With friends like theseIf you're among the many who are trying to make sense of where Wisconsin and national politics have gravitated in the past several years, here's a suggestion:
The "tea party" movement deserves the careful attention of progressives and, if it should ever wise up, the Democratic Party's attention, too.
I don't mean attention in the sense of political strategy -- figuring out how to disrupt or co-opt tea party power or influence. Nor do I mean buying into the teabag legislative agenda, which would be foolish. I mean attention in the form of an understanding ear. Progressives should make every possible attempt at rapproachment, even if it means starting out on their turf and, for awhile, standing stoically in the face of great abuse.
This is not an idea original to me. And, of course, it is an idea that is naturally and instinctually offensive to many in our movement. But it's worth redoubling our effort to overcome our own doubts and disdain. At least until we've actually tried.
Strongly negative attitudes toward the tea party movement are natural and in many respects justified. The tea party, after all, was the top-down creation of a group of Republican Party strategists, former US Rep. Dick Armey noteworthy among them. Those Republicans saw the mobilization of populist outrage at Beltway politics as a way to extend and mobilize their party's base and cause all manner of grief for then-ascendant Democrats, especially Barack Obama.
Clearly, too, tea party followers have been manipulated and used at almost every turn. They were carried in free buses to manufactured protests (the non-spontaneous kind that the GOP projectively imagines are always held by Democrats and labor unions). They were also encouraged to act out at town hall meetings, abetted by hungry news cameras and video-friendly bloggers. They are fed talking points and pre-written form letters to write to local newspapers. Even protest signs are often supplied for them.
But despite all that, it's pretty clear there is something genuine in the tea party movement: a sense among its followers that they are -- to use a fundamentalist Christian-charged religious term -- being left behind by national politics and economic forces. They are right about that, but wrong about the causes and dead wrong about the solutions that should be brought to bear.
There's nothing wrong with continuing to discount and denounce their misshapen notions about democracy, the Constitution and capitalism while embracing their concerns, which, after all, mirror many of our own.
If you think about it awhile, the conventional means that progressives can employ to foster political change in this country are ever more limited, thanks to conservative success in packing the courts with neanderthal thinkers and plutocrat-friendly politicians, as well as skewing the national dialog with all sorts of nonsense about birth certificates, Sharia law and the like. Chief among these obstacles are vote-suppression laws such as Scott Walker's Voter ID measure in Wisconsin, union-busting measures in Wisconsin and elsewhere, and the Supreme Court's Citizens United law that gives corporations nearly unlimited power to affect political discourse.
The underlying theme of all these attacks against average Americans is the GOP's "let's you and him fight" strategy, which has been pretty successful wedge politicking. Even when billionaires like Warren Buffet sound the call for higher taxes on the rich, and provide statistics showing why that makes sense, teabaggers just don't get it, because many of them are stuck in reverse gear. So much so that the now almost apocryphal cry of, "Keep government hands off my Medicare!" has come to sum up tea party irrationale, and inability to connect the dots.
I don't suggest proselytizing tea party followers in any conventional political sense, with ads or direct mail or one on one confrontation. Democrats and progressives already do those things, which are only of modest effectiveness. I suggest instead arranged dialogs, in private or semi-private town meetings, where consensus can be reached on issues if not solutions. The old PBS series, "The Advocates" was an instructive example of how this might be accomplished in a non-threatening yet illuminating way. Pay your enemies proper respect, and they may -- I stress, may -- begin to respect you in return. Obama's willingness to engage fundamentalist minister Rick Warren for his inaugural was brave and pointed, if not lasting. But the way to make those moments lasting is to keep repeating them.
The point here is that we need to open as many minds as possible. We don't need to be missionaries intent on political conversion; rather, we only need to sincerely demonstrate that we think we have lots in common and aren't out to demonize individuals, but only to find points of crossover.
I'm not saying that such an outreach effort will be efficient or provide sudden results, but that's all the more reason to begin it now. Because as time goes on, teabagger notions will crystallize even more and reasoning with tea party followers will become that much harder. On the other hand, many of the laws and policies enacted in the name of the tea party are going to produce increasingly negative results, so the near future will be a good time to try convincing teabaggers that they're onto something but working with the wrong crowd.
Remember, we don't have to win them all over, just some. The movement is already in some disarray, thanks in part to the GOP's increasingly obvious decision to use the movement but keep as much daylight between itself and them as possible.
Even more important than winning over any tea party followers, if we are able, is to demonstrate by deed to the huge independent voter category that we're sincere and open-minded and willing to go anywhere, anytime. That is, we retain our issues, and we think we have solutions, but we're not going to freeze out our most implacable political enemies. We'll try finding areas of accord, because we think they exist.
We may fail, but we'll demonstrate we are willing to make the effort, which is more than the GOP is willing to do. For independents paying attention, that's a big deal.
Getting anyone to pay attention? Important, but probably counterproductive in the early going. We're not looking to grandstand or show off, as Obama's mastery over Republican congressmen was portrayed when he met them one-on-many. That can be off-putting. Almost everyone wants to be respected and to retain their dignity. So we parlay in an environment that permits that. Perhaps a neutral location that has no partisan overtones. Thus, no meetings on university campuses or in non-ecumenical church halls. We must meet in places that are comfortable for everyone, and finding those venues -- like determining the shape of the negotiating table in the US-North Vietnam peace talks -- might be the toughest task of all.