiative and cultural capital than the latter. It has seemed that President Obama wants to materially alter that balance.

The voters, led by the enthusiasm of the Tea Party, have made clear that they do not believe in that change. There is, it turns out, nothing the matter with Kansas or, as we have just seen, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and just about everywhere else but California and New York.

Perhaps the Tea Party movement can be best explained by its antithesis. In a blatantly political use of taxpayer funds, the Obama administration put together an infomercial with the iconic actor Andy Griffith praising the way in which the new health care bill would affect Medicare.

Ol’ Andy gives us the impression that there is no greater pleasure in life than pulling up a comfortable chair next to your bloodhound and “going through” what the government proposes to give you.

I understand people love their Medicare. But there was something sad and infantile in Griffith’s delight (“it’s music to my ears”) at the way in which the government proposes to take care of us. Obama’s mistake was in promising too much. The Tea Party’s victory was in saying “no, you can’t.” n

Richard Esenberg is a visiting assistant professor of law at Marquette University. He blogs at Shark and Shepherd.