Only in America

tea party signsIt’s hard to imagine a group of candidates more gaffe-prone than Tea Party Republicans.

A slew of these misstep-a-minute folks are running for the House and Senate. Polls show many, if not most, of them are ahead of their Democratic opponents, or are neck-and-neck with them.

We liberals chuckle – and cringe — at Tea Partiers and their candidates. But the more we poke fun at them, the more they trash us as “the liberal elite,” author and journalist Thomas Frank observed on the Countdown with Keith Olbermann TV show.

They call us “eggheads” and “the ruling class,” he added. “You know, people that went to college and think they’re smarter than you…It is ridiculous. But…it works. You‘ve got to remember that…whenever we criticize them for slip-ups…we come off looking like snobs.”

Tea Party candidate gaffes don’t seem to matter much to the Tea Party faithful. If anything, they think gaffes are more proof that their candidates are just plain folks, like them. Tea Partiers don’t want some smarty-pants speaking for them in Washington .

Tea Partiers, almost all of whom are white folks, see themselves as down-to-earth, “common sense” Americans. Their “common sense” includes the notion that President Obama is a Kenyan-born closet Muslim who loves socialism and hates white people. You often see that claim on their protest signs.

Other examples of Tea Party “common sense” include signs that say: “OBAMA’s PLAN WHITE SLAVERY,” “We came unarmed (this time)” and “The American Taxpayers Are The Jews For Obama’s Ovens.”

Anyway, the Huffington Post’s Howard Fineman also observed on Countdown that we have several candidates “…from the periphery of American politics…who are almost proud and assert their pride in their lack of knowledge of the political system.” He meant Tea Party candidates.

“Only in America would we ever pretend to argue that ignorance is somehow a qualification for higher office,” he said. “But in this year and this time with a lot of people it is….”

Even so, “it’s also déjà vu all over again,” to quote Yogi Berra, the great Yankee catcher and baseball sage.

Remember Ronald Reagan’s reign of error? – the title of a book, by the way.

Reagan ran as the everyman candidate, the guy from down the street with the boyish “aw shucks” grin who apparently preferred skimming Reader’s Digest to actually reading books. His gaffes were legendary.

One time, he said “trees cause more pollution than automobiles.” Another time, he said “facts are stupid things.”

We liberals believed Reagan was so far right-wing, not to mention so shallow, if not clueless, he could never get elected. But the people who shared Reagan’s political views didn’t care that he wasn’t a great thinker. They were Reader’s Digest fans, too. They liked condensed books and condensed politics.

Like Reagan, Tea Party candidates are delivering what Tea Partiers want: simple answers to complex issues. Never mind that there never have been simple answers to complex issues.

Tea Party candidates aim for the gut, not the head. They demagogue. They scapegoat. They pick easy targets: “illegal” immigrants, Muslim “terrorists” and “immoral” gays.

We really have been here before.

The Tea Party philosophy is a blend of conspiratorial fantasies reminiscent of the old Know Nothings and Joe McCarthy and George Wallace-style politics of race and resentment.

In the 1850s, the Know-Nothings ranted against immigrants, too. They claimed Catholic German and Irish newcomers to America were conspiring with the pope in Rome to turn the republic “papist.” In the 1950s, Sen. McCarthy raved that the republic was imperiled by a cabal of American communists in cahoots with Moscow .

A decade later, Wallace, Alabama’s segregationist governor, became the symbol of white resistance to integration. He ran for president in 1968 appealing to white folks who hated LBJ and the Democrats who passed (with moderate and liberal Republican help) historic civil rights bills aimed at ending years of Jim Crow segregation and race discrimination.

Wallace fulminated against “pseudo-intellectuals” and “pointy-headed bureaucrats” in Washington.

I don’t know how many Tea Partiers are old enough to remember McCarthy and Wallace. But they’re probably heroes to those who are.

Of course, almost all Tea Partiers revere the Gipper, who opened his 1980 presidential campaign in Mississippi by telling an all-white crowd he was for “states’ rights,” the old Dixie code word for slavery and segregation. Neo-Confederates are big in the Tea Party movement

Reagan was the ultimate “common sense” candidate to millions of white people, not just to Southerners. He was their Great White Hope.

They didn’t give a fig that Reagan had little or no intellectual curiosity. Intellectual curiosity was ivory tower liberal stuff.

They doted on his corny nostrums about “morning in America .” His America was their America , the America of Leave it to Beaver, where all the faces where white, and minorities were unseen.

The Cleavers lived in a fictitious Mayfield. I live in a real Mayfield, one in Kentucky .

Berry CraigI don’t know everything about government, not even close. But I’m not running for congress or the senate. If I were, I hope I could do better than offer voters more than inanities and clichés and appeal to paranoia. Apparently, political inexperience and ignorance of basic government operations — including what the constitution says — is a plus to Tea Partiers.

It’s not with me. I’ve never voted for candidates who “assert their pride in their lack of knowledge of the political system.” I don’t plan to start November 2.

Berry Craig

Published by the LA Progressive on October 29, 2010
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About Berry Craig

Berry Craig is an emeritus professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, the recording secretary for the Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO, and the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. He is a native of Mayfield, Ky., where he lives with his wife of 33 years and their 20-year-old son.