Political Science Professor at Columbia University
Can America Survive the Tea Party?
Monday, November 01, 2010 - 01:51 PM
Does this election reflect the real America? Or is it merely a big bump in the road?
Tea Party candidates and their conservative supporters claim that their objective is to restore the founding principles of the Constitution to modern governance. Their rhetoric suggests, however, that they don't understand that the Constitution includes its 27 amendments. In combination, this means our Constitution emphasizes individual rights, limited government and the separation of powers, core elements that have served us well and merit our permanent respect. Ironically, not since 1860 have candidates in an election so intensely invoked these values while threatening their very existence.
Tea Party candidates seem to define the Constitution as a relic impervious to change. Tom Tancredo, Rand Paul and numerous other Tea Party candidates, for example, oppose birthright citizenship even though it's enshrined in the 15th Amendment. Rand Paul's support for the rights of businesses to deny serving potential clients for any reason including their race harkens back to the Separate but Equal standard Congress prohibited with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Numerous Tea Party leaders also oppose the income tax on the grounds that it is unconstitutional, even though the 16th Amendment declares "The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several states, and without regard to any census or enumeration."
Furthermore, if the nation were to be governed by the Constitution as originally written, women would lose the right to vote, and the electorate would be limited to white property owners.
It is hard to believe that the majority of Americans who are likely to vote for Tea Party candidates support policies like these. How, then, can we explain the likelihood that so many of them will be elected?
There are three possible explanations. First, Tea Party supporters are uninformed about what these candidates represent. This surely applies to some who identify with the movement, but given the intensity that has characterized this election, it is difficult to imagine that's the case for most.
Second, voters are so angry and nervous about their future and the future of the nation that they are fixated on "getting the bums out," while also seduced by the Tea Party's promise to downsize government and reduce taxes. This mentality may or may not be rational, but it is understandable.
Third, and mose uncomfortably, the Tea Party has tapped into that dark side of the American soul that has always been a part of us. This is the part that has fought—sometimes without even realizing it—to maintain white supremacy: it's evidenced by the segregation of African Americans, the genocide-like treatment of Indians, the incarceration of Japanese during WWII, the killings and land theft suffered by Mexican Americans, and the discrimination that blacks continue to suffer in the form of race-based law enforcement and cartoons depicting our President as an ape.
The Tea Party's supporters come from these three categories. However much we may disagree with those in the first two groups, there's nothing about them that's threatening to our democracy. As a country, we can develop alternatives to displace them in future elections when voters become dissatisfied. But if Tea Party support is primarily lodged in the third category, the future of our nation is at stake.