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Pure Onsense

Tea for Two

Scott Zuke

(May, 2010)  Barely a year old, the tea party movement has made its presence known on the national political scene. At first they were hardly noticed, then they were ignored or derided, but today they have become a regular fixture in the mainstream political news cycle. A recent article for Politico begins: "2009 was the year when many journalists concluded they were slow to recognize the anti-government, anti-Obama rage that gave birth to the tea party movement. 2010 is the year when news organizations have decided to prove they get it. And get it. And get it some more."

What tea partiers would call the liberal media establishment now observes and studies them like Jane Goodall studied primates, with a sense of curiosity, detached amusement, and a perceived need to inform the public about their strange behaviors and beliefs.

There was a flurry of excitement among commentators as results of the first polls directly focusing on the movement's followers began streaming in. "They're white. They're older. And they're angry," a CBS News analysis concluded from a joint survey it conducted with The New York Times. The poll also found that the group's adherents predominately classify themselves as conservatives and republicans or independents, have a higher percentage of college graduates than the general population, and have higher than median household income, among other things.

But what does this really tell us? Detached observation and light interaction only go so far. That the group is mostly white does not make it racist; That they are wealthier than average does not prove they are hostile toward the poor, and so on. Such accusations have lingered in conversation about the tea party group, and many in the media still speak about the movement in the tone of voice of a zoologist saying of a species, "We know so little about them."

For all of the talk about tea partiers, few in the media have taken the seemingly more logical step of talking with them, asking them not just what their beliefs are, but how they defend them. The good ones, steadfast in their principles, well-read in their American history and political theory, and willing to engage in rigorous debate, are eager to answer.

Like many who have joined the movement, the leaders of Frederick's tea party group are ordinary citizens who had no particular background in political activism before around this time last year. Today Joshua Lyons and Mark Kreslins host "The Forgotten Men" radio show on WFMD (, run monthly meetings for tea party supporters, write articles for various blogs and websites, and have organized several tea party events, the most recent being held April 15. You can't accuse them of being unapproachable. They correspond frequently and for the most part respectfully with everyone from hostile detractors to "conscientious objectors" and the merely curious. I would classify myself as somewhere between the latter two.

The discussions I've had with them have been challenging, thought provoking, and sometimes educational. While I am not personally on board with most of the tea party's views, I admit I have found more common ground with them than I would have expected, and I have had to reexamine my own beliefs (always a good thing to do from time to time anyway) in light of their surprisingly nuanced and textually-supported arguments. It's a discussion worth having for those with the time and interest, and perhaps the courage, to do so.

For the sake of providing a very brief overview, the most fundamental belief of the tea party is that the federal government has expanded in size, power, and scope beyond what is outlined in the Constitution and what was intended by the Founding Fathers (both of which they allow little room for interpretation). They seek to shift the balance of political power back toward the states and local governments in order to reduce federal spending and taxation to a minimum. Economic regulation would be rolled back in favor of a very free market, and entitlement and safety net programs like unemployment benefits, social security, and the new health care reforms would be cut or heavily restricted. The tea partiers stress the importance of personal responsibility on the part of those who have become accustomed to accepting unlimited government support at the expense of taxpayers, and of charity on the part of citizens who can afford to help their neighbor of their own free will, rather than through federal decree.

Unfortunately it's about at this point that the rhetoric of those supporting and opposing this political view takes a turn for the worse. Words like "tyranny" and "socialism" are lobbed by one side, and charges of racism and ignorance are cast by the other. Such arguments are cynical, close-minded, and often intellectually dishonest.

That's not to say that honest and civil discourse will lead to agreement. I still have plenty of questions and concerns for the tea party. They sometimes lean too uncritically on the Founding Fathers, treading close to the fallacy of appeal to authority and dodging a more complex discussion on the history of judicial review and the events that precipitated 20th century progressive reforms. Their frequent mention of the need for "personal responsibility" usually ends up sounding like a euphemism for a callous disregard of the systemic inequities faced by the poor (who are disproportionately minorities), and unfortunately both sides poison this important topic of debate by bringing in the charged and incorrect term "racism."

Others within the group hold more extreme views, such as that only citizens who pay federal income taxes should be allowed to vote, or that the Census, beyond a simple headcount, is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy. And of course there are the notorious "birthers," whose views, in reality, have nothing to do with the tea party.

It is unfortunate that most media coverage has focused on such outliers at the expense of investigating, elucidating, and challenging the fundamental views and values of the movement as a whole. While perhaps not as good for exciting television, it would be a far more interesting debate. For now it appears to be one that is up to us to pursue on our own.

Read other article by Scott Zuke