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Doug Lasken

Journey to the Center of the Tea Party

[Editor’s Note: We are pleased to share this original commentary from Doug Lasken on the Tea Party.]

Unlike the journey in the Jules Verne fantasy, where explorers find specific forms at the center of the earth (e.g. a twelve foot tall prehistoric human shepherding mastodons), my experience traveling into the Tea Party center has been more like that of a particle physicist, where the clear forms of the larger world become increasingly blurred and elusive the closer one looks.

In the first foray of my quest to get a close look at the Tea Party, I discovered, at a rally of the Tea Party California Caucus (TPCC) at the state GOP convention on Oct. 4, that there is no clear identification among Tea Party members with the Republican Party. In fact, keynote speakers told the story of TPCC attendance at the convention as if it were the tale of a clandestine invasion of the Party, and a number of speakers proudly told that they had quit the GOP when it “lost its way.”

Doug Lasken

I had been invited to attend the TPCC rally because of my opposition to Obama’s Common Core Standards (CCS), and there was much pride expressed by TPCC members that the Tea Party resolution against Common Core had a shot at convention adoption. But here too there was confusion. The resolution, it seemed, originated as much from the party Executive Committee (where it was modified by committee member Bill Evers) as from the renegade TPCC. After the bill was adopted without debate in the final session, I came upon a TPCC huddle in a nearby hallway, where the aura of outlaw politics continued to prevail in spite of the group’s seeming acceptance by the mainstream party.

TPCC speakers at the convention gave the appearance, not that the Tea Party was a “party” exactly, but at least that it was a unified political faction or force, expressing like minded views. There was a large poster, for instance, opposing gun control, and the TPCC anointed candidate for governor, Tim Donnelly, denounced efforts to “erase the 2nd Amendment.”

But that appearance of clarity and unanimity of purpose vanished at local Tea Party meetings I attended in the Los Angeles area. I found in conversations that it is quite common for Tea Party members to favor certain gun control measures, to countenance gay marriage and contraception, and to approve of separation of church and state, all postions which fly in the face of Tea Party dogma as presented in the media and by prominent self-appointed Tea Party leaders like Rick Santorum.

What I am reporting today is that, as I continue my journey to the center of the Tea Party, I am finding that rank and file Tea Party members do not consider themselves members of any unified group at all. In particular, they do not consider themselves members of a political party and like to point out that the “party” in “Tea Party” refers to the Boston Tea Party, where the “party” was an ad hoc, spontaneous expression of political frustration. To nail the point home that there is no party affiliation, I heard from several sources that Central Valley Tea Party groups are attended by a number of Democrats and former Democrats. Since the Tea Party, then, is not a political party or affiliated with one, it has no platform, no central set of positions, except for the essential tenet that government is too big. This tenet is specific enough to produce a wide consensus on three issues:

1. Opposition to Obamacare
2. Opposition to the surveillance state as revealed in the NSA scandal.
3. Opposition to the Common Core Standards

I’ve found no consensus on anything else, but I have found one of the strangest political outlooks I’ve ever encountered. Several of the comments posted on Flashreport regarding my piece, “The Tea Party is not unified” (see link above) claim that there are no “social positions” taken by Tea Party members. One commenter said that when he attends Tea Party meetings he “leaves [his] social positions at the door.” That threw me, particularly as, at the time I was reading and hearing these assertions, I was receiving daily emails from several major Southern California Tea Party groups urging attendance at a presentation at USC by Ann Coulter, who of course does not leave her social positions at the door.

I have had a problem with Coulter since watching her tell interviewers that Jews are not “perfected” because they do not accept Jesus as their savior. My problem was about the same as a Christian would have if told that Christians are not perfected because they do not accept Vishnu. I just think it’s bad etiquette, and worse politics, to tell people that only your religion is “perfected,” so everyone else has to be what you are. I requested a meeting with a local Tea Party leader who is Jewish, and whose group endorsed the Coulter meeting, to get his reaction to the apparent Coulter promotion.

And here’s where my journey to the center of the Tea Party lost all resolution. The local leader, an intelligent and educated professional, whom I’ll call Mr. S, said that he didn’t care at all about Coulter’s views on Judaism, or gay marriage or anything else because the Tea Party is not endorsing her, and that when he attends her presentation he will, as the commenter on Flashreport put it, “leave his social positions at the door.”

I asked what the point of attending the meeting would be if not to support Coulter’s positions, and the reply was, “As a media presence, with huge name recognition, Coulter puts us on the map.” He also spoke of the satisfaction Tea Party members feel when Coulter “sticks it to liberals,” an element that was apparent in the email flyer when it described Coulter as “uncensored, unapologetic, and unflinching in her ruthless mockery of liberals, sissies, morons, hypocrites and all other species of politician. “

I objected that it was disingenuous to claim that the flier did not endorse Coulter, and pointed out its first words:

“The Downtown Lincoln Club, Hancock Park Patriots, San Fernando Valley Republican Club and USC College Republicans present two events this Sunday evening that you don’t want to miss…..,” the two events being Coulter’s speech ($20 at the door) including an opportunity to buy her new book, plus, for another $100, an opportunity to mingle with her and get your book signed.
“Is this not an endorsement?,” I asked. The answer was, “No, not in my mind.”

Ok, fair enough. It is physically possible to attend a meeting and not endorse the speaker. But people are playing politics here, whether they like it or not. The media and the population at large would view the Coulter email flyer and high-profile Tea Party attendance at the event as endorsement, and that’s all it takes to create political reality. I should add that this political reality confirms in the public mind, justly or not, that the Tea Party endorses social positions that are supported by no more that 35% of the electorate and despised by everyone else.

At one L.A. Tea Party meeting I heard people talk about needing to keep their membership in the Tea Party secret from their family and closest friends. Why would they need to? Well, maybe if something walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, it’s a duck. The rank and file of the Tea Party, insofar as it considers itself separate from demagogues like Santorum and Coulter, is living a dangerous fantasy. It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee.

What is the lesson for the state and national GOP? Here’s the lesson I would offer: State and national Republican leadership, and the donors who wonder what suicidal force it unleashed through previous support of “Tea Party” figures like Santorum, can, with impunity, publicly demote those figures, withholding campaign funds from them and keeping their views out of Party platform decisions. In fact the Party is ahead of me on this, because that process has already begun. Let’s see if the rank and file of the Tea Party is ok with the process. From what I’ve heard, they should be very ok with it.

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 doug.lasken@gmail.com