A study of signs held at a recent Tea Party rally show that 5% mentioned President Obama’s religion or race. Instead, the vast portion of the signs argued for limited government, lower taxes, or attacked President Obama in his official capacity as Chief Executive.
This information is important due to the fact that a full 25% of media coverage of these events focused on the supposed racist element of the Tea Party. I think such a characterization of this loosely collected group is unfair and unfounded. Having a few people in a group so large act in irresponsible ways does not define a group. Or if it should then there are a number of organizations that could use a thorough re-evaluation. In watching plenty of CSPAN (I defend it as research for political science though it is really something I strangely like), I’ve found the Tea Party to be a mixed bag. I think it was imprudent to drive certain candidates out at the primaries who could have won their races and instead having duds with little chance of victory. I’m also Presbyterian, and therefore don’t like yelling and large displays of emotion. Cool, calm, predominately cerebral for me.
But those who look down on the Tea Party for its supposed stupidity, its passion in general (or just its anger in particular) need to be careful. We are not a nation of academics. We are not peopled by administrators, professors, and policy wonks. If we want only such persons to rule or at least to choose rulers, then we need to dispense with a republican form of government. But if we are to embrace representative government, then we must take with it the popular passions that will ensue. People will get angry over what they don’t like. They might not even have every “i” dotted or every “t” crossed in their facts. They might not be eloquent or even always reasonable. But I still believe in the human capacity to govern oneself and do so in part by means of representative government. I still believe in the basic, common grace good sense of the American people. They are not perfect. They make mistakes. But they have basic conceptions of human equality, responsibility, and liberty that when called upon to defend, they will.
Popular movements, Left and Right, do more good than bad. For they call on persons not constantly glued to the pages of the Wall Street Journal or New York Times to consider who they are as American citizens and what they should do in that role. The option for most people is not between citing scholarly articles and screaming at Town Hall meetings. They will either be in it with their hearts or pay no attention at all. At least if they are in it, their passions can be tempered and moderated toward more prudent and civil discourse. That, in fact, is one thing political discussions at election time should help to teach. I would take the passion over the lethargy anytime.
Whether we believe the Tea Party to be one of America’s mistakes or one of its good moments, let us not resort to criticizing in ways 1) we wouldn’t hold up to other groups and 2) that build such criticism on a disdainful look at human beings in general. In doing so, we might help to address not just the problem of mean-spirited politics, but the apathy that is even more dangerous.