Mike Tharp: Many worry where we're headed

March 13, 2010 

In the original "Alice in Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll, Alice attends a tea party thrown by the Mad Hatter and the March Hare.

Most readers think the Mad Hatter is rude to Alice and angry at the hare. At one point, after Alice scolds him, he responds with a riddle: "Why is a raven like a writing desk?"

To some, today's Tea Party movement reflects the rudeness and anger -- and even the absurdity -- of the scene in Carroll's book.

Less than 18 months old, the strongest citizen-driven force to come down the political pike in some time, the Tea Party movement is rockin'.

One was held in Merced last year on UC Merced's campus. At least 300 Mercedians turned out over the course of the day. Since then hundreds of other American cities and towns have staged their own tea parties.

Several hundred thousand Americans attended them.

Even Marin County, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1, according to www.marinij.com, more than 600 people came together early this month around the theme "Conservative Groupa-Paloooza."

Predictably, the MSM (mainstream media) or "legacy" media, as the blogosphere likes to call us, have either ignored the phenomenon (although this column wrote about the UC Merced gathering at the time, www.mercedsunstar.com/2009/04/18/797942_p2/mike-tharp-normal-folks-who-are.html) or bashed it.

Typical treatment came from New York Times columnist Frank Rich whose Feb. 28 column was headlined, "Axis of the Obsessed and Deranged." Times reporter David Barstow penned a long takeout last month headlined "Tea Party Lights Fuse of Rebellion on the Right."

Many critics of the movement cite a recent Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) report called "Rage on the Right." Its author, Mark Potok, wrote: "The 'tea parties' and similar groups that have sprung up in recent months cannot fairly be considered extremist groups, but they are shot through with rich veins of radical ideas, conspiracy theories and racism."

In other words, tea partygoers are extremists.

I stopped believing most of what SPLC reports a long time ago. It's no coincidence that there are three -- not one or two -- places on its Web site for you to "DONATE." The outfit makes its living out of promoting fear and loathing with pseudo-scientific tours of the horizon of hate. It's hypocritical that the word "poverty" even appears in its name.

Reason.com, an L.A.-based think tank, said it well: "As far as the SPLC is concerned, though, skinheads, (John) Birchers and Glenn Beck fans are all tied together in one big ball of scary."

Unfortunately for clear analysis, a lot of the MSM take their cue from advocates like the SPLC and a generation of politically correct newsroom group-thinkers.

We do so at our peril.

The Tea Party movement is emblematic of heartfelt worry among many Americans about where we're headed. The anger at what people perceive as runaway spending and a public sector takeover of the economy thickens the air, whether in beleaguered Merced County or affluent Montgomery County, Md.

The movement is political in that it supports some policies, programs and politicians and opposes others. But it runs much deeper than politics.

In fact, the movement could be called apolitical. Our McClatchy Washington Bureau reported on a recent poll conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs: "An overwhelming majority of Americans think that their federal government is gridlocked by partisan infighting and turf battles and can't accomplish anything." Four out of five Americans believe that.

When's the last time 80 percent of us agreed on anything?

The Tea Party movement has tapped into our wintry discontent. For folks in my generation -- ex-hippies -- tea parties strongly resemble the antiwar and civil rights protests of the '60s. Except they're more peaceful. New York Times columnist David Brooks captured the resemblance: "One went to Woodstock, the other is more likely to go to Wal-Mart."

A recent study by the Sam Adams Alliance and quoted in www.biggovernment.com dissected tea partiers: some 86 percent oppose the formation of a third party; 36 percent support a 2012 Sarah Palin presidential candidacy; 81 percent have a Web site for their organization; 80 percent cited "to stand up for my beliefs" when characterizing their initial reason for involvement; 62 percent identified as Republicans, 28 percent as Independents, 10 percent as "Tea Party."

Two common traits emerge from this profile -- and they were put into words by fictional broadcaster Howard Beale in the 1976 film "Network":

"You've got to get mad. You've got to say, 'I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!' Then we'll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open your window, stick your head out and yell, 'I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!'"

The Sun-Star's editorial board recently hosted George Runner, a state senator running for the Board of Equalization, the main tax appeal and policy board for the state.

Whatever your politics, or lack of them, Runner made several valid points: "We can't spend our way out of this (the state budget crisis), we can't borrow our way out of it." He reckoned that the regulatory environment in the state costs California businesses $500 billion a year: "It makes California less competitive."

No kidding. It's that kind of pro-fish, anti-farmer legislation, at federal, state and local levels, that has fueled the Tea Party movement. Politicians -- elected and appointed -- seem to exist in their own parallel universe. One where we don't count -- unless we give them money.

At last week's public forum at Merced College on the foreclosure crisis, the question was asked whether the county could front the costs of faxing the hundreds of pages of loan documents from beleaguered homeowners to banks. No, the county couldn't.

Why not? Can't the supes dip into their special district funds for a few hundred or a couple thousand bucks to help people who clearly need help? Can't there be a budget line item for a dedicated fax machine for those threatened with foreclosure?

Nope. Because that would take creative compassion. And because there'd be no money coming in from the exercise.

That's one of the reasons the Tea Party movement isn't going away. It's going to grow. It's going to broaden its appeal to include more people of color than already go to tea parties. And, as we saw in the Texas governor's primary, where the Tea Party candidate won nearly one of every five votes, the movement is going to determine elections.

The MSM and the two not-a-dime's-worth-of-difference major parties had better take heed. As the Mad Hatter told Alice, "It's very easy to take more than nothing." As America lurches ahead, sideways or backwards, it won't be the Tea Party people who are living in Wonderland.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.com

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