Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010...7:50 pm
Thoughts on the Sanity Rally
Peter Beinart wrote a breathtakingly un-self aware piece about the Stewart/Colbert rally this past weekend, which, however misguided, allows me to write a few words about my experience there.
Beinart lists three points on which the rally was off base: 1) that Americans are unnecessarily fearful; 2) that we’re much less divided than the media would lead us to believe; and 3) that there’s too much “insanity” in politics.
I’ll let you read it for yourself, but his refutation of the first two points are really just a weak attempt to defend members of the media against Stewart’s claims that they stoke fear and divisiveness. Which is funny because in making his third point he seems to miss the point Stewart was making about the media altogether.
Finally, the focus on “sanity.” Talk about condescending. The Tea Party types who believe that expanding government undermines their freedom are not insane. They’re tapping into a deeply-rooted American fear of government power, one that would be immediately recognizable to Calvin Coolidge or Strom Thurmond. And in the process, they’re conjuring, once again, the myth that America was born free, and surrenders a smidgen of liberty every time Washington imposes another tax or establishes another government agency. (The Tea Partiers may not be racists, but it’s hardly surprising that this idealized image of 19th Century America doesn’t impress African-Americans). The Tea Partiers, in other words, are making a serious argument, which the left too often tries to dismiss by calling them nuts. In fact, the haughtiness reflected by such insults conceals the left’s confusion over how to respond ideologically. The Obama administration has barely tried to argue that activist government can make people more free—by, for instance, guaranteeing their health care coverage and thus freeing them to leave a dead end job. In America today, as at past moments in our history, there’s a profound debate underway not just about how to right our economy but about the relationship between capitalism and freedom. Pretending it’s not a real debate is a great way for the left to lose.
Beinart claims he watched the rally but I’m not sure how you could have watched this and thought that the insanity Stewart was combating was the insanity of the Tea Party. I was there and, while there were signs opposing the Tea Party, I’m pretty sure nothing that happened on stage had anything to do with the Tea Party. The insanity that was being called out was the insanity of members of the media who insist on pitting one side against the other, setting up straw men, staging battles, and stoking fear. The point Stewart was trying to make is that most Americans are nothing like what’s reflected in the media and we’re sick of being fed “news” that blows up the extremes at the expense of real dialogue about hard choices.
In fact, I think one of the main stories the media has failed to report is what’s at the root of the Tea Party ideology. There’s a fascinating debate within the Tea Party, reported on Morning Edition a couple months ago, over whether social issues should be added to their platform. This past weekend on This American Life, I heard an amazing story about the debate within the Tea Party movement about whether to run independent candidates or whether to support Republican candidates. I haven’t heard much at all about this from other (mainly cable) outlets. For example, I’m writing a paper on the influence morning shows have on political decision making. As part of my research, I watched and cataloged every “news” segment of the Today Show for the month of October (I know, I know). Unless you count the segments with pundits discussing the state of the economy, there was almost no policy segments over the course of the month leading up to the midterm elections. It was almost completely coverage of the horse race. Given this media environment, could you really blame the left if they did react snootily to the Tea Party? They’re reacting to the image of the Tea Party that the media has shown them: Hitler signs, stomping on people’s heads, protests against death panels, campaigns against masturbation, Aqua Buddhas. If Beinart wants the left to take these people seriously, maybe he should get out and do some real reporting.