We all know from the general media that the Republican Party is split between moderates and the far right as embodied in the Tea Party. What is not well known is that the Tea Party itself is not unified, either ideologically or politically.
We can start with the identification of the Tea Party as Republican. As far as the media is concerned, Republican identification is a given, but when I attended the Tea Party California Caucus (TPCC) meeting/rally at the state GOP convention in early October, I found there is no consensus at all on Tea Party affiliation. Speaker after speaker told how he or she had once been a Republican but left the party when it “lost its way.” Even the TPCC backed candidate for governor, Tim Donnelly, spoke of the party as if he were not in it. One might well ask what this group was doing at the state Republican convention.
In contrast, in Tea Party groups outside the convention I have found no such disaffection from the party. I’ve been communicating with Tea Party members in Southern California, and last night I attended a local Tea Party meeting in the L.A. mid-city area. It was well attended by about 45 people. While there was criticism of party leadership, everyone who spoke clearly identified him or herself as Republican. There was no sense that the Tea Party was a renegade group outside the party.
The contrast became deeper when social issues were discussed, particularly homosexuality. The guest speaker for the evening was a self-described former Democratic “lefty” whose essential message was that he was tired of Republicans losing. To my surprise, one of his prime examples of a losing GOP strategy was opposition to gay marriage. Not only did he announce his personal acceptance of gay marriage, but he made it clear he did not consider homosexuality a particularly bad or problematical thing. I braced myself for an uproar, but, except for one man who raised his hand to diplomatically say that he was an evangelical Christian who supported family values, the comments from the audience were entirely positive and explicitly in agreement with the speaker. Even the evangelical man was quite calm about his apparent disagreement and continued to applaud the speaker for the remainder of the talk.
As you might imagine, I felt a strong cognitive dissonance and was once again reminded, as if I needed to be, of the selective and misleading nature of American media’s superficial perspective on the politics of the day. If you ask anyone what the Tea Party thinks of gay marriage, you will hear that it is 100% opposed on moral and religious grounds. Everyone thinks that because that’s what the media says, and they say it because that’s what they hear from their idea of a Tea Party leader, e.g. Rick Santorum. Well, it turns out it’s not true that opposition to gay marriage is essential to Tea Party members, and I can tell you it was a big relief to me to discover that because I have no problem with gay marriage or homosexuality either.
Other social issues did not come up at last night’s meeting, but my sense of cognitive dissonance had arisen even before I heard the speaker. My invitation to attend the meeting had come from a prominent member of the group who had read, and praised, an article of mine in Flashreport. In that article (and others in Flashreport) I had voiced disagreement with alleged Tea Party positions on gun control (I think schizophrenics should not be allowed to own guns), with abortion (I don’t like abortion, but I think abortion should be a woman’s choice, not the government’s), on contraception (I think Santorum’s complaint that contraception “reduces sex to mere pleasure” guarantees he couldn’t be elected dog catcher of the North Pole). I’ve also made it clear in my posts that I believe virtually every Founder DID intend separation of church and state, and I’ve made it clear I think that America was not envisioned by the Founders as a Christian state, but as a diverse, freethinking state (Jefferson questioned the divinity of Jesus; Thomas Paine denounced all religion everywhere- why are there no Tea Party posters about that?). I did not discuss any of these issues last night, but I have a feeling that if and when they come up, the conversation will be civil, with a surprising amount of agreement.
In what areas, then, do I agree with the Tea Party? There are three: (1) Obama’s Common Core Standards are a terrible idea and should be condemned and fought in a much more forceful manner than our timid state and federal GOP representatives have evinced so far; (2) the surveillance state, so blandly accepted by liberal icon Obama, should be shouted down before it’s too late to do so, and (3), Obamacare is an ill-thought out windfall for insurance companies, not a reasonable and smart plan for creating a healthier America. Agreement on these issues is enough to get someone with my views to attend a Tea Party meeting, but the Tea Party, as presently perceived, will not win elections just because it opposes these overwhelmingly unpopular programs. Americans simply do not want radical Puritans at the helm, regardless of areas of agreement.
What does the disconnect between the Tea Party of the media and the Tea Party of reality mean for party governance? In my view it means either that the state and national GOP needs to redefine what it means to be in the Tea Party (and maybe give it a new name), or it needs to remove the media-packaged, Santorum-defined Tea Party from party leadership. If neither of these things happens, the Tea Party social positions alone, supported, by most estimates, by no more than 25 – 30% of the electorate, will kill all chance of a resurgence of the party.
The opportunity to oppose the Common Core Standards, the surveillance state and Obamacare is being handed to the GOP on a silver platter, as the Democrats, under Obama, are on their backs in surrender. The public is hungry for a party that will take up the fight. The challenge is more than conceptual. The GOP can either acquire meaning, and a huge and grateful following, or it can die a lingering and uninspiring death.
Doug Lasken is a retired LA Unified teacher, recently returned to coach debate, a freelancer and education consultant. Read his blog at http://laskenlog.blogspot.com/ and write him at email@example.com