Many liberal media outlets and public figures have spent the last six or nine months deriding and ridiculing the Tea Party movement. That is a mistake, one that may be extremely costly to President Obama and his Democratic allies.
Democrats and their allies should be reaching out to Tea Party voters. We should be asking for their votes and contesting any allegiance that they may feel for the GOP. Failing to do so is not only bad politics; it bespeaks an unwarranted arrogance toward a substantial segment of our fellow Americans.
True, many of the Tea Party's most vocal supporters are irredeemable extremists, racists and anarchists of the Right. But it is wrong to view the entire movement--if it can be called that--in that fashion.
From all that I have seen and read, it seems clear to me that a great many Tea Party supporters are motivated mainly by anger. That may not be much fun for us Democrats, coming so soon after we finally regained the White House and a solid congressional majority, but we should acknowledge that their anger is real and justified.
People are hurting. They have lost jobs, homes and farms. They saw a President who campaigned on a promise of change, but whose treasury secretary was at the heart of the big-bank bailout. They saw that those banks did not even get their wrists slapped, and were soon back to paying immense bonuses, while foreclosures continue and good people lose long-term jobs. They did not hear of real reform.
Of course, much of the Tea Party lexicon comes out of the Republican playbook of fear and ignorance. The obstructionism of the GOP plays well with the anger and negativity that suffuses the Tea Party movment. But that is not a reason for Democrats to ignore those angry Americans; instead, it should be a reason to go out to them, to make our case.
At bottom, it is about respect. Those who simply write off all Tea Partiers as unreconstructed racists and fools--and many Democrats and their allies do essentially that--are arrogantly dismissing a subtial number of our fellow citizens. Instead, we should be speaking to them, finding out about their freas and motivations, and showing why Democrats, not Republicans, will best represent them.
The fact is that many of those who are most afraid of health care reform can benefit from it. We can dismiss them as fools who can't see the truth, or ask why we have not made the case that convinces them. The fact is that many of those who rail about using government funds to stimulate the economy have and will benefit from the economic stimulus. We can write them off as right-wing ideologues too ignorant to see their own interests, or try to show them why they--and the nation--are being well served by the stimulus package. The fact is that Tea Partiers who rail against huge banks and big business forget--if they ever knew--that Republicans are the traditional allies of those whom the Partiers excoriate. We can scratch our heads over this confusion and ignorance, or we can push the Democratic congress to enact real financial reform to make the case that we, not the GOPhers deserve support from the disaffected.
Can Democrats win over most Tea Partiers? Probably not. Can I prove that forty percent, or even a third of them will even consider the Democratic argument? No, although I suspect that a lot more of them would prove receptive than is generally believed. But on some level, it does not matter. For the greatest benefit of reaching out to Tea Party voters may well be that it will involve Democrats with more Americans, and force us to listen to our fellow citizens, even those with whom we seem to have little in common. That should be a basic premise for any party that calls itself Democratic. Unfortunately, we seem to be backsliding toward the bad old days when we were, all too often, liberal elitists.