My evening with the Tea Party

TeaCupLast 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.


About Karen McKim

Retired from a 30-year career in public sector quality assurance and management auditing, I now spend my time freelance writing, largely on topics related to our right to self-government. I have two main focuses: how we can protect our election results from miscounts (whether deliberate or accidental), and skills for talking politics with our fellow citizens. I am based in Wisconsin.
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4 Responses to My evening with the Tea Party

  1. Karen McKim says:

    It’s been pointed out that this post might be misunderstood to imply that it would be worthwhile to talk to professional pundits like Vicki McKenna. It would not. McKenna works for WIBA, which is owned by Clear Channel, which is owned by Bain Capital and Thomas Lee partners. As Sinclair Lewis pointed out during an earlier era when progressives were struggling with extreme wealth and its apologists, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

    McKenna knows she is on the payroll because she effectively communicates the company line, and that if she were to stray from any messages the billionaires’ think tanks have crafted for public consumption, she would be out of a job.

    So to make it clear: The mission of this blog is to explore the ways we can talk with our fellow citizens, not to professional pundits or politicians. It’s intended to explore the ways we can—with straight-from-your-neighbor, non-focus-group-tested, non-billionaire-sponsored free speech—counteract the misinformation and divisiveness of paid, purchased, and sponsored political speech like McKenna’s.

  2. Andrew says:

    2 questions, Karen:
    1. Where did you hear about this event? On McKenna’s show? (I only tune in to WIBA occasionally in my car when the Mic 92.1 goes to commercials)
    2. Why didn’t you tell me about it/invite me? 😦
    I’ve been looking for opportunities to try different strategies of communication with these people.

  3. Karen McKim says:

    I heard about it through an email from a friend, Andrew, and I am kicking myself that I didn’t think to invite you! I’m so sorry.

    As for opportunities to practice conversation with people of different political perspectives, have you been to any of the monthly meetings of Reach Out Wisconsin? A few Tea Party sympathizers are always there, and the meetings are set up to encourage and facilitate discussion. I’ve had several rewarding conversations there and only one negative experience (due to the presenter, not my conversation partners.)

    The ROW conversations have only two drawbacks. First, the evenings are explicitly designed to accommodate two and only two sides–after hearing presenters from “both sides,” participants are instructed to find a small group for conversation that contains people from the “other side.” This forces everyone to self-identify as either liberal or conservative and creates conversations that tend toward contests between two teams. It’s not fatal to the possibility of reaching any mutual understandings, but it sure doesn’t help.

    The second drawback is that small-group conversations are harder to keep civil and productive than one-on-one conversations. Every group always contains someone who uses sarcasm or derision of the ‘other side,’ and someone else willing to take the bait. I’ve never seen a conversation deteriorate into anything I’d call a fight, but the people who want civil, productive discussions have to do continuous work to moderate the small-group discussions.

  4. Karen McKim says:

    About rights: I got some offline feedback that I was wrong in the post above when I wrote that “progressives have no more belief than (the Tea Partiers) do in any ‘inalienable right to freedom from want,’ which they defined as the “right to have everything we need supplied by others.”

    Progressives do, some told me, believe that every human has a right to food, clothing, shelter and medical care, perhaps among other things.

    I think some who disagreed failed to read the second part of that sentence, which made it clear that the McKenna was defining the “right to freedom from want” as an entitlement to have all the basics given to us for free, which I continue to maintain no one is promoting.

    One friend pointed me to Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, in which FDR said “we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms,” which include “freedom from want, which translated into world terms means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants.” FDR went on to say that this wasn’t a wishful vision for the distant future, but “a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.”

    It’s clear that FDR desired (as most people do) a world in which everyone is free from want. But I don’t see him saying that individuals have an inalienable right to the components of a “healthy peacetime life,” and I’m not clear why FDR couched it more in terms of each nation’s right to certain “economic understandings” rather than individuals’ right to the basic requirements for human survival. So no, I don’t think FDR’s speech is evidence that progressives believe in what McKenna said we do.

    The best rebuttal of my statement came from another friend who referred me to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

    That’s pretty clear, but it’s still not quite what McKenna was fabricating. The second part of the statement, which describes our right to security in those things as contingent upon “lack of livelihood” due to “circumstances beyond our our control”–seems to imply that absent those circumstances, individuals do not have a right to security.

    So I still think I was right and McKenna was wrong: I don’t see evidence that progressives believe in a universal right to freedom from want that gives lazy-good-for-nothing-loafers an entitlement to be fed and clothed at government expense.

    Still, it got me to thinking. My gut tells me there is such a thing as a universal human right to food and water, but what does that mean we should have our government do about it?

    Our Constitution currently prohibits our government from limiting certain things we might choose to do (e.g., speech, assembly, petition); prohibits it from requiring us to do certain things (e.g., practice a religion, board soldiers); and requires it to perform certain processes for us (e.g., due process, trial by jury.) But it enumerates no rights that require the government (that is, our fellow citizens) to provide us with any commodity or material goods. No one to my knowledge has ever claimed the Second Amendment obligates the government to give each of us a gun–though I suppose I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s on the NRA’s wish list.

    And if a right to something is contingent upon us being unable to earn that something, how is it still a right? The government is obligated to ensure our right to freedom of speech even if we have done nothing to earn that freedom. If freedom from want was the same type of right, McKenna would be correct: the government would be required to provide every individual with food, water, clothing, shelter, medical care, etc., regardless of whether he or she is able to earn them.

    I want to say that the right to freedom from want is not so much an individual right as it is a collective moral obligation. But I still need to think this through some more. Any thoughtful comments will be appreciated.

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