Even for the most cultivated people, the 19th-century humorist Josh Billings quipped, “it ain’t ignorance causes so much trouble; it’s folks knowing so much that ain’t so.”
Ideally, Plato’s promise that the process of learning would teach us how little we know would apply universally, thus encouraging not only humility but caution, too. Yet when politics is involved, the temptation toward calumny often proves too much.
There is almost certainly no more maligned group in American public life than the Tea Party. Progressives — and many of the Americans they have succeeding in influencing — just know that the movement is chock-full of Bible-thumping, racist, uncaring, poorly educated, narrow-minded, hypocritical, gun-toting, and scientifically illiterate know-nothings. And how do they know this? Well, because the Tea Party must be like this, right?
As it happens, to look more closely into the movement is to be disabused of almost all of the defamations. Facts are stubborn things and care little for partisan advantage, something that Yale law professor Dan Kahan discovered recently when he set out to examine the relationship “between a ‘science comprehension’ scale” he has been developing and the “political outlooks” of American citizens. Kahan’s report is admirably honest. He had, he wrote candidly, expected to see “a modest negative correlation between identifying with the Tea Party and science comprehension” (emphasis is his). Why had he expected this? Because he doesn’t “know a single person who identifies with the Tea Party.” All of his impressions, he conceded, came “from watching cable TV . . . and reading the ‘paper’ (New York Times daily, plus a variety of politics-focused internet sites like Huffington Post & Politico).”
Kahan was genuinely surprised by the results of his study. “Identifying with the Tea Party,” he concluded, “correlates positively (r = 0.05, p = 0.05) with scores on the science comprehension measure.”
Really, this should be no surprise. Study after study and survey after survey show that the favored slurs are, well, slurs. Salon’s Michael Lind — who is, to put it lightly, no fan of the Tea Party’s — allowed this month that the group’s leaders “tend to be highly educated and well-off,” and its members “tend to be more affluent and educated than the general public.” The group cannot, Lind continued, “be explained in terms of abstract ideological extremism, working-class populism or ignorance and stupidity.” Here Lind is merely echoing the data — or, rather, reflecting what the more insufferable among our progressive friends enjoy referring to as the “settled science.”
“Racism,” another preferred charge, is similarly ill-supported. In 2010, UCLA student Emily Ekins surveyed tea-party protest signs, an endeavor that revealed not racism but that
media coverage of tea party rallies over the past year have [sic] focused so heavily on the more controversial signs that it has contributed to the perception that such content dominates the tea party movement more than it actually does.
How many signs were beyond the pale? “5 percent of the total mentioned the president’s race or religion,” the Washington Post wrote in its story about Ekins’s survey, “and slightly more than 1 percent questioned his American citizenship.” A comparison study with some of the anti-Bush protests would be interesting here. Indeed, accusations of bigotry often reveal more about the accusers than the accusees. John McWhorter of Columbia University made the brilliant observation that “the idea that ‘racism’ is behind the Tea Partiers is based on a lazy and vain extension of the term ‘racism’ to meaning ‘that which many black people would not approve of.’” I would only add to McWhorter’s diagnosis — that some engaged in the slander are “lazy” and some are “vain” — that others, such as Victor Goode of the professional victimization website Colorlines and the endlessly boring and monomaniacal Joan Walsh of Salon are so desperate for the insult to be true that they are happy to beclown themselves awkwardly pretending that it is.
Wrapping up his findings, Yale’s Dan Kahan wrote:
I’m a little embarrassed, but mainly I’m just glad that I no longer hold this particular mistaken view.
For what it’s worth, I do not blame Kahan for holding this “mistaken view.” As he implies, all he ever hears is that tea partiers are “extreme,” “dangerous,” and “stupid” — even that they present an existential threat to the Republic.
If anyone doubts the frequency with which this slander is issued from on high, just look through the Congressional Record from the past few weeks. During this time, elected tea partiers were accused of “hostage-taking,” “arson,” “bomb-throwing,” “rebellion,” “nullification,” and even sedition — and all for having the temerity to use their constitutionally authorized control over the power of the purse as leverage in a related political fight. Indeed, the Democratic party has been so on-message with its melodramatic tales of zealotry and insurrection that I wouldn’t be surprised if more congressional speeches were made about the perils of the Defund Obamacare movement in the past fortnight than were delivered about the evils of the Japanese Empire in four long years.
Broadly speaking, tea-party hysteria seems to be originated and peddled by three factions. The first, and most cynical, is made up of perfidious progressives who, because they oppose the Tea Party’s economic agenda and fear its electoral and political clout, have set out with malice aforethought to destroy the group’s reputation. Into this bloc we can reliably throw almost everybody at MSNBC, the Democratic National Committee, the Obama administration, and the parade of political operatives who work around the clock to make politics intolerable for everyone. Given that these people are more committed than they are creative, you will notice that their preferred epithets for the Tea Party are the ones that they throw at everybody. Hence “racist,” “greedy,” and “stupid.”
The second faction consists of the genuinely dangerous Americans who do not grasp the nature, legitimacy, and vital role of vehement political opposition in a free republic. These are the people who, willfully or not, orchestrated and cheered on the IRS’s disgusting singling out of tea-party groups. Evidently, a number of people in America have managed to convince themselves that citizens who rail against taxes and debt and wish to see a reduction in regulation are more likely than most to break the laws they disdain — even though there is precisely no evidence for this. To propose that members of the Tea Party should be more closely monitored by the IRS because they advance an anti-tax message is akin to proposing that the advocates of drug legalization should be singled out for visits by the DEA or that opponents of wiretapping should be targeted for NSA surveillance. In other words, it is to say that there should be tangible consequences for speaking up against the status quo.
The third group is perhaps the most interesting, for it is full of people who have become precisely what they fear. When the history of this period in American life comes to be written, historians will almost certainly come to see the hysteria prompted by the rise of the Tea Party as akin to the “Red Scare” of the 1950s — except, that is, that there were actual Communist traitors in America. The New York Times’s Ross Douthat has observed that the more genuinely vexed among the movement’s detractors believe the group to be “an expression of crypto-fascist, crypto-racist rage, part Timothy McVeigh and part Bull Connor, potentially carrying a wave of terrorist violence in its wings.” Douthat correctly explains that “the historical term for this kind of anxiety is ‘Brown Scare’ — an inordinate fear of a vast far-right conspiracy, which resembles the anti-Communist panics of our past.”
One man on Twitter told me rather hilariously during the shutdown that the Tea Party was comparable to the secessionist movement in the run-up to the Civil War. Witlessly aping the argot of ostensibly detached science-is-settled utilitarians, he insisted that “all the metrics point to Neoconfederates showing themselves.”
In fact, the “metrics” show nothing of the sort. One can only suggest that those who find themselves in my interlocutor’s position, blindly spreading misinformation as if it were gospel truth, should follow the example of Professor Kahan, forming whatever “various political and moral assessments” they wish — but leaving the calumnies at home.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer for National Review.