ElRay has posted an interesting diary which sparked some thinking on my part. Thank you, ElRay. I started to respond to your diary, but the response got so long I decided that maybe it needed to be a diary standing alone. However, you get full credit for bringing up the issue and for sending me off on my little tangent.
Not all tea partiers are racist hatemongers. I'm certainly annoyed at the tea party movement, and have posted my share of criticisms of their simple-minded approach of being "mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore, but come to think of it we don't actually have any helpful suggestions to fix the problem, assuming that we actually understand what the problem IS as opposed to what our SUPPOSITIONS are." However, I actually know a fair number of tea party types through other websites.
More after the jump ...
Quite a few of them are basically nice people, many of them military veterans, and hardworking blue collar types who are often also deeply religious. In short, quite a few are what could be called rednecks. That's okay. I'm basically a redneck, too, just one who went to college and law school and has always thought people should be judged on how they treat others and not on their looks, religion, ethnicity, color, or all the other superficial crap on which people judge each other.
It's plain wrong to assume that a tea partier - or as we at dKos like to derisively call them "teabaggers" - are all racist or unreachable. What I have noticed first and foremost about my tea partier friends is that most of them are NOT racist, at least not to their way of thinking, but are often blind to the subtle racism exhibited by some members in the hierarchy of their very fractious movement, which in turn flows over into the way they talk about the issues. They don't necessarily get that racism doesn't only consist of calling African Americans the N word or donning KKK outfits and running them out of town. In fact, several tea partiers of my acquaintance are deeply offended by the suggestion that they hate black people. As rednecks have done over the decades they also distinguish between the black folks they know and work with or who served in their units in the military and the "other" black folks, the ones who seem to want so much. Being strongly in favor of law and order, for instance, they are loath to agree that the police could target someone for racial reasons and not because of some criminal act. They tend to be harsh in their assessments of people accused of crime, convinced that such people have everything coming to them.
Due to a family member deploying to Iraq several years ago I started to hang out at a number of military websites. When military blogging (milblogging) took off during the early days of the Iraq conflict I became a regular reader of milblogs. More people at dKos would probably benefit from reading milblogs and I would suggest starting with Doonesbury's excellent milblog called "The Sandbox", which acts as a clearinghouse for diaries from other milblogs, but which also accepts original material. There are also several websites out there devoted to service members, their families, and military veterans. It is at some of these sites that one can find the most reactionary rhetoric. Tea partiers are often very active members of these sites. These aren't astroturfers, but the real grassroots of the tea party movement.
Eventually, I started posting on message boards at these sites under a different screen name than Catzmaw, and made no secret of my liberal/progressive leanings. This initially got me troll-rated, but interestingly enough, since I kept my rhetoric respectful toward the other members even as I criticized the Bush Administration and Gitmo and all the other stuff that a true blue progressive would be upset about they began to engage me more on the ideas and started to reveal a more personal side to themselves. Before I knew it I was e-mailing back and forth with people who never wasted any time telling me how dead wrong I was about everything even as they asked after my health, offered me recipes and their favorite LOLCats pictures, and discussed everything from their weight loss programs to their new tattoos to their travel plans. In fact, at least two of them plan to meet up with me this year as they come to the DC area. One is meeting family members here for a tour of Washington and environs and the other laughingly told me that he's coming here in a few months with some of his "right wing conservative government hating friends." He's hoping we can get together for coffee and a meal so I can meet his wife.
So, here is my helpful conclusion:
- TEA PARTIERS ARE HUMAN BEINGS. Some of them are actually quite bright human beings, even as those bright ones have sometimes checked their innate analytical abilities at the door of their sincere religious/ideological belief. Many Tea Partiers are veterans of the U.S. Military. Among the ones I know are both male and female veterans of every conflict from Vietnam to the present, and some of them have paid a heavy price for their devotion in the form of lasting disabilities and PTSD.
- TEA PARTIERS ARE AFRAID THAT THE COUNTRY IS ON THE WRONG PATH. Well, duh, we knew that already, didn't we? But did we know WHY they think this? I'm no psychologist, but here's a stab at it. They like their certitudes. Most are religious and they like the certitude offered by literal understanding of the Bible or adherence to all the rules and regulations of the more patriarchical aspects of Christianity. From their point of view there are rules, dammit, and everyone should know those rules and it's beyond comprehension why anyone would even disagree with those rules. This wouldn't be a problem, except that many belong to churches which preach the paradoxical position that: a) the United States is a Christian nation and should be run as such; and b) the Government should stay out of people's lives because it'll only screw up everything because the gubmint has been taken over by the radical left, which has a secret agenda to socialize everything. These attitudes are reinforced constantly by their pastors and the only station any of them will listen to, Fox News.
- TEA PARTIERS ARE OFTEN VERY UNINFORMED ABOUT WHAT PROPOSED LEGISLATION REALLY SAYS, and are often completely unaware of the background behind such legislation. They think in generalities - they're generally opposed to the government interfering in their lives, they're generally opposed to the government telling them what to do or where to go or how to live, they're generally worried that their children will not have a chance at prosperity and lay the responsibility for this failure at the government's door. When asked for specifics to support these general feelings which in turn have morphed into their willingness to take action and protest, many cannot get beyond a cryptic example gleaned from Fox News or their leadership but which they cannot actually place in context or explain.
- MOST GRASSROOTS TEA PARTIERS ARE ACTUALLY GOOD-HEARTED PEOPLE WHO TRY TO GIVE BACK TO THEIR COMMUNITIES. This is true of even the most anti-government people I've communicated with over the years. It's a mistake to think that they are driven purely by self-interest or that they are inherently selfish people. Many of them give a lot of their money and time to their church sponsored charities and to other causes they deem worthy of their time and money. For instance, the man who's coming to town in a few months. He's a combat wounded former Marine Vietnam veteran who suffers every day from the effects of his wounds and PTSD. He'd tell you he hates the government, that he felt betrayed by Bush to such an extent he quit the Republican party, that he'd never vote for anyone who supports "babykilling", that he regards Obama as a socialist/Nazi/abortion-lover, that gay marriage is morally wrong, and that the government has no justification at all to be involved in any way with health care. Wow, sounds like a hopeless case of teabaggery run amok, doesn't he? Not so fast. Peel away a few layers and you find that he has a lesbian daughter whose progressivism leaves me in the dust. He believes fervently that she's wrong in her political beliefs and he's hopelessly confused about WHY she's a lesbian when he tried so hard to raise her in his conservative faith. However, he hasn't written her off. He has in fact welcomed her spouse into his home and is very fond of her. He condemns abortion, but he also DOES something about it, sponsoring young pregnant women and assisting them with adoption services or with assistance in finding jobs, getting childcare, and learning about child development. He contributes lavishly to collections for people with catastrophic health issues. In this way he's very much like the other people I've met online. Many of them are the first to volunteer money or goods for people in trouble. Their problem is with bringing the government into the discussion. Many are oddly, obstinately, convinced that if we simply made health care coverage available to all the government would screw it up somehow because the "government always screws things up."
So, what to do about the tea partiers? Once again, I don't mean the astroturfers. They're a bunch of cynics looking after their wallets and exploiting peoples' vulnerabilities. I mean the ordinary folks with whom the tea party message resonates. First, and I've been guilty of this too, perhaps we should refrain from calling them "teabaggers". It's offensive. Sure, they started out calling themselves that, but it was only because they weren't aware of the term's colloquial sordidness. Second, ENGAGE them in discussion and debate and not in shouting matches. Now, I understand it's difficult. Tea partiers have been seduced into thinking that if they just shout loud enough they'll get their way, even if they're not sure what their way is. The solution ISN'T to shout louder or to call them names. It's to appeal to their sense of civility (MANY are Southerners and actually harbor a sense that one should not behave uncivilly toward other people and they just need to be gently reminded of that fact). Once the shouting has died down we should be searching for common ground. Tea partiers are often lower income people from states particularly hard hit by the recession. Many of them and their families are suffering, but they take pride in "not asking the government for any handouts." The appeal should take into account that we're not asking the government to hand anything to anybody, but to even the playing field. They understand concepts like fairness. Since so many are ex-military and/or on Medicare it's perfectly acceptable to point out how well their government run health care services work.
Third, when I speak of engagement I mean that the debate has to be brought to terms which tea partiers understand and agree with. Appeal to their sense of obligation to others by asking how a country which was allegedly founded as a Christian nation can turn its back on the poor and suffering. Appeal to their sense of fiscal conservatism by pointing out how much productivity and flexibility is lost through the current health care crisis. Tea partiers love small businesses and self-starters. Talk to them about how much the current health care crisis is impeding the ability of others to go out and START businesses or maintain them due to health insurance costs.
Of all the things angering me about the way the Democratic Party approaches things it's the reliance on ad agency techniques to develop messages. Everything has the appearance of artifice and manipulation. WHY are we using the same methods as the astroturfers? WHY AREN'T we discussing these bread and butter issues as bread and butter issues? Why aren't we explaining to tea partiers how their interests actually mesh with what the Dems are trying to do? I saw an example of this when Al Franken was first seated and he was accosted by tea partiers at some state fair, determined to confront him on the issue. He responded very respectfully to them, turning the tables on their opposition by using real world examples of failures in the current system. The video is impressive because he got them to listen to him and understand his position rather than just fighting with them.
If the Dems want their message heard then they're going to have to start explaining it on a far more basic, understandable level. Progressives should inform themselves on the issues, read the polls AND the crosstabs and be ready to explain in cogent English just why and how tea partiers should support what they're trying to do. It would be helpful if we didn't lump them all together into a monolithic block called "teabagging racist haters", too. There are always fringe elements in every movement. Ever attend an anti-war rally with its little clumps of self-styled anarchists, socialists, communists, and conspiracy enthusiasts sprinkled about? Agree with all of them, did you? No, of course not, any more than everyone at a tea party necessarily agrees with the racists and the haters who also attend.