Elitists must swallow Tea

The Tea Partiers have spooked the political establishment. Many Washington insiders who cling to their faith in democracy while deathly afraid that people unlike themselves might actually get involved in politics are busy assuring each other at cocktail parties and on Sunday talk shows that the newly involved will lose interest before the next election. Or, better yet, they might turn on the Republicans who have thus far been the beneficiaries of their numbers and energy. The phenomenon began with last year’s town hall meetings. Hundreds and then thousands of people showed up at congressional town halls traditionally attended by a few dozen voters. Worse, attendees began asking questions.

Congressional leaders at first dismissed the turnout as a reflection of the lobbying prowess of special interests opposed to the president’s enlightened policies rather than popular concern over the direction he’s taking the country. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) rather famously told her colleagues that the town halls represented not the grass roots, but the grass tops, and could therefore be ignored safely.

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Then came the Tea Parties. They drew not dozens or hundreds but tens of thousands of people in virtually spontaneous demonstrations that sprang up everywhere. When the numbers attending couldn’t be dismissed, congressional leaders attempted, unsuccessfully, to smear the attendees as racists or even Nazis whose involvement was to be condemned rather than welcomed.

If the Tea Partiers wouldn’t just go away quietly, Democrats hoped their exuberance would generate a backlash that would actually drive independent voters into the hands of Democrats by November.

Since that hasn’t happened yet, or at least didn’t in Massachusetts, Democrats are now busily predicting that the Tea Party movement will either implode or wreak havoc within the GOP as ideological purists use the movement to force candidates to move too far to the right to win elections. At the same time, they are warning people like Sarah Palin that associating with Tea Parties is the political equivalent of playing with explosives.

The problem with all of this is that the Tea Partiers have already shown themselves willing to rally around a less than ideologically pure candidate in Massachusetts, not because they were fooled but because they are sophisticated enough to know that winning matters. They may be new to politics, but they seem to know what they are doing, and their enthusiasm and sincerity have endeared them to many voters the politically savvy hoped would be offended by the movement.

All this carping is little more than the sort of wishful thinking one sadly can expect from politicians who find themselves in a corner busily trying to dismiss their opponents as irrelevant and assure each other that in the end all will be well.

It won’t.

It’s perfectly true that the Tea Partiers are squabbling among themselves. There are no clear leaders emerging, but there are quite a few who would like to jump out in front of this army of new political recruits, don the uniform of a general and declare themselves leaders. That they are so anxious to do so is evidence of the strength, rather than the weakness, of the army they seek to lead.

Focusing on the squabbling among people most of the actual Tea Partiers have never heard of is but another version of focusing on the few strange folks with weird signs who can be found at Tea Parties. Such reports may be marginally interesting and even entertaining, but are essentially meaningless.

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So too is the journalistic focus on whether Palin should have charged the organizers of the Opryland Tea Party, whether she was paid too much or whether the menu was appropriate for a populist army. Political elitists don’t like the former Alaska governor for the same reason they don’t like the Tea Partiers: She isn’t one of them. They live in a world populated by people like themselves and are deathly afraid when others threaten or seem to want to become a part of that world. Palin’s appearance in Nashville simply adds to their angst.

A future including Palin and the Tea Partiers is just too horrible for most political elitists to contemplate, but like it or not, it’s a future they will have to learn to accept.

Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental consulting firm.