A Real Tea (Pity) Party

The media’s self-hatred is on full display with its sympathetic Tea Party coverage, writes Eric Alterman.

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Tea Party supporters at a tax day rally in Anchorage, Alaska, on April 15, 2010. If the media is out to get the Tea Party they are sure being kind about it. (AP/Rachel D'Oro)
Tea Party supporters at a tax day rally in Anchorage, Alaska, on April 15, 2010. If the media is out to get the Tea Party they are sure being kind about it. (AP/Rachel D'Oro)

In its apparently endless quest to assuage the sensitive feelings of all the victimized right-wingers in America one day at a time, The Washington Post published Steve Hendrix’s sob story of the pain and suffering experienced by Washington’s “tea party residents” who live in a city where “home can at times feel like enemy territory.”

How bad is it? Well, a man at another table in a coffee shop said “sorry” and walked away from one guy. And another one had to experience the pain of being asked whether “your boyfriend listens to Glenn Beck.” Apparently, the notion that self-proclaimed “tea party patriots” listen to Glenn Beck is the kind of thing one hears “in the left-wing news media … they don’t know any real tea party people.” No wonder Tea Party member Brian says, “I fear for my country." He is, after all, “just more tolerant than they are."

I admit it’s no picnic calling oneself a “tea party” member. After all, how do you claim you are not part of a “corrupt” political system when, as Stephanie Mencimer writing in Mother Jones notes, “the group’s leaders have cozied up to political insiders implicated in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and have paid themselves significant salaries”?

Tea Party patriots accepted the use of a private jet and a large donation of anonymous cash right before a key election, and its top officials have refused to discuss how the money was spent. And recently, the group has hired several big-time fundraising and public relations firms that work for the who’s who of the Republican political class, including some of the GOP’s most secretive campaign operations.

How much fun would it be to admit membership in an organization whose members do not appear to know the first thing about the Constitution they profess to honor and revere? Remember, Tea Party honchos picked Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) to respond to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address despite her apparent belief that “the very founders that wrote those documents [the U.S. Constitution] worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States." (On the morning I am typing this, George Stephanopoulos is playing straight man to Ms. Bachmann on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” inviting her to spout her nonsense without correction or even much interference and inquiring, touchingly, whether she’s a fan of Lady Gaga, whose visit everyone at the program is “excited” about this morning.)

Moreover, as University of Minnesota Law Professor David Schultz, writing in Salon, notes, it is extremely unlikely that the Tea Party types would like to live in a country that returned to the constitutional order as planned.

Even if we grant them all of the amendments—quite a grant since their leaders and spokespeople often speak as if they do not exist—I wonder how many would like to live in a country where people have no right to pick their president. Or where the courts have no right to decide whether the laws passed by Congress have any basis in law. (Aren’t these Tea Party types the same folks who are cheering the court cases being brought to try to overturn what they like to call “Obamacare”? If I’m not mistaken, the federal judge who tried to do this signaled that he, too, was a Tea Party type. Contradiction? Nah.)

And how would you like to go around, in front of sane people, defending all those Tea Party-type lawmakers in 10 or more states who are openly allying themselves with the nutty “birther” movement? Would you really wish to have a guy like Texas GOP State Rep. Leo Berman, who says he doesn’t know whether Obama is “a citizen or not” and is trying to legislate an answer to his own ignorance in the Texas legislature? “My colleagues love it,” he said, adding that his bill will “pass overwhelmingly in the House.”

Tea Party types have been so effective in this campaign of willful stupidity that they have apparently convinced the two top members of the Republican majority, Reps. John Boehner and Eric Cantor in the House of Representatives, that their ignorance demands respect—see here and here and here—or at least shutting up rather than hurting these morons’ feelings.

Again, let us take a moment to feel sorry for those politicians, who, like Reps. Boehner and Cantor, must act as if they, too, are proud to be dumb. After all, when you are leading a party where literally a majority of your supporters lives in a fantasyland regarding the legitimacy of their own president, it can be hard to speak to the issues and make sense at the same time. Look, for instance, at poor Haley Barbour, who cannot even bring himself to say a bad word about the racist/terrorist Ku Klux Klan.

Reps. Cantor and Boehner say they are not in the business of “telling people what to think.” Barbour says he does not “go around denouncing people.” If that’s really the case, perhaps Osama bin Laden might wish to join up as well, since the tolerance of these guys is apparently limitless.

It’s this kind of behavior that lead John Quiggin to introduce the notion of “agnotology,” or the study of “culturally induced ignorance or doubt,” into American politics, where, sadly, it has become as much the rule as the exception of late almost regardless of the issue.

Of course that’s not all. Some Tea Party types think we should get rid of child labor laws. Rand Paul, their darling of the last election cycle, thinks we ought to end “welfare” to Israel.

It’s amazing, really, that a group of people with so obviously outlandish and self-discrediting views could receive so much attention from the national media, whose members should know better. But the self-hatred of the press is so powerful these days that to denounce the media is to win their collective hearts—or at least their sincere, respectful coverage.

When, according to one Tea Party consultant writing in Playboy, the right-wing provocateur Andrew Breitbart “gestured to the print reporters at a Tea Party event in Nashville and said, ‘It’s not your business model that sucks; it’s you that sucks,’ he whipped Tea Party members into a frenzy unlike anything I’d ever seen.” And yet if there is one Tea Party type who has driven mainstream coverage more effectively than Breitbart in recent times—see, for instance, here and here and here—he or she has yet to reveal themselves to us mere mortals.

In any case, this same anonymous consultant, who says he “love[s] the irony of helping run this organization from the St. Regis Bar,” also says the media are out to get Tea Party members. If that’s the case, the plan must be to kill them with kindness.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, Moment, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama.

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Eric Alterman

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