I don’t think Tea Partiers are icky, and neither do lots of their critics. If I have time, I clarify that many of the people I respect most in the world, including members of my own family from multiple generations, are Tea Party supporters. Some have even attended Tea Party rallies. I note that I don’t, in fact, live on the East Coast*, that I am as bothered as they are at establishment assumptions about what constitutes seriousness in American politics, and that I would love nothing more than a reformed, improved Tea Party that successfully advanced liberty, free markets, and a sustainable safety net.
But sometimes I find the exquisite sensitivity of these Tea Party correspondents exhausting. I tire of engaging with people who present themselves as my put-upon victims, wronged by prejudices I do not harbor, especially if they start quoting Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh, which makes me suspect that projection is a factor. That is to say, they harbor general disdain for broad categories of cultural or ideological adversaries—liberals, atheists, community organizers, academics, public employees, journalists—and presume that anyone arguing with them must harbor a similar disdain in their political disagreements.
Yes, some people criticize Tea Partiers out of cultural prejudice. Get over it. There is plenty of criticism grounded in honestly-held disagreements too.
That’s what I’ve come to see as a defining characteristic not only of many Tea Partiers, but of many Republicans: an intense personalization of politics, such that it makes it impossible to disagree in good faith with them. They can be such drama queens, believing emotively that feeling something must be true makes it true — something that renders it impervious to criticism, because you can’t criticize somebody’s feelings — and assuming that all opposition, even mere disagreement, comes from personal animus.
It’s the right-wing political equivalent of the black liberal who assumes any non-black person who disagrees with him must be doing so because he’s a racist. Or the gay person who chalks up any disagreement to one’s “homophobia.” Or the Muslim who answers criticism with, “You’re an Islamophobe!” I’ve had to deal with all three over the course of my career. What you realize in short order is that this is not just a cheap rhetorical tactic; your opponents more often than not really do believe that the only reason you don’t see things that way is because of your own bigotry, or some other form of moral failure. These are all just politicized, or culturally politicized, forms of the eternal whine of the teenager whose parents won’t let her get her way: “You hate me! You hate me!”
Yes, sometimes your opponents do hate you. That happens. But sometimes they just disagree with you. Maybe they even share your moral or political convictions, but they think your strategy was really wrong-headed. Pete Wehner spoke to this point yesterday:
Every conservative I know wants the Affordable Care Act undone; the question has always been how best to do that, and how best to mitigate the damage and strengthen the conservative cause given the political alignment that exists.
But if you personalize and moralize politics, turning even debates on strategy and tactics into purity tests, you will render yourself ineffective. Jonathan Tobin draws this point out:
The GOP can’t just move on, as Bill Clinton’s supporters used to say about his misdeeds, in the wake of the shutdown. It must assess what just happened and sort out who was right and who was wrong. Doing so isn’t merely sour grapes or recriminations. It’s a necessary post-mortem on a disaster that must be conducted. That’s why it’s vital that the accusations that the Republicans’ humiliating surrender to President Obama was somehow the fault of those who were skeptical of the shutdown tactic is so pernicious. If the lesson that many in the GOP base draw from these events is that they need to listen and obey Senator Ted Cruz, they are not only fated to undergo more such catastrophes in the future; they are ensuring that the Democrats will be running Washington for the foreseeable future.
But in the aftermath of the disaster, Cruz and some of the conservative talking heads on radio and TV who urged Republicans to go down this path are not taking responsibility for their mistake. Instead, they are blaming the surrender on other conservatives, especially Senate Republicans, for not blindly following Cruz. Others even insist that the GOP should have continued to hold out in the hope that the Democrats would crack, even if that meant extending the shutdown and even brushing up against the danger of a default.
To put it mildly, this is bunk.
Consider the gay marriage movement. Every time one of the gay marriage initiatives went down at the state level — and it happened constantly in the first decade of this century — there would be caterwauling on the pro-gay left about what a hateful, Bible-thumping, bigoted country this is. The movement’s strategists might have thought that, but they didn’t act on it. What they did was keep pushing, methodically and without let-up, to achieve their goal. They played the long game. And now, they’re winning, and have probably won all the big, important battles.
The lesson for Tea Partiers is this: Emotions are a very poor guide to political reality. It feels good to blame others for your failure, but continuing to indulge in that kind of self-righteous thinking — a kind of thinking most Tea Partiers have no trouble seeing when it manifests in the Left’s official Victim classes — you assure your future failure because you will not have dispassionately analyzed the faults within yourself that led you to fail. This Limbaugh talk is as poisonous to you as Al Sharpton’s rhetoric is to black people. It’s based in emotion, not reality, and it exploits your (often legitimate) sense of grievance.
I have my own conservative beliefs, and I have my own strongly held views about who in our political life is prejudiced against whom. But you know, I would much rather have politicians represent me who were good at making the things I want to see happen happen than people who say the right things, the kinds of things that get me riled up, but whose passion unrestrained by prudence renders them less effective in the real world.