He’s been wrong before, but when David Brooks says you’re a nationwide movement, you’re either Soccer Moms in the 2004 general election or a real thing. In Monday’s New York Times, Brooks alleges that the Tea Party movement is the latter. After opening with his usual overview of the prevailing sociopolitical winds for the last thirty to 100 years, he gets to the money shot. “Every single idea associated with the educated class has grown more unpopular over the past year,” he writes. For the moment, Brooks has declined to enumerate which instruments he uses to measure the popularity of ideas, but he at least sounds right. “The educated class believes in global warming, so public skepticism about global warming is on the rise,” he says. “The educated class supports abortion rights, so public opinion is shifting against them. The educated class supports gun control, so opposition to gun control is mounting.” Those committed to responsible argument will object to Brooks’s questionable use of the word so, which makes his theory the cause of his evidence, but as and statements his list still draws an unsettling connection. When Brooks points out that the Tea Partiers are defined by what they are against, and that most of what they are against can be grouped under “the concentrated power of the educated class,” he introduces a framework as useful as it is terrifying.
We’ve discussed this question before, and the response to a national political movement comprised of people who have no real idea how politics—or even the fundamental mechanics of American government—might work has been, “So what?” There has always been a vocal minority of very stupid people in the United States, and their demands have gone largely unheeded except by “The Lovely Bones” and the McDonald’s corporation. Well, here’s what: they aren’t a minority anymore. According to this utterly harrowing NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, the Tea Party is now viewed favorably by more Americans than the Democratic Party or the GOP. There are some caveats, of course. More than 75% of respondents who get their news from Fox News view the Tea Party favorably, compared to only 24% of those who get their news from CNN or MSNBC. Still, enough people are apparently watching Fox News that the Tea Party is ahead of the Democrats by six points and the Republicans by thirteen. If you think such people can be safely dismissed because they’re stupid, I refer you back to Mr. Brooks.
Or you can just follow that canary in the mine of stupidity, Michael Steele. Yesterday he told Fox News that he’d join the Tea Party protests himself, if he weren’t, you know, chair of the Republican National Committee. One gets the feeling that Steele would join the Aryan Nations if he thought it would keep him in a job for a few more weeks, but his endorsement still suggests that the powers-that-be in the GOP consider the Tea Party real enough to co-opt. So does his assertion that the things the Tea Party and the Republican Party have in common outnumber the things they disagree on, which “don’t really matter,” anyway.* Also, check out this sly rhetorical maneuver: Steele told reporters, “I’m getting back to this conservative movement in the party or whatever you want to call it.” What Michael Steele wants to call it, apparently, is a movement wholly contained within the GOP. Despite Dick Armey’s role in organizing the original protests, I don’t know if that’s true anymore. Ask Dr. Victor Frankenstein or anyone who’s ever masturbated with a plastic bag over his head: just because you made it doesn’t mean it won’t kill you.
So here is our current situation: the plurality of Americans support a political party that does not technically exist and was originally created by the PAC of a disgraced former Congressman and launched to national prominence by Fox News, although neither that Congressmen nor Fox News has control of it anymore. While its platform is entirely negative, this movement enjoys significant leads in approval ratings over both major American political parties, and has attracted a constituency united by their opposition to education, expertise and experience. Are you scared yet, or has my continual alarmism over national stupidity burned out your panic center? If you still need that frisson of pure dread, I direct you to the comments section of Brooks’s column.
All they need are enough votes.