Last night I attended my first Tea Party event. A right-wing flame-thrower local radio talk show host, Vicki McKenna, had put together a lecture on the 3,000-year history of freedom and liberty with an attorney friend, and had asked the Dane County Tea Party group to host it.
It was advertised as free to the public. So I braced myself and went, hoping to strike up a few conversations with my fellow citizens, get inside their heads, identify some common ground, and try to figure out some sources of our differences.
About 250 people showed up at the local restaurant. Consistent with the authoritarian nature of today’s conservatives, however, the meeting was not structured to encourage discussion. With the exception of a few round tables, the room was set up classroom style. The presenters told us to hold our questions until a 15-minute period following their 90-minute PowerPoint lecture, but half the audience left immediately after the lecture and only one of those who remained asked a question. Although I looked like I fit in—I’m white, middle-aged, and my clothing, hair, and makeup are pretty conservative—no one around me seemed at all eager to chat even about the weather. Any sort of “So, what do you think?” conversation would have been unexpected conduct.
I did, however, have a convergence of purpose with my fellow citizens. I was there to try to figure out why they think and believe as they do, and they were there in response to publicity that asked, “Have you ever wondered why liberals seemingly reject the fundamental concepts of liberty while purporting to stand for freedom?” Perhaps it’s the Pollyanna in me, but I have to take some comfort in knowing that American citizens still do want to understood each other, despite the energetic efforts of the powerful to keep us fighting among ourselves.
As someone whom they would consider a liberal, I can tell you this for sure: If any of them believed the presenters’ explanation of why liberals believe what we do, they left the meeting more misinformed than when they came in. I, however, think I got several insights into the Tea Party brain—or at least the local Tea Party opinion-leaders’ brains.
Before the meeting, I understood that right-wing political beliefs exhibit a lot of exceptionalism—the way of thinking that assigns value based not on the merits of the proposition, but on whether we or our opponents are doing it. (“Opponents” loom large in their legends.) I came away from the meeting with an understanding that exceptionalism may be more than a characteristic of their belief system: It may well be at the bedrock foundation.
When McKenna or her attorney friend, Jim Troupis, were not explicitly proclaiming American or conservative exceptionalism, every argument they made was based not on any consistently applicable criteria, but on the assumption that if “we” (either America or conservatives) do it, it is the best thing and if our opponents do it, it’s either wrong or worthless.
For example, none of McKenna’s remarks painting Obamacare as thoroughly evil and dangerous exhibited the slightest whiff of acknowledgement that its major features were developed in right-wing think tanks to benefit private insurance companies and were (before the Obama Administration adopted the plan) promoted by Republican politicians as the “free-market” solution to America’s health care woes. The fact that the program expands the role of profit-making insurance companies in our health care system and creates marketplaces to promote competition is utterly irrelevant for McKenna–what matters is that the program now belongs to her “opponent.” I would bet my life that if the program was still being promoted exclusively by free-market conservatives, she would support it out of her belief that “if our side backs it, it is good.”
In addition, McKenna alleged that if a nation does not allow its citizens the freedom to get sick and die without health insurance, every other freedom and liberty will deteriorate. McKenna spoke and the audience nodded as if they were unanimously ignorant of the co-existence of political freedom and universal health insurance in every other developed nation on this planet. When you view the world through the prism of American exceptionalism, knowing what goes on in other nations is useless information, worth no more than a few neurons out of the billions available to you.
Both McKenna and Troupis offered multiple other examples of exceptionalist thinking, but I had a hard time stifling a chuckle at one. In explaining the value of the ancient Greek political systems, Troupis hammered on the quotation “Not a single civilization untouched by Greek heritage has developed freedom as we know it”—putting it on his PowerPoint slide and repeating it several times.
“Gosh!” he wanted us to think, “Those Greeks sure were exceptional, and we’re just so darned exceptional to be their political descendants!”
But as I stared at the PowerPoint slide, I had to wonder whether everyone would be equally impressed with the news that not a single civilization untouched by French heritage has ever developed language as the French know it, or that not a single civilization untouched by Indian heritage has ever developed religion as the Hindus know it.
We’re all exceptional; get over it.
Well, I take that back. They are not going to get over it. Given a chance for a one-on-one conversation with any of my fellow citizens in attendance, I am now convinced that I would surely have blown it had I said anything inconsistent with American or conservative exceptionalism. When we try to remodel each others’ political beliefs, we might be able to suggest the equivalent of replacing the drapes or even knocking a new door through a wall. But if we suggest messing with the foundation–saying something that sounds like “Move the basement walls farther out”–the conversation will be over forever.
How then can we speak sense to them? How do we, as my friend Jim put it, “come up with the words that might start to alter the trajectory of their thinking?”
Just as I cannot see any way to talk to them that directly challenges the unique values they hold, I cannot see that any way that doesn’t start with highlighting our shared values. They spoke of the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address with the same passion that I do, and for the most part seemed to understand them pretty much the same way I do. Despite McKenna’s and Troupis’ claims, progressives do in fact value freedom and liberty, with largely the same definitions that they use. (Exception: We don’t place such a high value on freedom from affordable health care.)
And–again contrary to points they made–progressives have no more belief than they do in any “inalienable right to freedom from want,” which they defined as the “right to have everything we need supplied by others,” or in the ability of scientists and academics to perfect the human race by taking away our freedom of choice. (They were not talking about abortion.)
One of my most interesting experiences while I was collecting signatures for the Walker recall was when I was confronted by an angry fellow citizen on State Street, who loudly accused me of being a “union lackey” interested only in “sucking at the public tit.” I let him rant and rave until he ran out of steam (if you don’t yell back, that happens pretty quickly.) At that point I explained to my accuser that I had never been a union member, never wanted to be, and that my husband and I were mostly living on the proceeds of the sale of the business he began as a start-up entrepreneur. I explained that I wanted Walker recalled not because of what he was doing to the unions, but because of what he was doing to Wisconsin democracy. I explained that citizens like both him and me were for the first time in a century being excluded from meetings at which our laws were being debated and voted on, while lobbyists and campaign contributors were coming and going freely from the Capitol. That was why we needed to recall Walker—to preserve our freedom of self-government.
My accuser was shocked into silence and politely said good-bye. Of course he didn’t say anything remotely resembling, “I see your point,” nor did he apologize. But I did connect with him, in a fellow-citizen sort of way for a moment, and I hope I made a crack in his willingness to assume he is getting the whole truth from right-wing talk radio.
My more recent experience petitioning for a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United showed me the broad common ground in our desire to restore citizen control of government and get the money out of politics. Our local community group got an 87% success rate as we knocked on doors throughout our village—close to nine out of ten people who answered the door supported the proposed amendment. All but a few of the remaining 13% among the people with whom I spoke had reasons other than opposition for declining to sign. In a village as thoroughly purple as the one in which I live, that 87% had to include many conservatives.
There’s no question that our fellow citizens hold some values that we do not, and vice versa, and there’s no question they are being lied to about who we are and what we believe. But we have plenty of very significant common interests and shared values. We just need to find the opportunity to talk to them and the serenity to be able to do it without getting upset.