Is there more to the Tea Party movement than the birthers, tenthers, and Obama-as-Nazi-ers? More than fervent followers of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and FOX News? Is it a real "movement" or deceptive corporate Astroturf? Do Tea Partiers possess an authentic libertarian taxed-enough-already approach to taxes and spending, or do these heavy users of Medicare and other federal programs just want to control spending on programs other than their own? Is the movement as crazy as its seemingly fringe, racist-placard-bearing members, or is there a broader, "silent majority" (tribute to R. M. Nixon) seething underneath, a majority that we rarely hear from?
These were the questions I asked when trying to determine, from my home in the UK, why the US is so deeply polarized, why the left's dismissals of the right's screams across a void have culminated in clash of interests that seems to be approaching physical violence. My search for a more thoughtful, "silent majority" within the Tea Party ultimately led me on a drive across Delaware, Pennsylvania and Northern Virginia for two days.
Back in 2003, I led a group of American expats in Amsterdam to protest the pending Iraq invasion. Alongside Faisel Nasser, head of the Netherlands' Iraq Platform, we calmly discussed the issues and asked on Dutch television why UN inspectors could not be allowed to finish their work. It was intriguing that the various shows' directors all chose B-roll footage to run under our thoughtful discussion. The B-roll featured protestors yelling at an empty US consulate, bandana-masked Iraqi youths throwing stones, intolerant, snarky signs and demonstrators burning George W. Bush in effigy for war crimes. Today, the radical far right Tea Partiers and their angry placards occupy the same B-roll position on global television screens. Just as in 2003, "crazy" made for good visuals.
The Dutch media, at least, gave A-roll status to a thoughtful, educative narrative and discourse. Now these visuals - plus one-sided, combative talking points - stoke the outrage fire twenty-four-seven, and nowhere was that more evident than in our attempt to chase down the nearly invisible candidacy of Christine "I am not a witch" O'Donnell, running as Delaware's Republican Tea Party nominee for the US Senate.
Like many before us, our group was denied a sighting and rebuffed from her campaign headquarters building. Her new "I did not go to Yale" television advertisement hit the airwaves the day we arrived and she was endorsed that morning at a secret meeting of the New Castle Pistol and Rifle Club, who later alerted the media of their support for O'Donnell. Since we had little to go on, we drove to New Castle and alighted at the old Bake Shop, now called simply New Castle Diner.
"It's just disgusting behavior," said Marilyn, 58 (name withheld at her request), as she became the first to speak with us about the Tea Partiers and their signs. "Why can't they see that their message just gets lost when they behave this way?"
When I told her I was from the UK and wanted to understand the Tea Party, she volunteered that she was a member. "We're scared to death here," she said. "So many people have lost their jobs and their homes and we're fed up with those idiots in Washington. I think Obama has done a terrible job and I voted for him, but I'm thinking about writing in Pat Paulsen (long-dead perennial joke candidate) because I don't trust either one of these morons!"
I asked what she thought about President Obama and the deeply divided political hand he was dealt.
Marilyn said, "I mean, how crazy is it that if Obama says the sky is blue right after a Republican says the same thing, that suddenly all the Republicans say in unison, 'No, it's green?'" She said the incredibly raw anger is what scares her the most. "Folks here don't like to talk about anything political or religious anymore because it always leads to a dumb old fight," she said.
"I'm worried about our kids and grandkids," piped in her husband Louis, 63. "I'm working two shifts when I should be thinking about retirement. I know that keeps someone young from working, but my health insurance is through the roof; Marilyn's got chemo, and after 40 years of good union work, I can't afford to retire."
I asked what they really thought about the Tea Party. They looked around and lowered their voices. "There's a lot more of them around than you think and they are angry at both parties. Bush, he sold us a bill of goods and the damned Democrats cannot get out of their own way." They were both worried about all of the anger and frustration. "It makes no sense, some of it. I mean, people with guns walking around at political rallies, nothing good can come of that."
"Do you think it's racially motivated?" I asked.
"Noooo … ," said Marilyn, seeming somewhat unconvinced by her own denial. Louis jumped in. "Of course it is. This country cannot get used to the idea a black man is our President." Louis said he would not want the president's job for all the money in the world. "Obama's like the Flyers' [ice hockey] goaltender; he makes 35 great saves a night, but the two times he makes a mistake, a siren sounds and everyone boos."
Louis thinks the rest is just a lot of noise. "I listen to Rush and, honestly, some of them Tea Party ideas make sense. I just think it's all been corrupted by the gang of idiots in Washington claiming to speak for us. Don't underestimate how deep the anger is about jobs and the economy," he added.
Next our crew headed into Pennsylvania to see if we could track down supporters of another Republican Tea Party favorite for the US Senate, Pat Toomey. In Pennsylvania Dutch Country we found few dared speak to outsiders, but in downtown Harrisburg had better luck when we visited a popular sport tavern near the Capitol.
We were clearly the outsiders but after a couple of pints, coupled with an overall mood still quite buoyant from the Phillies no-hitter pitched the night before, a few younger patrons were eager to talk to this Brit-American about the state capitol's number one contact sport, politics.
Jason, 27, works for a lobbying firm and is supporting Toomey and the Tea Party; his girlfriend of three years, Amber, a healthcare professional, is a solid Sestak supporter.
Both, however, think the Tea Party is for real. "We have jobs, but we're working 60 hours a week, have nothing saved and feel like the slightest misstep and we're both gone," said Jason. His upward mobility has also been slowed by the economy and since his firm focuses on defense (and major cutbacks are coming), and he and Amber have just bought and refinished a large, distressed foreclosed home together, they are worried.
Larry, 29, also thinks the Tea Party movement makes some sense. "I keep hearing both parties pointing fingers at each other - he demonstrates with a rude digit gesture - and no one is doing anything. They [the Tea Party] have tapped into the frustration we all feel. It makes sense: throw both parties out."
Jason agreed. "The career politicians and lobbyists - he smiles sheepishly since he is one - are ruining it for everyone."
Larry chimed in: "I hate to admit it, but there are times when I think even Glenn Beck makes sense."
"Are you out of your freaking mind?! Amber and Jason said in unison.
"How so?" I ask.
"I feel like the government is taking too much control over my life. I don't know what I want, but I know this is not what I planned when I graduated from college. This is, this is just way too hard. Nobody gets along anymore except when watching sports," he adds.
Amber echoed the two men's sentiments and added, "There just isn't any optimism left anymore. I mean, I see my parents and they are scared about losing their jobs and their home. They lived the American Dream and now it's a nightmare." Her parents own a big house they can't sell because they owe much more than the house is worth and it was supposed to pay for their retirement.
She wonders what the future will hold for her and Larry. "We've postponed marriage and children until things get much better. We don't want to bring a kid into this world the way it is now."
Our last visit was to the Green Spring retirement community in Springfield, Virginia. Here some 2,000 senior citizens live in an assisted living complex so large it is its own election voting precinct. Most here are ex-military or spouses of former government workers and live comfortably with good pensions and benefits.
Sitting in one of the village dining rooms, I spoke with two veterans about the Tea Party. Wilma, 86, saw duty as a combat nurse. James, 79, was in Korea. Both despise the Democrats and the GOP and think the Tea Party makes some sense.
"There used to be civility in government. Tip O'Neill and Ron Reagan hated each other's political positions, fought like cats and dogs, but liked each other as men. We don't have that anymore," said Wilma.
James added, "I thought the Tea Party could become the lost middle ground that gets folks talking with, rather than at, each other."
"How so?" I asked.
"If they are true to their word, they will do what is right and not just bleat along with party bosses and the darned lobbyists. If they don't learn to get along, then we're all screwed."
Our trip was a fascinating journey across multiple generations of US voters in three states that swung blue-ish purple in 2008. Now all but Delaware are likely to swing back to Republican/Tea-Party red. Many more people were interviewed along the way and they all had similar stories. The non-crazy continent of Tea Partiers are more scared than angry. They just want their government to represent them.
Almost all feared what looks to become the continual flip-flopping of the government every two years that will prevent a single problem from being fixed and create an even more polarized and angry electorate. Said Marilyn from Delaware, "This will be like Israel, where no one can agree and they just fight all of the time."
Larry from Harrisburg said it more succinctly: "How crazy will it be when the Republican Tea Party candidates arrive in DC in January? Especially if they control the House?"
"They'll simply become the victims of the Democrats playing the 'Hell No!' card themselves, and then where will we be?" asked Wilma.