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Posts Tagged ‘Tea Party’

Cynics, Third Parties, and Maybe a Smidgen of Hope

Recently, on the main listserv and Facebook page for NCDD (the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, of which I’m a board member), we discussed signs of disaffection with the federal government.

There certainly seem to be a lot of them these days.

Part of the discussion centered on Americans Elect. In case you haven’t heard, this group aims to nominate a presidential candidate in a nonpartisan fashion through an online convention in which any registered voter can participate. The successful candidate (with a vice presidential candidate from the other established party) will represent the views of millions as expressed through their participation in an online survey. The goal appears to be a mobilization of the grass roots through the technology that has given everyone a voice.

Americans Elect isn’t the first group to emerge along these lines. No Labels “supports reforms, leaders and legislation that will help fix America’s broken government and break the stranglehold that the extremes currently have on our political process.” The Coffee Party USA is “a grassroots, non-partisan movement that aims to restore the principles and spirit of democracy in America.” (Quotes come from the respective websites.) And in terms of mobilized disaffection, we barely need mention the Occupy movement and the Tea Party.

I see all this as a hopeful sign. Not everyone does, however.

Amid our listserv discussion, someone posted a scathing article on this topic by the distinguished Mark Schmitt in Democracy. He writes that third-party movements and similar organizations are essentially fantasies meant to redirect our anger away from the hard work of reforming the system. The problems with these movements, according to Schmitt, are threefold: they are started not at the grass roots, but by consummate Washington insiders; they promise to break the duopoly of American politics when that duopoly is enshrined in the very structure of our government; and their policies are vague.

Schmitt’s points raise questions that should be asked of these organizations. The duopoly argument, especially, deserves serious consideration. But I wish he had given one other factor its due: the groundswell of public sentiment behind these movements, regardless of their origins. This sentiment is particularly in evidence in the Occupy movement and the Tea Party. Reforming the system, as he mentions, is important—but so is building and channeling sentiment against the inertia and despair into which government gridlock so easily casts us. It may be that these movements are a necessary first step to mobilizing a critical mass for change: the kind of critical mass that is powerful enough to inspire serious reform.

Or perhaps Schmitt is wrong and they’ll spark serious reform by themselves. Think Tahrir Square (though a direct import of that model to the U.S. seems logistically difficult at best).

What do you think of third parties and reform movements? Are they a waste of time, a distraction from real reform, “people’s movements” with real possibilities, or something else?

Dialogue With Those Who Loathe Dialogue…(or Do They?)

A funny thing happened on the way to this post. It leads to a question and a sidebar that might change the question. (Got that?)

My original plan was to reflect on Cynthia Tucker’s column “Obama tried too hard to work with Republicans,” which appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her thesis is that “the president has made some of his biggest mistakes trying to woo a GOP opposition that has committed itself to frustrating him at every turn.”

This perspective on the last two years—which I share—leads to the question: how can we dialogue with those who refuse to dialogue?

This is not the same as holding a difficult dialogue, or dialoguing with difficult people. Several of my “dialogue partners” in years past have disagreed with almost everything I said. But despite their contentious words and occasional exasperation with me, they kept going. They saw the value in the dialogue itself.

No, I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about those who, like my perception of congressional Republicans and many in the Tea Party movement, prefer to fight the opposition at every turn rather than talk together.

I tend to think that, in a world with so many complex issues and so many people to address them, it’s more effective to sidestep the anti-dialoguers, at least for the time being, and seek out those willing to dialogue, whatever their point of view. My hope is that by doing so, we might eventually build a critical mass of people committed to dialogue—enough, maybe, to make dialogue the preferred method of addressing issues.

And now the sidebar (which maybe changes the question):

While preparing to write this post, I started reading the comments to Tucker’s column. Nearly all of them are angry, derisive, devoid of facts, and poorly spelled (yes, this matters to a writer). But they also reveal that the commenters are working from an entirely different narrative: that, far from seeking bipartisanship, the president shut out his opposition and “rammed his legislation down the throats” of the people.

It’s easy for me to simply attribute this reaction to the loose-cannon right-wing media: Beck, Hannity, et al. That could be true. But these commenters think I get all my ideas from the loose-cannon left-wing media. (I don’t.) And the assigning of blame doesn’t get us anywhere anyway.

So let’s refine our original question: what if the steadfast refusal to dialogue stems from something more fundamental—and maybe resolvable—in the issue at hand, like the sides’ working from two contradictory narratives? If instead of refusing to dialogue, we acknowledged the two narratives and explored their validity in more depth, might that change the dynamic? Could it soften the anger on both sides and allow them to talk further?

Maybe the larger question is, how far do we pursue dialogue in such difficult circumstances, and when do we decide it’s not worth the effort? How do we know when to fish or cut bait?

Dialogue, Truth, and Its More Obnoxious Fans

Uncle Sam wants YOU

to learn English

—bumper sticker

I saw this bumper sticker while driving up the interstate yesterday, and after the automatic cringe, it got me thinking about a much larger question than the wrangle over English speaking.

To get to that question, however, let’s probe the bumper sticker a bit more. It seems self-evident that learning the language of the country where you live carries many advantages. If I moved to France (please, O Lord), I could get a job, buy stamps, and find a good dentist way more easily by knowing and speaking French. On a broader level, I could contribute more of myself to my new community—through volunteering, writing, promoting political candidates, etc.—by knowing and speaking French.

So in the United States, learning English enables you to transact your business and make a difference in ways that not learning English can’t. Because of this, you might even say that Uncle Sam would be delighted if non-English-speakers learned English, so they can bring their whole selves to the public square.

None of that changes the fact that the bumper sticker is aggressive and cringeworthy. So here comes the larger question:

How on earth can we hear truth—even a grain of it—in an opinion expressed so offensively?

In an ideal world, of course, the people who express opinions this way would become more civil in their speech and their inner lives. In our imperfect world, there’s a strong temptation to simply ignore these folks. And to ignore any hint of what they express.

Maybe that’s the right thing to do. But here’s why it might not be.

I remember a cartoon in which one fellow at a bar said to another, “All I know is, if you’re against pollution, it can’t be all bad.” See the problem? As we dismiss someone we find obnoxious, we also dismiss his perspective—lock, stock, and barrel—and wind up in a place where we don’t want to be.

Examples? Here’s one to start us off: I’m very worried about the growth of the national debt. Have been since long before it became the cause célèbre of the right wing. But I find it very hard to express that opinion when the more rabid wing of the Tea Party has shouted it—and various distortions of it—from the housetops. I feel almost squeezed into the position of “If you’re against the national debt, it can’t be all bad.”

I’ll bet you can think of a hundred other examples. Go for it. Write about them in the Comments section below.

The Tea Party, Battered Stereotypes, and a Glimmer of Hope

Tea Party. Mention the words anywhere these days, and you’ll probably get a vehement reaction. You’ll also hear stereotypes of the people involved.

Which makes the latest CBS News/New York Times poll quite interesting.

The poll’s myriad questions and deft distinctions (for instance, separating Tea Party activists from Tea Party members) yielded an in-depth look at the movement. Overall, the data confirm the popular image of Tea Partiers. Solid majorities are white, male, and conservative. They are angry about a variety of issues and really dislike the president.

But before you buy all the popular images of Tea Partiers, check this out: 

  • 37 percent have college degrees, substantially more than the national average (25 percent).
  • 56 percent make more than $50,000 in annual household income, again higher than the national average.
  • While they like Sarah Palin, a plurality—47 percent—do not think she’d make an effective president.

I don’t want to make too much of these findings; they don’t make the Tea Party exactly a bastion of liberalism. But they remind me, yet again, how often I construct a simplistic image of a certain group (or absorb the simplistic media image) and generalize it to all members. I’ve done it with born-again Christians; now, it appears, I’ve done it with Tea Partiers.

The problem with these images, or stereotypes, is that they prevent dialogue. For one thing, why talk with Tea Partiers if they’re all angry and misapply buzzwords like “socialism” at every opportunity? For another, why talk with Tea Partiers when I know all about them already—or so the stereotype has deluded me into believing?

Polls like these make me stand up and take notice. Suddenly I realize that there’s more to these people than my stereotypes indicate. That stokes my curiosity, which in turn drives me to seek dialogue with members of the group.

Just like that, we’re reaching across the divide.

Too optimistic? I might agree with you if it weren’t actually happening. Recently the Transpartisan Alliance brought together a Tea Party leader with, of all people, a senior representative of MoveOn.org, a liberal activist group if there ever was one. Remarkably, both parties expressed an honest desire to talk—and keep talking. Check out the link to the video on the homepage.*

It’s not what you’d expect from either group, based on the stereotypes. And that’s exactly the problem with stereotypes: they prevent us from starting the dialogue that could move us toward deeper understanding—and, ultimately, the healing of our bitter divides. Let’s let go of them and approach each person for what she is: unique.

*The Transpartisan site may be down right now; I haven’t been able to connect to it for a couple of days. If you can’t either, keep trying; the video is worth the effort.

Paying Attention to the Dissonant Voice

Here’s the sort of thing that gets my attention: 

You see the common thread here? All these statements strike a dissonant chord. They make us think, “How can those people take that position when they also believe this?”

I find these voices terribly important.

To understand why, first consider the voices we usually hear. Spend any time with the news media, and you’ll find yourself hearing, on any given issue, the same things from the same people—over and over and over. If a news segment covers abortion, for instance, it will most likely feature a pro-choice advocate touting a “woman’s right to choose” and a pro-lifer promoting “the rights of the unborn.”

Now the positions behind those sound bites may have merit. But the endless repetition of the same catchphrases by the same people obscures whatever nuance these positions may have. “Of course he’d say that,” we think. “He’s a [insert political party or special interest group here].”

But then someone zags when we expect her to zig. Or she holds two positions that we’ve been led to believe are contradictory. There’s your dissonant voice.

These are important, I think, for two reasons. First, when people express a belief contrary to their historical position or perceived self-interest, it implies that they find the belief itself compelling. I don’t think it’s a slam-dunk that a hospital CEO would support a single-payer system. So when James Barba of Albany Medical Center does, it’s an opportunity for us to see single-payer differently. If he’s for it, the thinking goes, maybe it’s worth another look.

Second, these dissonant voices can explode our stereotypes. Over the years, I’ve been guilty of painting the born-again Christian community with too broad a brush. Like many people, I could see them as uniformly literalist, creationist, and overly focused on abortion and gay marriage. So when a priest’s wife touts the beauty of evolution as the means of God’s creation, or I see born-agains advocating for the environment and social justice, it forces me to rethink my image. More accurately, it forces me to discard the image—and listen to each unique person with his own unique voice.

Dissonant voices can point out areas of truth. Dissonant voices can help us see our “opponents” more clearly—and thus treat them more respectfully. See how many of these voices you can hear in the public square.