Liberally Speaking (4/22/10)

Advice for the Tea Party

April 22, 2010

By Steve Mount

The Tea Party movement has been active for about a year now, and with the movement’s rise comes a lot of questions. Despite the fact that I don’t agree with most of the Tea Party’s message, they are a continuation of the great American spirit of dissent and protest.

The common use of the Gadsden Flag by Partiers, with its yellow field, coiled rattlesnake, and “Don’t Tread on Me” message, is the group’s own attempt to link back to our revolutionary heritage.

The “Doonesbury” cartoon series has noticed, too: When perpetual hippie Zonker attended a Tea Party rally, he heard Partiers chanting “Down with the Tyrants!” Zonker noted they had the same “outasight” message his generation had. Zonker also found common cause with a Partier who was out to “stick it to the man.”

The Tea Party, though, has image problems it needs to deal with. I’m sure you’ve heard these stories:

• At a January rally in New Mexico, news reports said that “many” of the Partiers showed up with loaded semi-automatic weapons and holstered pistols. All perfectly legal, but the image this sort of thing projects to the average American, who supports gun rights but is wary of guns, is one of aggression and conflict.

• Charges of racism in the Tea Party have also come up again and again. Many examples I cannot repeat here, but this is one: Calling the health care act “white slavery” senselessly and callously belittles the actual slavery the ancestors of some of our black citizens had to endure.

• Finally, a common scene depicted at some rallies has the face of President Barack Obama placed over the image of Adolph Hitler. Aside from the fact that nothing Obama’s administration has done approaches Nazism, there is Godwin’s Law, which states that if you start comparing people to Hitler, the discussion has, by default, gone on too long.

Has the discussion gone on too long?

Last month, my colleague on the right-hand page, Mike Benevento, noted that the Tea Party movement was fragile. The movement, he wrote, “risks fizzling out.” Mike noted that the movement had to not only grow from the grass-roots, but it also had to unify nationally. Otherwise, it risked being just a local phenomenon, with no national influence.

I agree with Mike, but his advice must be only part of the movement’s long-term survival plan. If it continues to appeal to the fringes of the right wing, the ones who insist on screaming “baby killers!” and “socialists!” and even “Nazis!” at every turn, they will lose any hope of wide appeal.

I’ve seen this sort of thing happen before, up-close and on the left. When I was a student at the University of Vermont, because of my work on the school’s Vermont Cynic newspaper, I was asked by a far-left campus group to help produce their own alternative newspaper. It was called The Gadfly, and it contained a fair number of good stories about students working with organizations in Burlington to help the city’s poor and downtrodden.

These stories had a real shot of getting more students involved in social action. The stories, however, were buried between reprints from Granma International (an English-language newspaper from Cuba, which extolled the virtues of Castro and his Revolution) and the People’s World (a communist weekly from New York City). The Gadfly was largely ignored.

The lesson is that a good, positive message of change can easily be derailed by being connected too closely to extreme messages that the common man has no interest in hearing.

The Tea Party’s raison d’être now is to be against the health care law. If that’s all it has to hang its hat on, then I don’t think the Party has much life left in it. They may help Republicans pick up a few seats in November, but I also think that for every negative message about the law the Republicans and the Tea Party have to offer, there are (at least) two positive stories about how the law will make the average American’s health better and more secure.

The movement’s other major issue, the raging deficit, is a big concern; but the only way to stop that now would be to leave our troops in a lurch or to allow the bottom to drop out of the economy. Obama has plans to bring our troops home and hopes with the rest of us that the economy is rebounding, bringing us back to the surpluses of the Clinton years.

The Tea Party might be a force for change over the next few years; they just need to be sure what they want to change is worth changing, and that they do it with rational arguments and tempered words.


Steve Mount has been a Williston resident since 1996. He is a software engineer at GE Healthcare and is devoted to his family, his country and his Constitution. You can reach Steve at or read his blog at