Your letter begins with a common Tea Party refrain: “I am willing to bet (and I am not a betting person) that Jerry Eagan and other doubters of Tea Party goals and desires have never attended a meeting.” The assumption is that attendance at a Tea Party meeting would persuade doubters about something or other, it is hard to tell what. Sorry, Gen, but you would lose your bet; to know you—I speak, of course, of your party, not you—is not to love you.
(Let me digress on one point. If you claim “we [Tea Party members] have the same desires as most Americans do,” then you would not differ from the American majority who elected a Democratic president three years ago. But your claim is false; you do not have the same desires. Most Americans desire democracy to prevail through a process of discussion and debate, including respectful disagreement with opponents. Many on the Right, especially most Tea Party members, prefer the political rhetoric of disrespect and demonization; labeling the majority-elected president a “Liberal/Progressive/Socialist,” as you do is typical. Most Americans do not approve of the tactics of derogation and division, threats of armed resistance, or talk of possible secession (from the governor of a state which once did attempt to secede). So they are not going to find attendance at Tea Party meetings comforting or appealing.)
Now for the really bad news. Debbie White, to whom I gave some encouragement in her failed run for office and some advice on educational issues, invited me to attend one of your recent meetings. I did so, but I went unnoticed, so no one was on their good (or bad) behavior on my account. But for one excision, I copy the 9 August email which I sent to Debbie the next day.
If I had not left town for a rare weekend away with my wife, I would have written sooner to thank you for inviting me to the meeting of the local Tea Party.
One benefit is that you have given me cover from the criticism that I have never been to a Tea Party meeting. Apparently, the critics believe that if I just knew some party members, I would find them warm, fuzzy people—a fact which would change my mind about its positions, etc. I keep it a secret that I know the chapter president and offered her educational advice and moral support during her campaign for office—a fact which might make your life more complicated!
The meeting itself was like most chapter meetings of advocacy organizations—mostly boring…. The demographics confirmed what I knew generally; of the 45 or so people, all but about nine seemed over 60, and all but two or three seemed to be white. I do credit the interest in getting more young people involved and your personal welcome to the young Hispanic man there. Though the demographics are typical of the national profile, they seem more skewed in a city and country lop-sidedly young and Hispanic.
As for the discussions, I thought that you ran a good meeting and your secretary—did I understand correctly that she is a candidate for city councilor for District 1 (mine)?—was right on top of things. Some of the exchanges between members and some speeches by one member showed a surplus of anger or irritability which, I think, many people associate with the Tea Party. I was surprised to hear Jim Harbison associate the origins of the EPA with Agenda 21, since the EPA was a 1970 creation of the conservative Republican administration of Richard Nixon, and disappointed that a membership old enough to know better apparently did not or preferred not to correct the error.
Which brings me to a related point. You well know that I am a severe critic of Tea Party positions or members’ opinions. (But give me credit for being an equal opportunity critic; I have been a severe critic, one of the first and fiercest, of President Obama and, it turns out, right from the start). I am not surprised that local members are angered by my criticism and talk back. But, as one who believes in, and tries to practice, respect and honest rhetoric in the exchange of views, I am dismayed by what passes for responses to my criticisms. Indeed, I think that there must be a Tea Party playbook for responding to critics, with four major steps:
1. Use labels and call names to denigrate or demonize the critic.
2. Misrepresent the critic’s positions.
3. Impute unworthy positions to the critic.
4. Ignore the criticisms addressed by the critic.
A recent letter, in disregard of the fact, falsely labeled me a Democrat. It claimed that I “castigated” a Tea Party member without even stating my reasons for my criticism: manipulation of the Constitutional text to make an argument—an evasion which I see as, one, indifference to dishonesty and, two, an ends-justifies-the-means principle. Other recent letters from Tea Party members are of the same kind and character.
I can take of myself, of course, and I often respond. But I would like to see the Tea Party take a reasonable and responsible approach to engagement with its critics. After all, if its positions are sensible, members should be able to advance them on their merits or rebut criticisms as stated; they certainly cannot advance their positions by personal attacks on those who disagree with them. Indeed, after a while, people realize that Tea Party attacks on critics are actually a sign of weakness, not strength.
I am reminded of another radically angry group from my youth, the Black Muslims. In my experience with the few whom I knew, members conducted themselves with dignity and discipline in their exchanges with whites, whatever their feelings toward them. In my much broader experience with other blacks, many of whom were also angry, I noted the same personal deportment. I could talk with them, they could talk with me, and the exchanges, however heated by disagreement, were never ugly or unpleasant on either side. Of course, the Black Muslims did not prevail in the discussion of civil rights, but, despite white fear and loathing, they made a positive contribution to the general discussion and played a constructive role in black communities.
I offer these impressions and suggestions—think of them as constituting an outside audit—for whatever worth they may be to you as the president of the local Tea Party.
Thanks again for inviting me. I do not promise, but I may, drop in again.
I omitted from this letter some other details worth mentioning here. Jim Harbison’s calling the mayor “stupid,” even though Harbison claimed it was not behind-the-back bravado, was more of the typical Tea Party name-calling indicating attitudes towards those who disagree. His talk about the UN’s Agenda 21, with unquestioned agreement by members, reflects the same sort of unfounded fears about one-world government which go back to the 1940s and the founding of the UN.
There you have it: a visit by someone who had not previously attended a Tea Party meeting, who attended, and who escaped unscathed—and no differently disposed toward it or its members. If you want to understand why the Tea Party is losing public approval and credibility, you might want to re-read what I have written. Its fate is to become a cranky political cult inveighing against democracy as we have known it in its challenging imperfections and its lofty aspirations of “liberty and justice for all.”