Meacham: The Tea Party Could Help Us

Five hundred and fifty miles and two days apart, two political rituals with deep roots in American life unfolded last week: the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., and the tea-party convention in Nashville. It is tempting to contrast the two affairs as emblems of a divided nation: the Washington Hilton vs. the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, the establishment vs. the outsiders, the elitists vs. the populists. In Washington they were gathering for an event that first began under Dwight Eisenhower, with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama offering their broad views of faith and public life. In Nashville, the conservatives were hosting their first major event, with Sarah Palin and Roy Moore, but it was an experiment in an old and problematic political undertaking: the organization of anger.

But what if the two moments are more than a study in contrasts? What if they can be seen as complementing, rather than clashing with, each other? If we take both sides at their word—a leap, I admit—then the point of the prayer breakfast was the promotion of civility and grace, and the goal of the tea-party convention was, at least in part, the recovery of the spirit of the American Founding. These things are not mutually exclusive, and, assuming for the sake of argument that both sides are being honest, the two themes might even mix rather well.

True, voices at both events spoke out—some subtly, many not so subtly—against the other. "From the town halls last summer to the protests and marches in the fall to the game-changing recent elections, it has been inspiring to see real people—not politicos or inside-the-Beltway professionals—speak out for common-sense conservative policies and values," Palin wrote in a USA Today piece about the convention. Among those politicos and inside-the-Beltway professionals presumably stands the president, who sternly noted in Washington that "surely you can question my policies without questioning my faith, or, for that matter, my citizenship."

Both have a point. Even the White House agrees with the thrust of Palin's argument: "real people"—especially real voters in New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts—are speaking out and casting Republican ballots. For conservatives, the reason for this is that the country has at last realized Obama is a Bolshevik. For the administration and many moderates, the reason is that the president's first year required decisions that, in David Axelrod's words, had "the effect of making us look tolerant of, if not complicit in, the system we came to change."

The tea-party folks are mad, and their fury is often expressed in irrational and ugly ways. The president is right to attack the darker articles of faith in the extremists' creed. But Obama is also correct to note that "neither side has a monopoly on truth." All the answers are not to be found in the capital culture any more than all the answers are to be found in a romanticized vision of small-town America. The establishment can, by definition, tilt too much toward the well connected (that is why it is called the establishment). And the people can be wrong, or, more often, the sum of their demands can represent special-interest pleading that is practically indistinguishable from lobbyists working the Hill. Consistency, alas, is not a widespread democratic virtue. An angry tea-partying farmer is probably in favor of agricultural subsidies, and it is safe to say that many of the older conventioneers in Nashville do not think of Medicare as "socialized medicine" or of Social Security as "big government."

And so we arrive at the possible bit of common ground. According to the Tea Party Nation, the movement is "a user-driven group of like-minded people who desire our God given Individual Freedoms [sic] which were written out by the Founding Fathers." If that is the case, then the tea partiers should acknowledge that those "Individual Freedoms" are about more than the Second and 10th Amendments, and the challenges of 2010 require us to focus on matters other than the president's birth certificate. The ethos of the Founding is also about give-and-take, compromise, and ultimate unity of purpose. We could do worse—and often do—if those principles were to inform our politics going forward. "I know in difficult times like these—when people are frustrated, when pundits start shouting and politicians start calling each other names—it can seem like a return to civility is not possible, like the very idea is a relic of some bygone era." Unfortunately, the president is probably right. But we live in hope.