The socio-political monster that is the Tea Party/Sarah Palin/Christianist movement must first rise for it to be slain. The result will be a more vibrant, constructive and civil political environment. But at what cost? If the last two weeks are a precursor of what is to come, it won't be pretty.
In February of this year we argued that the rise of Sarah Palin as a political figure in the U.S. would, ultimately, be good for the GOP, the Dems and America as a whole. [Read the article here.] Briefly, we believe Palin (and with her the Tea Partiers and Christianists) have placed the GOP in a position where it is splitting along ideological lines. The rift has been visible just beneath the surface since Sen. Barry Goldwater's (R-AZ) 1964 Presidential Campaign. The 1980's saw Ronald Reagan's hired gun, Lee Atwater, mobilize the "Christian Conservative" movement into a powerful base of the Republican Party. Atwater's protoge, Karl Rove, did the same for Pres. George W. Bush. In the meantime, the conservative-right has moved from being a reliable and effective grassroots supporter of the GOP to outright challengers to the leadership of the party. When John McCain ushered Sarah Palin onto the national political scene eighteen months ago, she captured the imagination of the far right as no one else in the past decade. Which was just what McCain had hoped she would do for his lackluster campaign. What he hadn't fully taken into account was the push-back from the moderates of the GOP and independent voters. In the end, Obama won the election with most of the independent vote as well as a modest, yet notable, percentage of moderate Republicans.
Jump ahead to 2010 and the Tea Party movement. The midterm elections are around the corner and the Charlie Crist/Marc Rubio Senate campaign in Florida shows what we can expect from the GOP. A big, vocal, ugly split. Charismatic young Rubio has the Tea Partiers/Palin folks sewn up. Gov. Crist has the support of the GOP establishment and the moderates along with some independents. This results of this race, the other primaries and the midterm general elections will be a precursor to what the next Presidential election in 2012 looks like.
It is most likely the Democrats will lose seats but keep the majority in both houses of Congress in 2010. The Tea Party/Palin/Christianists (TPPC) and the moderates will both claim some victories and suffer some defeats. As a result, the direction of the GOP will not be decided in the mid-terms and the struggle for dominance will boil over into the 2012 elections, culminating most visibly in the 2012 Republican National Convention.
This will do one or both of two things. The GOP traditionalists will win out and reestablish the party's fiscally conservative/socially moderate roots while reaching out to independents as the party with the "big tent." This could also mean the rise of a third party political force made up of the purged and disgruntled TPPC. Or, less likely, the vocal right wing of the GOP, bolstered by wins in the mid-terms and meeting with tepid or ineffective resistance from Republican leadership, will gain control of the party, perhaps even with Ms. Palin at the top of the ticket. Here, again, the possibility of the third party emerges with a candidate along the lines of Christine Todd Whitman, Colin Powell or Bill Weld.
How is this good? Because a healthy political system partially depends on a vibrant opposition. Look at the healthcare debate as a case in point. The GOP is still in a shambles following the 2010 election. The was very little constructive debate and negotiation between parties. With little exception, the GOP offered no proposals of their own and only a few Republican members became part of the process and suffered backlash for doing so. As a result, they are heading into the election cycle having to overcome their image as obstructionists. A robust GOP would have had plenty of political cover and wherewithall to develop and negotiate its own healthcare policy measures and temper those democrat proposals they deemed excessive. The Democrats, meanwhile, facing only the strategy of "No" were not put into a position where they had to unite, focus and fight for a cohesive policy. Instead, they split into factions and fought amongst each other, House against Senate, with the President staying above the fray without employing leadership to the cause of either faction. The result? A watered-down, middle of the road health care bill that, while making some significant headway, fell far below the expectations of just over a year ago when the new government was swept in with huge margins under a now less prescient banner of "Hope" and "Change."
Ultimately, the GOP is already heading into an identity crisis and the TPPC are accelerating that process. That is a good thing. The sooner the Dems have an opposition that relies more on constructive ideas, accountability and mutual respect than fear, misinformation and obstruction, the better.
The more timely question, given the events of the past two weeks, is what will be the cost of this process. While often characterized as such by the left, the TPPC's are neither wholly insane or racist (though arguably some of the former and much of the latter may be found). What may be said of those in the movement as a whole is that they share significant frustration, are motivated by deep-seated beliefs and are nearly entirely misinformed. This is not just a matter of believing false or misleading information from talk radio, the internet, Fox News or one another. It is also a matter of gravitating towards and accepting as legitimate information and ideas that reflect deep seated beliefs, fears and prejudices. This phenomena, known as cultural cognition, makes beliefs specifically and perspective of reality in general impervious to fact or reason. Topical examples abound. Climate change, for instance, is accepted as fact by nearly every element of the scientific community. Yet, there are those who wholeheartedly believe otherwise. The so-called "Birthers" believe Barak Obama is not a U.S. citizen. There are those who believe homosexuality is a choice made by the individual rather than the natural development of an individual's biology as shown in every major study on the issue. And there are those, as we covered in previous articles, who would claim America was founded as and intended to be a uniquely "Christian nation" despite the overwhelming contradiction of the U.S. historian community. In each of these instances, there are two clear factors. The belief in question is met with an irrefutable body of evidence to the contrary while it simultaneously reflects the cultural beliefs and perspective of the individual.
Cultural Cognition on display at McCain/Pain '08 rally.
Tea Party Convention, 2/10, Sarah Palin, Orly Taitz, and interviews with participants.
This is where things start to get sticky. Once one removes reason from the situation, you are essentially left with crowd control. Trying to limit the damage made by those who see themselves as leading a modern revolution. The crowd control around the Capitol earlier this month was not enough to restrain Tea Party protesters from shouting obscene language, racial and sexual slurs, and even spitting on a Member of Congress. This while other Members like Michelle Bachman stood on a Capitol balcony cheering and rallying for the protesters.
Rep. Bachman (R-MN) and fellow GOP members cheer on Tea Party health care protest.
Examples of racism at Tea Party demonstrations.
Politicians and political figures have taken to fanning the flames of the TPPC crowd to further their own political objectives. Witness the Sarah Palin poster of her "targeted" politicians, each with a gun sight symbol while encouraging her supporters to "reload." As the fears and prejudices of the TPPC are being exploited we hear of a brick through the window of Rep. Louise Slaughter's office in upstate New York. A coffin placed in front of Rep. Russ Carnahan's home in Missouri. A gas line cut at the home of the brother of Rep. Tom Periello in Virginia after the his home address was mistakingly posted as the Congressman's by Tea Party activists who encouraged others to "stop by." Earlier in the year we saw a man attack guards at the Pentagon and another fly a plane into an IRS building. Just today, nine men from a Michigan-based, Christianist Militia have been arrested and charged with planning to kill a police officer and bomb the funeral procession in an effort to spark a national uprising against the U.S. Government.
What does it take to get a highly motivated individual to move from the threat of violence to carrying out an act of violence? Seemingly, too little. And we are likely to have ample instances to inform an answer as long as there are those who continue to encourage such behavior directly or indirectly.
It will be a while before the TPPC begins to fade as it has yet to reach its apex. In the meantime, politicians and public figures who do not publicly and vociferously condemn the violence and threat of violence and, instead, fan the flames of this jingoistic, racist and fear-based anger do so at their peril. And our peril, as well.
For more on Tea Party rage, see Frank Rich opinion piece in NYT 3/27 here.
To learn more about "cultural cognition" go here.