Last night I attended my first Tea Party event. A 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 and identify some common ground.
About 250 people showed up at the local restaurant. Consistent with the authoritarian nature of the organizers, 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 among the members of the audience 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?”
As someone whom they would probably consider a liberal, I can tell you this: If any of them believed the presenters’ explanation of why liberals believe what they 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 was aware 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 on one principle: 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 acknowledged its origin in right-wing think tanks or that it was promoted by Republican politicians as the “free-market” solution to America’s health care woes before Obama took it as his own. The fact that the program was designed to expand the role of private insurance companies in our health care system and create marketplaces to promote competition is utterly irrelevant for McKenna. I would bet my life that if the program was still being promoted exclusively by free-market conservatives, she would be supporting it as vigorously as she is now opposing it.
Another of McKenna’s odd arguments (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) betrayed her ignorance of the co-existence of political freedom and universal health insurance in nearly every other developed nation on the planet. When you view the world through the prism of exceptionalism, knowing what goes on in other nations is useless information.
Both McKenna and Troupis offered multiple other examples of exceptionalist thinking. I had a hard time stifling a chuckle at one. In explaining the value of the ancient Greek political systems on which American democracy is based, Troupis stressed “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. I had to wonder whether anyone would be as 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.
As I listened, I realized that exceptionalism is more than a mere belief for the Tea Partiers. It’s an organizing framework with which they make sense of the world. As nonsensical as that assumption seems to me, I realized that given a chance for a one-on-one conversation with any of my fellow citizens in attendance, it would have been a conversationally fatal mistake to say anything inconsistent with it. 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.
How then can we speak sense or connect with fellow citizens whose world view is so thoroughly colored by perceptions we do not share? How do we, as my friend Jim put it, “come up with the words that might start to alter the trajectory of their thinking?”
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: they seem uniquely enamored with 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.”
My 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. There’s no question that lying to anyone about what their neighbors believe is reprehensible. 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.