Feb 16th 2010

The Tea Party Movement Frightens Me

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

Last weekend, when Washington was being hit by its worst-ever snow storm, the Tea Party Movement was holding its first national meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. With nothing else to do, and unable to travel, I watched parts of their convention on television and became quite concerned by what I saw and heard. After reviewing two sets of national polls, released this Friday, my concern was heightened.

Former Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin gave the convention's keynote address. While some media pundits dismiss Palin, poking fun at her lack of knowledge and her verbal gaffes, I believe she must be taken seriously. She is a dangerous populist, who delights her following with crude appeals to patriotism, anger at Washington, resentment at all things "foreign" and her penchant for ridiculing, as "out of touch elites," a wide array of opponents.

She may not know history or geography, but to her enthralled base she speaks the truth. Palin has touched the exposed nerve of anger and alienation of some elements of the white middle class. And, in this context, attacks against Palin only serve to reinforce her supporter's feelings of being aggrieved.

Also addressing the convention was former Congressman and 2008 presidential candidate, Tom Tancredo. Some will recall the splash Tancredo created a few years back when he advocated bombing the holy places in Mecca and Medina if the U.S. were attacked again by terrorists. Giving the meeting's opening address, Tancredo was in prime form accusing President Obama "and his left wing allies" of "looking at every opportunity to destroy the Constitution before we have a chance to save it" and telling the cheering crowd that "this is our country", urging them "to take it back".

In one especially disturbing passage, Tancredo played his anti-immigrant, anti-foreign card, charging that "people who could not even spell the word 'vote' or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White house. His name is Barack Hussein Obama".

It may make some feel better to dismiss all this as the bizarre rantings of a disgruntled minority. I think not. Polls out this weekend show the strength of this current within the Republican Party. While only 35% of Republicans consider themselves supporters of the Tea Party Movement, 60% of Republicans say they agree with the views of the movement. And over one-half of all Republicans believe the group will make their party stronger.

They may be a minority, but they are angry, feel threatened, and have already demonstrated their ability to organize their anger into a disruptive and, at times, violent force-as they did last summer in breaking up health care reform Town Hall meetings across the U.S. And despite being a minority, they have a "star" in Sarah Palin and strong media voices like Rush Limbaugh, and Fox TV's Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. With the national Republican Party rudderless, at the moment, this current has become the de facto leadership of the opposition to the White House. The danger of the Tea Party, then, is not so much that it will become the majority, but that it will continue to intimidate more moderate voices in the Republican Party.

This, of course, is not a new phenomenon. Movements of this sort frequently arise in periods of social dislocation and economic distress. They prey on the fears of the middle class with appeals to patriotism, and warnings against elites and foreigners-creating in the minds of their supporters a life/death struggle of "us" versus "them". Appeals to anger using chauvinism, xenophobia and racism are their trademarks. We've seen similar efforts rise up in recent times with Jörg Haider in Austria, Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, Nick Griffin in the U.K. - and it has now come to America.

So excuse me if I don't join those who dismiss Sarah Palin or her Tea Party crowd or take consolation in the polls showing that 71% of Americans feel she is not qualified to be president. I'm frightened by the 26% who think she is qualified (including 42% of all Republicans). The crowds that cheer her on or respond with delight to the bigoted remarks of Tom Tancredo shouldn't be dismissed. They are reason to be concerned, very concerned.

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