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How the Tea Party Exploits Liberals’ Weaknesses (and how to fix that)
I have written about economics, education, journalism, abortions, class actions, and Emergency Financial Managers, but this may be the most important piece I have written this year.
As I look back, nearly everything I have written this year includes some aspect of tracing political actions and results back to identify the driving purpose behind them, then envisioning that purpose carried through to its conclusion. It is not a new technique, and the results are not surprising. Conservatives have taken us down this path for decades, and the evidence has been there to see, yet neither conservatives’ purpose nor their final destination has penetrated the national consciousness.
Why? Because conservatives have figured out how to exploit liberals’ weaknesses, and liberals fall for it every time.
It is human nature to create stereotypes. Both left and right have stereotyped images of each other’s relative intelligence and driving motivations. If you’re reading this, you are already familiar with the stereotype of a Tea Party sympathizer: undereducated, overarmed, stubborn, belligerent, gullible. Too dumb to actually reason with, little brain development beyond the limbic center where fear lives (cf Ted Nugent). The right’s stereotype of a liberal elitist is something of its funhouse mirror image: an overeducated, insufferable know-it-all with too much book-learning and insufficient common sense. Too concerned with being technically correct, even over irrelevant things, and especially at others’ expense (cf Keith Olbermann).
Right wing nut job. Libtard.
These stereotypes not only make it harder to talk to each other and to respect our differences, they make it harder to see each other for what we are—and that causes blind spots.
Stereotypes don’t grow out of thin air. Facts do have a liberal bias. The more education people have, the more likely they are to be liberal. By itself, there is nothing wrong with being proud of educational accomplishments. The problem is when liberals go from believing they are smart to believing that non-liberals are stupid; these are not the same things.
This is liberals’ blind spot: intellectual hubris. We pity right wingers their stupidity. But for the luck of the DNA draw, we think, that might be us holding those misspelled signs and nodding along with Rush Limbaugh. But we still make fun of the signs.
When we on the left dismiss Tea Party members as a bunch of idiots, we presume that Tea Party members are too stupid to understand what they are doing. When you start with that assumption, you cut yourself off from ever considering the possibility that their actions are intentional and volitional, with a clear understanding of the consequences.
1. By attributing their actions to ignorance, we are failing to hold Republicans in power accountable for their motives, their actions, and their results.
The right is happy to play to this blind spot by dumbing down their public face. Their candidate pool always includes people whose malapropisms are the bait that liberals love to ridicule. I’m not talking about incendiary “get your guns” talk but the John Wayne/John Wayne Gacy errors that are irrelevant in the end. Yes, some elected Republicans really do seem to be that dumb (hello, Louie Gohmert). But behind those useful idiots are some very smart people who have been avoiding public scrutiny and pulling strings while we have been playing “Spot the Loony.”
2. While we are gloating over their irrelevant mistakes, we are not discussing issues that matter.
Even before Fox, conservatives were winning the war to control public discussion, and they were doing it by framing issues in a way to make their agenda look better. In this way, conservatives have undermined some of our most basic and deeply held national beliefs, including where wealth comes from, where it ought to go, and even what wealth is. From economics to political science to hard sciences, conservatives have succeeded in convincing the general public of things that defy history, statistics, and physical evidence. And we liberals think we are more clever with words? We can’t convince the public of the truth. We should be learning from the experts, not making fun of them.
3. By failing to hold elected Republicans responsible for their actions, we are missing a huge opportunity to weaken Republican support. While we hold elected Republicans accountable for what they have done, we must hold Republican voters responsible for what their elected Republicans have done.
When we turn over the rock of elected Republicans purposes and goals, we find some pretty ugly stuff, stuff that the average self-identified conservative finds too shocking to believe. It is shocking to think that any group of Americans could want to stunt our national growth, to continue our path to third-world nation conditions, and to see people suffer. It is un-American. It is offensive, and it’s natural to turn away from offensive things. But ugly as it is, we have to keep shining a light under that rock until the public gets it. Because as of now, they don’t. If we are squeamish, they win.
If we stay tough, then their support gets squeamish. As of now, the many self-identified conservatives who also like more populist ideas like Medicare, Social Security, public education, and taxing the rich can still align themselves with extreme right Republicans without cognitive dissonance—without the conflict of values that causes a person to squirm. That is our fault. We have not made them face the truth of elected Republican extremism.
With few exceptions, even liberal media coverage of Republicans since 2009 has presumed that Republicans want to do the right thing but don’t know how instead of questioning what Republicans really want to do based on what they have done. But in this case, when I say we, I don’t mean just the handful of left-leaning broadcasters still employed in the mainstream media or the small liberal radio and blogosphere. I mean you and me on the ground, in our communities, standing up for the truth.
It is tough to face that people we know and like have voted for this extreme course of action: my parents, your relatives and friends, our co-workers. That gives us cognitive dissonance. Most humans don’t like confrontation, and the path of least resistance is just avoiding certain subjects. But when political activists talk about fighting for what we believe in, it’s not just about picket signs and rallies. It’s those one-on-one conversations when we quietly but firmly (at least in my family, maybe your family is noisy) explain the facts and stand up for our progressive moral convictions. When we refuse to roll over to talking points.
We have had over thirty years to see the consequences of conservative politics. No one should be able to claim that they didn’t understand, didn’t know, didn’t realize where conservative politics was going. Voting Republican in this election climate doesn’t necessarily make people extremists, but it makes them collaborators with extremists. In most races, there are no moderate Republican choices because the party won’t let them in. And even self-proclaimed moderates have voted lockstep down the party line for more conservative measures. A Republican vote in 2012 is a vote for the conservative extremist agenda. Period.
Some will knowingly support that agenda. So be it. They won’t be able to deny it later.
Some will still deny the truth and cling to their comfortable lies, but they won’t be so comfortable anymore.
Those who come to understand the truth of conservative extremism will start to question what they have been told, then do their own research. And when that happens, we win. When that happens, ordinary, thoughtful people will realize that they are not part of the party of the oligarchs. They may even decide they are one of us.