Saturday, May 1, 2010

Internal Criticism of the St. Louis Tea Party

I was going to call this post "More Tea Party Infighting," but that really doesn't do justice to some of the information that's about to follow. "Infighting" is more like what I reported on last week, where Kevin Jackson called John and Gina Loudon "crooks" and "scoundrels," and said that Gina Loudon had accused him of hitting on her. Now maybe there is substance behind what Jackson said, but the only publicly available information was not much more than name-calling.

However, over the past two weeks, Jay Stewart (aka James Greyfalcon) and the folks at the HillBilly Logic radio program have been developing a more substantive critique of the tea party. What makes it very interesting is that this group is basically committed to the very values that the St. Louis Tea Party claims to stand for. Yet they (and particularly Jay Stewart) have come under fierce attack for daring to question the self-appointed leaders and political operatives who run the St. Louis Tea Party, in a way that largely illustrates part of their critique.

As I'm sure you guessed, I don't really agree with much of Jay Stewart's or the Hillbilly Logic crew's political positions. In fact, I would say that some of their factual claims about various bills or events are simply false. However, I think their approach to the issues is admirable in a way that transcends the typical liberal/conservative arguments. Ultimately, one hopes that agreement on the "right way forward" can be arrived at through thoughtful, rational debate. It is precisely this kind of debate that the St. Louis Tea Party has prevented by viewing all politics as nothing more than a zero sum game struggle for power (or "war" as they put it). When the only thing you're interested in is putting out talking points that make "your side" more likely to win, it is impossible to have a meaningful discussion.

I would even go so far as to say that if the Tea Party retained the exact same policy positions it has now, but was led by people more like Jay, I would view them as a force for good in the world even though I'm someone who completely disagrees with them on pretty much every policy issue. Why? Because Jay, El Apellido, and the Hillbilly Logic Crew facilitate the kinds of discussions that are needed for people to develop thoughtful approaches on how to move forward. People engaged purely in a zero sum struggle for power will never arrive at the truth: but people engaging in open-minded, thoughtful discussions at least have hope of finding some common ground.

Anyhow, there's an awful lot to digest from both the Poor Souls Society and the Hillbilly Logic radio shows from this past week, so I'm going to have to break the content up into several pieces and hopefully organize it all afterward. For now, I'll focus on a part of the critique that fits the theme of this post: the St. Louis tea party leadership's cynical approach to politics is harmful to both society as a whole and also to the conservative movement. The reality is that even the furthest left liberals and the tea party do have common ground: namely, to facilitate intelligent discussions on the issues; and it is precisely this kind of discussion that the current tea party leadership is preventing with their rhetoric, talking points, and general approach to organizing.

So just a bit of background first. Jay Stewart spoke at the St. Louis Holiday Tea Party, the 2010 Tax Day Tea Party (among many others), and has been a guest on Neil Cavuto's show as a Tea Party activist. He definitely has had a close up view of how the St. Louis Tea Party leadership operates.

As I mentioned earlier, the St. Louis Tea Party's rhetoric stands in the way of serious debate. Here's what Jay Stewart had to say about that on the Poor Souls Society radio show:
(~31:00) You put yourself in the same boat as the guy you attack when you take it too far to the other side. But that being said, when you talk about the clown show, I don't have a problem with Rush Limbaugh or Chris Rock or South Park making fun of our elected officials. I don't. It's part of American culture: we've always done it. What I'm saying is that in this climate, I think it is imperative that the people who are in office forgo the desire to say outrageous things to get the base all riled up or to get fundraising...When Michelle Bachman says, "gangster government," that creates certain problems for me. She's governing. When Jim DeMint says, "We'll break him" yeah, ok, he's tongue and cheek, whatever, but you have to understand where that puts us when you as a Senator make a statement like that. The Joe Wilson thing, "you lie!" It's not necessarily technically a racist thing ,but you have to understand how people are going to feel when you say, "that's a good thing that he did because he did lie." [Ed's note: the St. Louis Tea Party site, Gateway Pundit, and Dana Loesch all made this claim] You can accuse every president of lying...

(33:45) My whole point is I expect a level of professionalism from my opponents. Barney Frank can snap, screamed at people for asking questions, To me, if someone asks you a question and you go, "that's a stupid question, you shouldn't ask that," to me that indicates that you're scared and you have something to hide. And I say the same thing for the right. I think there's a difference between being conservative in terms of your relationship with the American experience, and being right-wing in your rhetoric. I think right wing rhetoric, as we discussed before, it pulls...the left is being pulled one way the right is being pulled another way....and you're going to find a lot of these people who are talking immigration...who are giving money to these candidates who are so tough on immigration, you'll find that some of them are also greasing the palms of the people who are supposed to be busting their businesses, and I think that's an example of what you and I discussed. The effectiveness of getting people so polarized on the right, so polarized on the left, that they're not discussing the essence of the issue.
A little later:
This time of year when it's elections, you get into fundraising season. And it seems like how you fundraise is by doing something that's provocative. But when you have the people who are supposed to govern making provocative decisions, like they're a guy trying to do a promo for a rock band, I start to have difficulties. Perfect example is with Bob McDonnell...

You're in this climate that's so politically charged...and I think it's not quite fair to blame the tea party. I don't blame the tea party. I blame some of the people who have emerged as tea party...there's been sort of a synthesis between the tea party leadership and the political leadership in the GOP that identifies themselves as "the base." People try to say the base is kind of your average conservative; I don't...I think the base is those people who try to create an image of what the average conservative should think. That's to me what the base is; it's almost like the stereotype.... that's what'd I say is the difference between the base and the grassroots....

I don't think Republicans can win by catering to the base because the base represents such a small part of the American experience. (~80) They're really party elites creating an arch-type of what a conservative does. And that's great for raising money for buying commercial time, create Karl Roves and Dick Morris's and what-have-you.
And finally:
(1:30) Glenn Beck's ratings might be good. But I don't think he's getting Democrats who voted for Obama to turn around and vote for Bachman. And I think people are confusing commercial support with political momentum.
Thought Stewart is focused a lot on elections, I think he's correct on a more abstract level. Ultimately, the kind of rhetoric the St. Louis tea party has been using (saying Obama wants to turn your children into "Nazi snitches," personally attacking local prosecutors, etc.) and the kinds of actions they've been engaging in (carrying a coffin to Carnahan's House, throwing shoes and hitting a Carnahan effigy) are not helpful for the conservative movement. If people really believe in conservatism, then they should be thinking of ways of presenting it thoughtfully and honestly such that other people can see the value in it. The St. Louis Tea Party, in contrast, seems to be more focused on trying to grab power in their "war against evil" then in actually showing why people would like conservatism (by the way, though I obviously am not a conservative myself, I actually do think that once you abstract away from the tragedy of the current group of people who claim to stand for conservatism and from some other peripheral issues that people have attached, conservatism at least is a position that has some respectable qualities). They basically are approaching this as a struggle for power rather than as an intellectual debate. Now, I'm no pure idealist. I realize that those who ignore the power struggle of politics will inevitably lose no matter how brilliant their reasoning is. However, if you only have the blind pursuit of power, if you sacrifice your values in this struggle for power, if you deliberately stifle discussions that approach the intellectual issues because you see them as a threat to this quest for power, than your movement will inevitably be corrupted, whether you are a liberal or a conservative or anything else.

Also important to note: Jay Stewart is very careful to differentiate between the St. Louis Tea Party Leadership and the St. Louis Tea Party members and to emphasize that he's only criticizing the former:
Basically, I'd just like to say that, as far as the tea party's concerned, I see the tea party as being a citizenship movement where 99.9% of it's existence and viability is in the people who show up that day, and their spiritual and personal connection with one another.

Now some of the things that we were discussing before that were turnoffs to many of the people in the black community, or people who are not in the political community, my opinion is that the overwhelming majority of that, some of that are legitimate concerns that we should address, comes from I think leadership...

The issue is does that cultivate or does that insulate some groups inside of it. And I would say it's not supposed to, but there are those people who try to take advantage of *any* popular movement. You had the civil rights movement, you had certain people who tried to take advantage of the civil rights movement or the women's movement. There's always someone who's going to try to do that.
Jay Stewart clearly has common cause with the Tea Party members, if not the leadership. And whether they agree with me or not, I think I have common cause with them as well. In fact, I think everyone would benefit if this movement stopped their approach of extreme antics and personal attacks, and focused instead on laying out a positive case for their position. On a deep level, people have a lot in common, and any group, including the tea party, can be a force for good in the world if they work on finding these connections.

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