The USA Today headline the day after the election: “Voters Send Angry Message.” Time’s two-word explanation for the electoral tsunami: “voter rage.” The Economist’s cover: “Angry America.” This is now the dominant narrative, the new conventional wisdom. It’s a bum rap.
To be sure, many independents who were inspired by candidate Barack Obama in 2008 used their votes in 2010 to express disappointment with President Obama, his agenda, his priorities, and his party. But disappointed is not the same as angry, and besides: Independents are not the ones the headline writers have in mind. Nor, obviously, are those who voted for losing liberal candidates. They are talking about conservatives and, in particular, those conservatives who identify as members of the Tea Party movement.
What evidence suggests that Tea Partiers are peasants with pitchforks? There is none. Recall the huge Glenn Beck rally in Washington in August: Its theme was “restoring honor” — hardly an expression of fury. And no Washington demonstrators in memory have left behind a cleaner mall. Rarely are irate people so fastidious.
Among the candidates the Tea Party most enthusiastically supported was the even-tempered Marco Rubio, now on his way to the U.S. Senate from Florida. They also favored failed candidates Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada. You can say O’Donnell and Angle were not ready for primetime. But you can’t credibly charge that they either displayed or cultivated anger. They did not refer to their political opponents as “enemies” — as President Obama did when speaking of Republicans to a Hispanic group.
What too many in the media have refused to recognize is that Tea Party members are not calling for a revolution — they’re calling for a restoration. They take the U.S. Constitution seriously. They prefer the system of government designed by the Founders — eschewing political correctness, they might even say Founding Fathers — to other options now on offer. That does not endear them to those who fancy themselves “progressives.” But neither does it suggest that they are “full of inchoate rage” as Vanity Fair’s editor, Graydon Carter, wrote.
Tea Party members believe in small and limited government. What’s so great about smallness and limitations? The answer does not go without saying: Big governments, governments with unlimited powers, inevitably threaten individual freedom — always have, always will. And freedom is a value for which Americans for centuries have fought and died; a value most Americans still hold dear — though, distressingly, others now seem to regard the idea of liberty as quaint.
Tea Partiers are fiscal conservatives. They see excessive taxation as harmful to economic health — as did Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman, no slouch when it came to such matters. They would halt the burgeoning of a privileged, unaccountable, and increasingly powerful government bureaucracy. They want elected officials to view themselves as civil servants — not rulers. They would remind them that they are not in high office primarily so they can be philanthropic with taxpayers’ money.
When it comes to foreign policy, the Tea Party seems less focused — though all the members I’ve met agree that defending America from her enemies should be near the top of any president’s to-do list. They oppose surrendering American sovereignty to transnational organizations. They think that if the United States goes to war, it’s essential that the United States wins. They prefer a proud America to an apologetic America because they believe that, for all its faults, America remains the last, best hope of mankind.
They grasp, too, that the most serious threats to America’s security in the 21st century come from those whose fundamentalist reading of Islam encourages the use of violence to establish the superiority of Muslims over non-Muslims. And they are bewildered by all the clever people who are willfully blind to this reality.
One example: Among the performers at comedian/commentator Jon Stewart’s pre-election “Rally to Restore Sanity” — designed as a response to Glenn Beck’s rally to “restore honor” — was Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens. Is it possible that Stewart did not know that the singer supported the death sentence pronounced by Ayatollah Khomeini against author Salman Rushdie for the crime of having written a novel that the Iranian Islamist revolutionary deemed blasphemous?
Rushdie contacted Stewart to ask that question. Stewart told Rushdie he “was sorry it upset me, but really, it was plain that he was fine with it. Depressing.” Yes, and not sane — not if sanity means showing judgment and good sense. But like most Tea Party members and most Americans, I’m not angry about it. Not even a teensy-weensy bit.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.