Tea Party Mob

It’s good to have WAMC back after the fund drive and to enjoy once again its firm grasp of reality.

But that raises a question. How has the Tea Party become so prevalent and its agenda come to dominate American politics? It certainly isn’t that a majority of us agree. In fact Democrats often hope they’ll have a Tea Party candidate to oppose.

Nor is it the strength of their ideas. In fact the Tea Party is simplistic. Thinking that our national budget is the same as our household budget is like confusing your decision to take a drive in the afternoon with the decision of thousands of us to leave work at the same time. The drive in the country ruffles no feathers. But leaving work at the same time creates a traffic jam. Coordinated activity is very different from individual activity.

And the tea party conclusion that everything would be better if we have less government regulation makes the same kind of mistake – it confuses our preference not to have anyone watching us with the danger of knowing no one will be watching anyone. Indeed it assumes that the safety record we compiled with reasonable regulation won’t turn into the safety record of Chinese products once people realize no one is watching them.

Why do such simplistic ideas gain currency?

A French nobleman named Alexis de Tocqueville explained it nearly two centuries ago – in an egalitarian culture like ours public opinion is powerful. Once a group begins to dominate the airwaves many people begin to feel reluctant to disagree – after all, if everyone, seemingly, is saying the same thing, shouldn’t we begin to doubt our own views? That’s the power of bandwagons; people want to join the crowd.

Crowds and mobs work the same way. People do things in crowds they would never do by themselves. Watching the actions other people take, the things they say, it is easy to suspend disbelief or critical judgment.

Initially only a few may fall in line. But as more people are pulled in it gets harder to resist.

Generally Americans are somewhat hardened to demonstrations and complaints. If you complain, many Americans react that you just aren’t tough enough. So shut up. When we ask “How are you” many people respond “Can’t complain.” Of course if my law students tell me that, I may ask them what they’re doing in law school since litigation is begun with a document called a “complaint.” But the point is that Americans often resist complaining and aren’t always charitable to the complainer.

But the Tea Party got past that defense. We could all do with a little more money and a smaller tax bill, until we start to contemplate what would happen without public services, including regulation, that our taxes finance. The Tea Party  hit a nerve. They found a megaphone. And those who know better are running scared.

The best antidote is to remember that the Tea Party is trading on mob psychology, on simplistic claims, the gullibility of many, and the ability to intimidate others into silence or retreat. There is more sense and more honor in resistance.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 21, 2011.

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