Last month, during a forum for the unemployed in her home state, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said, “the Tea Party can go straight to hell,” adding, “And I intend to help them get there.”
And just last month at a Democratic caucus meeting, Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) referred to Tea Party Republicans as “terrorists.”
Most disturbingly, Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.), at a recent Congressional Black Caucus event in Miami, said, “Some of them in Congress right now of this Tea Party movement would love to see you and meâ€¦hanging on a tree.”
With elected officials ascribing such evil intentions and hurling such volatile invective at fellow politicians who are associated with the Tea Party, as well as at the constituents who sent them to Washington, one would imagine that the Tea Party was advocating something truly sinister.
In our own community, there are many murmurings of concern about Tea Party activists: that they are generally racist or specifically anti-Semitic.
Regardless of how one views the issues surrounding fiscal conservatism, there can be no doubt that activists in the Tea Party movement have raised our awareness of these issues in a way other politicians have failed to do. Whether that is a good thing for America is a discussion for another time. The issue here is the often inflammatory rhetoric to which the movement is constantly subjected.
Christopher Cochran, a founding member of the Tea Party movement in Western Pennsylvania (and my brother-in-law), when asked recently if he had ever encountered any anti-Semitism or racism among the members he knows, said that he never did.
“Never did I see anything like thatâ€¦,” he said. “The people I’ve known in the [Tea] Party don’t have any of those feelings and if anybody would [voice something like that] – whether it was racist or anti-Semitic or putting down women – that would not be tolerated.”
The Tea Party, he said, is a grassroots movement with “no one leader. But they police themselves very well. Anyone who gets out of line gets thrown out” by local leadership.
While every movement has its kooks, regarding the movement in general, we are inclined to believe Mr. Cochran, and not just because he is our relative (and a stand-up guy).
After all, given the need to feed the 24-hour news machine, if there were systemic or widespread expressions of racism or anti-Semitism at these rallies, would we not have seen it reported? Similarly, if this was a movement whose members were generally prone to violence (given that hundreds of thousands of Tea Party activists have gathered at rallies for several years now) would we not have seen reports of such violence?
Clearly, then, at essence, the Tea Party is a peaceful movement composed of Americans exercising their First Amendment rights. We may not agree with everything that its members say. We should, however, defend their right to say it â€“ not threaten them with “hell.”
And what do they believe anyway?
The Tea Party movement’s main website contains its mission statement: “Our mission is to attract, educate, organize, and mobilize our fellow citizens to secure public policy consistent with our three core values of Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government and Free Markets.” A perusal of the site yields no sinister references to “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” or rants by Henry Ford. Its message seems quite straightforward, simple, and devoid of invective (which, again, is more than can be said of some of its detractors’ sentiments). Cochran puts that message plainly: “The platform is simple. It’s about policy – lower taxes and smaller government.”
In recent months, we have seen violent protests in places like England and Greece. In contrast, the Tea Party looks pretty civilized.
The contrast extends beyond behavioral differences, however. The Tea Partiers’ message is opposite that of the European protestors’. The Europeans are rioting to protest government cutbacks (or because they want even more government assistance). The Tea Party protestors seek lower taxes – and smaller government. The Tea Party, it would seem, reflects a healthy impulse toward self-reliance and against the kind of over-dependency that has infantilized much of Europe, as well as against individuality-suffocating bureaucracy.
Perhaps what is needed now is a leader who can unite the best elements of right and left in this country – the need for government to do well what it can and must, and the need for greater fiscal and personal responsibility.
Historically, in times of economic downturn and polarization, such figures have emerged. Ronald Reagan brought Democrats on board in 1980; and during his presidency, Bill Clinton incorporated some of the best ideas from both parties to the benefit of the economy.
At any rate, when we descend into invective and fear-mongering, we lose even more than civility: We lose the potential for solutions.