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Profiling Populists and the Tea Party

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Author's note: Much of the mainstream media coverage of tea parties has been unfair and based on outright lies. But I have to give credit to my city’s newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for publishing my column last Thursday. A few days later, the newspaper published a complimentary letter to the editor. Editor Ken Foskett told me the response was “terrific,” with about 3 to 1 in my favor. On June 22, the newspaper in a small article titled “Grass-roots groups endorse candidates” published the endorsements and web site pages for the Georgia Tea Party and Americans for Prosperity.

My column reappears with permission.

I guess I’m a populist even though with a Ph.D. in English I don’t fit the profile. As someone who has attended tea party rallies and town hall meetings here in Georgia I’m supposed to have “common sense” but not much book-learning. You know, we can fix cars, bake a cherry pie, and clean a pistol.

But we’re irrationally afraid that the Obama guv’ment will take those guns away from us. I’m part of a group that can be “ugly,” according to Paul Krugman. This sentiment, unfortunately, was repeated by Lee Harris in his new otherwise impressive book titled The Next American Civil War: The Populist Revolt against the Liberal Elite. Harris does see the movement as evidence of a healthy American “natural libertarianism.” But in placing the movement into the context of populist movements (many of them bloody) in history, he mischaracterizes it as tending toward irrationality and paranoia.

Harris is my friend and I was at the Carter Center to hear him speak recently. Intending his book to be a warning, he mentioned the possibility of racist tendencies coming out.

During the question session, I asked Harris if he had attended any rallies or meetings. He admitted he had not. I then told about my experience here in Atlanta at four such events. White participants did outnumber blacks, but that certainly wasn’t due to any racism.

Glenn Beck

In fact, every black participant and speaker was embraced warmly. Radio talk show host Herman Cain, speaking in Cobb County last year, recreated his “Rapid Fire” segment. One participant said that he welcomed a black president—like Herman Cain--to thunderous applause and cheers. I also told the people at the Carter Center about how tea party participants did not even litter (in stark contrast to protests on the left).

Hands went up quickly then, and after a few turns, a man sniffed, “Maybe it’s because I’m from Southern California (indicating his sophistication), but I see these tea-baggers as racists. I went to one town hall meeting and the Lyndon LaRouche people were out there screaming.”

The questions after that comment addressed the issue of “civility” and the racist nature of the tea party movement. Of course, not one of the people there had ever actually attended one of these events or knew that the Lyndon LaRouchians are from the far left, disrupting the meetings to discredit the tea party movement.

When he gave his talk at the Carter Center and then at the Decatur library, Harris sounded more like the Harris I know from reading his other books and talking to him in person. He admires traditional American values, and suggested that the liberal elites should refrain from insulting those who hold them dear. And that makes me wonder about the characterization of the populists in his book. Were there editorial pressures? (Or am I being paranoid?)

A major flaw of the Enlightenment heirs, the Liberal Elite (as Harris calls them), is that as a privileged class they are far removed from experiences of real people.

In academia I’ve seen them spin their grand theories, cite each others’ theories, and then claim that their work has been “peer-reviewed.” Their intellectual circle becomes smaller and smaller, their language more specialized as it obscures the paucity of real learning.

And because they have controlled education and the media, they simply instate like-minded, intellectually intolerant peers. They award each other graduate degrees, tenure, editorships, and awards. They dumb down educational requirements. They mislead their audiences and students through censorship, while fooling them that they have their best interests at heart.

That a certain group of people sees through this charade indicates their knowledge of history and human nature. They are rightfully leery of a celebrity politician who promises to “spread the wealth.” They educate their kids at home, teach them Latin and Aristotle’s rhetoric—the hard subjects that have been eliminated by these supposed intellectuals in charge of education. And as this month’s elections show, they are having an influence through the electoral process—and not as modern-day mobs of pitchfork-carrying peasants.

I would encourage liberals—and conservatives—to learn more about the tea party. Most of the participants know more about the history of the West and the Constitution than do most high school social studies teachers. There are even some professors among them.

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