I didn’t set out to write a partisan attack on a group of people. As I walked to downtown Georgetown (so no one would see the “Bill White for Texas” bumper sticker prominently displayed on my car) I was genuinely interested in seeing a Tea Party rally firsthand. I’ve seen the footage from the main-stream media that focused on bigots and idiots at rallies, but I’ve always hoped that this wasn’t the vast majority of tea-partiers. After spending two hours in the on-again off-again rain with the tea-partiers, I’ve reached a very saddening conclusion: anger and fear have replaced intelligent discourse in America. Maybe uncivil and threatening communication has always been the norm in this country, but after seeing the Tea Party firsthand, I have to agree with them on one point: “America is headed down the wrong path,” but it’s not the path of radical socialism. If we continue on our current trend, rational discourse will soon be a thing of the past. One of the many speakers lamented the fact that the Tea Parties have been characterized as a group of “dumb, racist homophobes.” While the members I interviewed were not blatantly dumb, racist, or homophobic, there were many things they said that skirted dangerously close to crossing the line.
For starters, I wouldn’t necessarily call the tea partiers dumb, but I would call them horribly misinformed. I created an informal survey and posed three questions to various people at the rally. Their answers didn’t inspire confidence. The first question was “Compared to other nations, do you think that the US has a low tax rate, average tax rate, or a high tax rate?” 25% of respondents accurately said that the United States has a lower tax rate compared to other countries. Another 12% said that the US has an average tax rate while 63% said that America has a high tax rate compared to other countries. The tea partiers did a much better job answering the second question which asked them to identify Texas’ tax rate compared to other states. 88% correctly said that Texas has a lower tax rate compared to other states. The remaining 12% thought it was either average or above-average. The final question threw them for a loop. “Since President Obama has been in office, do you think that taxes have been lowered, have stayed the same, or have been raised?” A whopping 81% thought that Obama raised taxes. This follows a national trend. I don’t want to judge an entire group of people based on informal survey results, but the speakers at the rally continued to bring up the oppressive taxes. Official polling data does indicate that large groups of people still incorrectly believe that President Obama has raised taxes and I saw that the tea partiers loved to cheer and jeer at any mention of taxes. I can’t call them dumb, but they certainly don’t inspire any sort of confidence in me.
The tea partiers also weren’t racist…at least on the surface. Instead, I’d characterize them as ignorant. Stopping illegal immigration was an important topic of discussion for the tea-partiers. Racism didn’t appear to take a major role at the rally, but under the surface things were murky. There were loud cheers for the volunteers who patrolled our southern border. While I expected that there would be support for these militias, I was taken-aback by the thunderous applause when one of the speakers valiantly proclaimed that the State language should be English. A sentence that caught me off guard was when a speaker launched into an attack on President Obama’s character. He asked the crowd if they thought Obama measured up to President Washington. After an overwhelming “no,” he asked “Can you imagine Obama rowing across the Delaware?” Clearly had Obama been alive back-then, he most likely wouldn’t have been one of the people to row across the Delaware because most likely would have been a slave. This directly lead to a discussion about how the United States was conceived on freedom and how we don’t have that freedom anymore. Yes, America was founded on freedom, but if you asked anyone who wasn’t a white-male who owned property they’d tell you a different story. Even scarier was the speaker’s defiant ending when he bravely proclaimed that the 14th Amendment should be repealed. Overtly racist? No. Dangerously close to the line? Yes.
Homophobia was a little harder to see. Homosexuality was only mentioned by one speaker during her speech about rampant liberalism in Texas’ schools. She was very coy over the upcoming “national day of silence for gay-rights” that would occur in schools. The speaker said she doesn’t support bullying, but she was less enthusiastic about the silence of students when they “should be talking and learning.” Based on her earlier statements about abortion, I find it hard to believe that she’d have a problem with a national day of silence if it were for abortion. Based on this one event I can’t judge.
There were other things that bothered me about the rally. One speaker looked-out at the crowd and said that he saw “every American.” Last I checked, “every American” isn’t over 45 and white. To be fair, I did spot two Hispanics in the crowd. However, I could see no other minorities present. The opening speaker started with a pledge to the flag and commented that the tea-party is different from “lefty loony flag-burners.” In fact, the theme of patriotism was prevalent through the entire rally. The tea partiers were constantly called “patriotic Americans” or “brave patriots.” It was as-if you couldn’t be American without being a member of the tea-party. One speaker even introduced herself as “an unapologetic American citizen.” I have no issues in having ideological differences with people, but no ideology has a monopoly in being a true patriot. One of my very favorite clips from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart tackles the issues of patriotism and ideology.
One speaker in particular stood-out to me. She very well could have been a Sarah Palin impersonator, but she wasn’t. She just happened to dress like her, share the same policy views, and talk like her. From the glasses to the “you betcha,” she caught my attention. One claim she made was that the Republican Party has always been the party of equality, from freeing the slaves to giving women the right to vote. Armed with the knowledge that President Johnson (a Democrat) helped to create the Great Society and President Wilson (another Democrat) was President when women’s suffrage was achieved, I confronted Sarah Palin 2.0. I was genuinely impressed; she said that while Johnson and Wilson were Democrats, Congress had vast Republican majorities during the time they were in office. I conceded that I hadn’t thought of that and thanked her for bringing up an interesting point. After some fact-checking, I’ve re-evaluated her claims. President Lincoln and a Republican Congress freed the slaves. Palin 2.0: one, Ethan: zero. The Congress that approved the 19th Amendment (granting women the right to vote) did indeed have a Republican majority, but congress failed to have the votes to pass it until President Wilson called a special session and pleaded for Congress to approve the legislation. We’ll call this one a tie. Palin 2.0: one-and-a-half, Ethan: one-half. Unfortunately for Palin 2.0, LBJ had a large Democratic majority in Congress to approve his bills. Palin 2.0: one-and-a-half, Ethan: one-and-a-half. Not too shabby.
Until my confrontation with Palin 2.0, I made sure to blend in with the crowd. I stayed put when a group of Southwestern students came to counter-protest. As the tea partiers reacted it became clear they were reacting less to the presence of a counter-protest, but to the fact that they were college students. One man loudly asked “You think they’ve ever had a job?” The hostility didn’t end when the counter-protesters went home. Upon introducing myself as a Southwestern student, one person said, “I’m sorry.” I was completely taken aback but kept my composure. He went on to talk about how he would “hate to be my age in this era.” When framed as a generational issue, the Tea Party makes a little more sense to me. The largely over 40 crowd isn’t taking kindly to the changes they are seeing in society. Obama won 2/3rds of the youth vote, young people are more likely to support same-sex marriage, and our numbers continue to grow. Demographics are not in the Tea Party’s favor. As more young people hit 18 years of age, it’s clear to see who will have the advantage in a decade.
Everyone has a right to their own opinions, but no one has a right to their own facts. The tea partiers truly believe that our president is a Socialist bent on creating some-sort of utopia where everyone is equally miserable. How this differs from the Tea Party’s own vision of an America where everyone speaks English and no one is gay is beyond me. I left the rally feeling depressed. These were genuinely good people who just happened to listen to a little too much Glenn Beck. In the end, I’m not discouraged. Even if my candidates lose in 2010, that won’t stop me from voting again in 2012. My persistence in voting for what I believe is my way of fighting back. Those of us who once were marginalized are now demanding our rights and creating thoughtful change. This is a new America, and try as they may, the Tea Partiers will not be successful in returning this country to a time when only white Christian males were the only ones with power.