Sensitive Tea Partiers Need to Stop Taking Criticism So Personally

With all due respect, they should chill out. Few who disagree with them do so out of personal disdain. 
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Every so often, opinion journalism critical of the Tea Party elicits a response unlike anything I've experienced from any other faction in American politics. As someone who regularly publishes strong criticism of Democrats and Republicans alike, I am accustomed to forceful retorts from supporters of whomever I've criticized most recently. No ideology has a monopoly on thoughtful engagement and debate or on thoughtless insults with no basis in fact. 

I see plenty of both.

In my experience, Tea Party supporters are no more or less likely to offer smart or plausible rebuttals than establishment Republicans, progressive Democrats, or liberals. But when Tea Party email goes wrong it is far more likely than any other kind to exude a particular combination of  insecurity and aggression that is easier to excerpt than to describe. This attitude isn't in every Tea Party email, but it comes from Tea Partiers far more often than any other source. Even if I'm blind to other guilty parties, Tea Partiers ought to quit it.

Let me share a representative example. Earlier this week, I wrote that while I too find it absurd and frustrating that barriers have been erected around outdoor monuments over the course of the federal government's shutdown, taking to the streets to protest that, of all things, wasn't going to help veterans, who could use more some help, or strengthen U.S. liberty, which could use strengthening. The protest struck me as useless and therefore indicative of flawed priorities.

Agree or disagree, that's my honest opinion.

Here are some excerpts from a response emailed by someone present at the protest:

  • "Conner Friedersdorf is an elitist douche bag who loves freedom just so long as it is exercised by people he approves of and in ways he finds tasteful."
  • "Those people at that memorial, and I was one of them, hate you and everyone you knows guts and can see right through you."
  • "See if those icky tea party people would just go away and know their place things would be better. And let me guess, you live somewhere else on the I 95 corridor."
  • "What is wrong with your article is that it is totally elitist and completely dismissive of the people who did that. Basically, you don't think that the Tea Party are the right kind of people and therefore all they really do is embarrass themselves and everyone else."

​Insults and profanity are something that I get all the time from folks right, left, and center, but no matter how forcefully I criticize the Washington establishment or progressive activists or neoconservatives or Bush-era conservatives or civil-liberties-abrogating Democrats, and no matter how angry folks from those groups are in their responses, they never imagine that I think they're "icky," or that my criticism is rooted in a belief that they're not "the right kind of people."

There are, of course, Americans who think that Tea Partiers aren't "the right kind of people," that we'd be better off if they just went away—just as there are people who think that about liberals, immigrants, minorities, gays, atheists, orthodox Christians, Southerners, lawyers, rappers, and straight white males. There is, alas, a lot of hate and prejudice out there. Every group gets it to a degree. There are some folks in the media who specifically think Tea Parters are "icky." On MSNBC I've heard them referred to more than once as "Tea Baggers." I'm sure that the Daily Kos and Balloon Juice insult Tea Party supporters in all manner of ways, so I'm not saying that Tea Partiers are wrong to perceive that they're sometimes disrespected. 

But that hardly justifies a reflexive assumption that anyone offering forceful criticism must be doing so out of elitism, disrespect, or cultural prejudice. I don't think Tea Partiers are icky, and neither do lots of their critics. If I have time, I clarify that many of the people I respect most in the world, including members of my own family from multiple generations, are Tea Party supporters. Some have even attended Tea Party rallies. I note that I don't, in fact, live on the East Coast*, that I am as bothered as they are at establishment assumptions about what constitutes seriousness in American politics, and that I would love nothing more than a reformed, improved Tea Party that successfully advanced liberty, free markets, and a sustainable safety net.

But sometimes I find the exquisite sensitivity of these Tea Party correspondents exhausting. I tire of engaging with people who present themselves as my put-upon victims, wronged by prejudices I do not harbor, especially if they start quoting Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh, which makes me suspect that projection is a factor. That is to say, they harbor general disdain for broad categories of cultural or ideological adversaries—liberals, atheists, community organizers, academics, public employees, journalists—and presume that anyone arguing with them must harbor a similar disdain in their political disagreements. 

Yes, some people criticize Tea Partiers out of cultural prejudice. Get over it. There is plenty of criticism grounded in honestly-held disagreements too. Yeah, it can be tough to read a column positing that a protest you believed in was a waste of time, but you know what? Public discourse is supposed to function as a crucible. It isn't personal. And given the titles of liberal-hating books published by Tea Party favorites (not to mention the terrible things Tea Partiers say about me in the emails positing that I've insulted them), I sometimes think, don't you see that the opinionmakers who keep telling you how hated and disrespected you are dish out more cultural disdain than anyone? And that you follow their lead as if you think that's how things ought to be?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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