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?

Yes, sensitive Tea Partiers, lots of Americans strongly disagree with you. Most of them don't harbor disdain for you. Yes, the media is sometimes biased. That doesn't mean all mainstream journalists are constantly engaged in a conspiracy to spy on you. Yes, sometimes the charge of racism is used cynically as a political cudgel against conservatives. That doesn't mean the charge is never legitimate, or that you're constantly being victimized by false charges of racism. Stop letting the talk-radio hosts of the world play on your anxieties and convince you that everyone in the world is arrayed against you and only they are on your side. 

I'll leave you with an example of a talk-radio host playing on anxieties. Immigration is an issue that divides the Republican Party. That is to say, there is honest disagreement about the best way forward, both as a matter of politics and policy. Going back to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, there has been a pro-immigrant faction in the party, a willingness to pass amnesties, an optimistic belief that it's good for America to welcome a lot of newcomers. And there has long been a faction that disagrees and takes a more restrictionist attitude. 

There is no reason to doubt that when Senator Marco Rubio says he believes comprehensive immigration reform will be good for the country, he really means it, whether right or wrong. When Karl Rove says moderating the GOP's stance on immigration is good politics, there is no reason to doubt that he means it.

Now here's what Rush Limbaugh said yesterday:

There will be a fast move in Republican circles to push "comprehensive immigration reform," to go all-in now. I can't tell you what the Republicans think they're gonna achieve, except this: I really do believe that some of this is oriented toward driving the conservatives out of the party. I really think some of this is oriented toward the Republicans actually seeking to get rid of their conservative base.

The straightforward explanation, that some Republicans will push immigration reform because they genuinely think it is good politics or good policy, is minimized, though there is no reason to do so, and the notion that this is a conspiracy to get rid of conservatives—something neither Reagan nor Bush nor W. Bush nor McCain nor Rove nor Rubio have ever possibly wanted—is absurdly asserted. 

Limbaugh continues:

Even if it takes 15 years in the wilderness to rebuild a new base of people who don't embarrass them, of people who are of the right temperament.  Maybe that's what they're willing to do. Maybe they've got commitments from their donors to keep 'em afloat if they just get rid of some of these wacko right-wing extremists. "We'll just go all-in here. We'll try to put together a new base of really responsible moderate, temperate, independent-type American voters.

"We'll go out, we'll expand our demographics, we'll get a lot of Hispanics doing this, by throwing away the Tea Party, and we'll get a lot of women voters coming back. We'll throw away our base, and we'll get the transgender and the lesbian, gay, bisexual groups, we'll go out and get the Indians that are ticked off at the Redskins. We'll get them! We'll come out against that, and pretty soon we're gonna own the country."

That is the way they're thinking, and all they gotta do to bring all that off? All they gotta do is throw away their base.  That's Christmas morning for 'em.  Now, the Democrats never stop whipping up their base.  Have you noticed?  There's never any pressure on the Democrats to get rid of their base, and you never hear Democrats ripping in their base. You never hear the Democrats acting embarrassed—and believe me, their base is genuine Looney Tunes. 

Their base lives and workers in asylums. 

The monologue is a perfect illustration of what I'm talking about. Spreading a paranoid delusion that a longstanding policy fight is really about signaling disdain for Limbaugh-style Republicans and trying to expel conservatives from the GOP; implied criticism of elites who harbor crude prejudices toward people because of their politics; and in the very next sentences, an assertion that Democrats are Looney Tunes who live in asylums—all spoken by a coastal-dwelling, multimillionaire entertainer. It's a special combination of insecurity and aggression. They're hateful more often than they realize and hated less than they imagine.

_____

*Not that there's anything wrong with that!

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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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