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  • Matt Bors / Special to The Bee

  • MANNY CRISOSTOMO / Bee file, 2011

  • JARED SOARES / New York Times

    Tea party members take a break during a Board of Supervisors meeting last year in Roanoke County, Va. Pragmatic engagement in politics is a hallmark of the grass-roots tea party movement. But interviews with members also show they hold wildly inaccurate views of what is in, or not in, public policy.

  • Vanessa Williamson is a thirdyear Ph.D. student at Harvard University in the Government and Social Policy program. Her dissertation is on the politics of taxation. She grew up in Sacramento and graduated from Mira Loma High School in 1999.

The Conversation: Is the tea party healthy for democracy?

Published: Sunday, Jun. 3, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
Last Modified: Monday, Jun. 4, 2012 - 10:31 am

Join the Conversation: Do you think the tea party is gaining influence, or losing it? Leave a comment at the end of the story or to send a letter, go to

In rural Virginia, a local tea party member – a retired contractor, military veteran and gun rights activist – was telling me about organizing.

"It's the Saul Alinsky model," he explained, referring to the Chicago-born political organizer and writer.

If he were still alive, Alinsky would surely be startled to learn that this conservative Republican had read his classic book, "Rules for Radicals." Yet, in my interviews with tea party members across the country, Alinsky's work was widely known. From grass-roots campaigns to takeovers of local Republican Party chapters, tea party activists have taken their tactical cues from the heroes of the left.

And that raises some interesting questions: Partisanship aside, what should we make of the tea party mobilization? In the age of super PACs, is tea party activism a good sign for American democracy?

In our book, "The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism," my co-author Theda Skocpol and I examine this remarkable grass-roots engagement. We interviewed tea party members across the country, visited their meetings and their homes and attended their protests. In the end, we found that tea partyers combine laudable and effective political engagement with high levels of misinformation and troubling intolerance of their political opponents. The result is an amalgam that recalls both America's greatest civic traditions and a darker history of fear and exclusion.

In local rallies and regular meetings, the grass-roots tea party is a model of active citizenship. These predominantly older Americans, some previously active in politics and others with civic experience under their belts, volunteer to do everything from setting up chairs and handing out leaflets, to arranging for speakers, putting out newsletters, and preparing refreshments. Many groups also hold charitable events, raising money for a local food bank or a Christmas toy drive.

Tea party meetings have a "pitch in and get it done" air about them, like the many clubs and lodges and church societies that made America known as "a nation of joiners."

The willingness of grass-roots tea partyers to learn about the nitty-gritty of politics is also remarkable. Members often track bills in their respective state legislatures and closely follow the process through committees to floor votes. Some local group leaders have become quite well known in their state capitol, as legislators realize they can quickly mobilize a significant number of local constituents to oppose environmental regulation, gun control or tax policy.

But along with this pragmatic engagement in politics, tea party members we interviewed held wildly inaccurate views of what is in, or not in, public policy. Tea partyers confidently told us that the Affordable Care Act of 2010 ("ObamaCare" in their parlance) includes both death panels and the abolition of Medicare – although both claims are flat-out untrue. They know process, but flub content – the exact opposite of many liberals, who often have detailed knowledge of public policies but are often extremely vague about how U.S. politics, and especially local politics, actually works.

At times, the level of misinformation in tea party circles reached conspiratorial proportions. At a tea party meeting in Massachusetts, people discussed the possibility that the "smart grid" (an electrical infrastructure improvement approximately as controversial as road repair) was in fact a plan that would give the government control over the thermostats in people's homes. Where are these smart, educated Americans getting such terribly inaccurate information?

Some of these rumors live primarily on the Internet, but another major source is Fox News. Almost all interviewees I spoke with had a favorite Fox News show – and some retirees reported watching as many as eight hours of Fox News a day. Checking the transcripts, we found that former Fox News host Glenn Beck had indeed raised the weird possibility of federal thermostat control on his show.

These conspiratorial concerns can seem harmless, but they have real policy consequences. One particularly outlandish rumor involves a shadowy plot known as "Agenda 21." At a meeting I attended in Virginia, a visiting lecturer informed local tea party members of the terrifying details. The United Nations and American authorities at all levels of government, it was claimed, are engaged in a communist conspiracy. In the near term, this scheme would take the form of apparently innocuous measures like new bike paths. But in the long term, Agenda 21 would lead to the confiscation of all private property and the herding of Americans citizens into urban ghettos and then concentration camps. "Sustainable development," the lecturer concluded, was a euphemism for the coming one world government.

Having interviewed a number of the tea party members in the audience earlier in the day, I expected these well-educated and politically savvy listeners to ask critical questions after the presentation. Instead, members bemoaned other local regulatory measures, now understood as a part of this vast international threat, and formed a committee to examine more closely the dangers of environmentalism.

Similar scenes have replayed in towns across America. Promoted by the John Birch Society, a group that once saw the hand of communism in the civil rights movement and water fluoridation, "Agenda 21" has made the rounds in tea parties nationwide as well as in Northern California. I saw firsthand how these conspiracy theories provoked very real fear on the part of many seniors involved in the tea party. And unwary local town officials have had to put important planning decisions on hold when sleepy town meetings are swamped with angry tea party members worried about Agenda 21.

Grass-roots tea party activism therefore marries participatory engagement and considerable learning about the workings of government with factually ungrounded beliefs about the content of policies. But this is not the only paradox of tea party citizenship. Tea party groups we spoke to combined a generous, tolerant interaction within the group with an almost total lack of empathy for fellow Americans outside the tea party circle.

Many local tea parties include both social conservatives, who feel strongly about traditional moral questions, and libertarians, who prefer to keep government out of these individual choices. This is a major ideological divide, but in practice tea partyers make a strong effort to understand one another and work together. For both politically pragmatic reasons and out of genuine social affection for other people in their group, they work to bridge the different outlooks within the tea party.

Though they work hard to accommodate diverse views on social issues, tea partyers freely demonize fellow Americans in different age groups and life circumstances. We heard cruel stereotypes about Muslim Americans, immigrants and young people. Hateful comments became even more extreme where organized political opponents were at issue. Trade unionists are not seen as having the same rights to organize and exert collective political voice as tea partyers themselves. Organized African American and Latino rights groups are dismissed as threats to the nation. And so are Democrats, who are not discussed as legitimate competitors dueling with Republicans. They are castigated as unpatriotic, portrayed as threats to national security and detriments to a healthy American society.

There is nothing wrong with spirited political debate. Vigorous and often impolite disagreement has always been a part of American political life. We should welcome the political tussle because it helps ensure the vibrancy of American democracy. Recent months suggest that the tea party energy may have, in turn, helped rejuvenate and refocus political activism on the left.

But tea party engagement in the democratic process includes a level of misinformation and out-group intolerance that is surely worrisome.

Democratic processes can only work if both sides share a common set of facts and accept the political legitimacy of their opponents.

If democracy rests on common ground, the tea party appears to have abandoned the field.

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