Crazy? Stupid? Tea Party Supporters Are Neither

They’re the kooks, the wing nuts, the fringe of American politics — a tiny but vocal and overexposed remnant of the tattered quilt of conservatism. This is how too many progressives dismiss the Tea Party movement.

They’re destined for irrelevance, we tell ourselves — too crazy to be useful to the Republican Party, so why pay attention? They’re all named Billy Bob, they can’t spell “socialism,” they’re uneducated and stupid, and they live far from you and me.

Except they don’t.

A lot of them live in the suburbs, in nice houses. And they belong to a movement that, for better or worse, is likely to define the American political landscape for the next six years — and beyond.

In liberal and progressive circles, that is a controversial assertion, even as examples of the Tea Party’s nascent power pop up nationwide. In Arizona, John McCain, a four-term senator and the former presidential nominee of the Republican Party, is on the run in the GOP primary from the Tea Party-backed candidate, talk-show host and former congressman, J.D. Hayworth.

The Tea Party crowd is also backing Arizona’s draconian new anti-immigrant law, which empowers local law enforcement to demand proof of citizenship from anyone an officer suspects of being in the country illegally. McCain used to favor comprehensive immigration reform that would include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Now, he’s running hard to the right, embracing the new law.

Or witness the fortunes of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, the one-time golden boy of the GOP establishment as recently as June 2009, when he won the endorsement of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the race for Florida’s open U.S. Senate seat. But the Tea Party was having none of it because of Crist’s support of Obama’s stimulus package. Tea Party supporters effectively forced Crist out of the Republican primary in favor of their candidate, Marco Rubio. (Crist announced last week that he will remain in the Senate race as an independent.)

Even so, some liberal and progressive analysts seem in a rush to write off the Tea Party movement, citing its lack of a charismatic leader, its often fantastical claims and the trouble it portends for the Republican Party as reasons not to take it seriously. Yet none of those reasons will undo this movement anytime soon.

Who Are The Tea Partiers?

A New York Times/CBS News poll found that 25 percent of self-described Tea Party supporters reported their income to be in the $50,000 – $74,000 bracket (compared with 18 percent of the general public), while 20 percent claimed incomes of over $100,000 (compared with 14 percent of the general public).

The percentage of Tea Party supporters with college degrees substantially exceeds the percentage of those in the general population (23 percent, compared with 15 percent for the general public), while 33 percent of Tea Party supporters attended college without obtaining a degree, compared with 28 percent of the general public.

On its face, the information on income and education levels among Tea Party supporters is apt to cause some head-scratching, considering the array of conspiracy theories and general sense of paranoia among movement followers.

Reporting for the Nation on the April 15 “tax day” Tea Party protest convened at the Washington Monument by FreedomWorks, a Washington lobbying group, Richard Kim, in an article reprinted on AlterNet, spoke to one protester who was convinced that the government was going to put her on some kind of list for using incandescent light bulbs.

Several days later, I interviewed Stewart Rhodes, the leader of Oath Keepers, an organization whose members count themselves as part of the Tea Party movement, who alleged that the negative publicity he received from Mother Jones and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow was part of a plot the government was launching to discredit his group.

Gun owners who rallied on the monument grounds four days after the FreedomWorks event described themselves to me as part of the Tea Party movement, and spoke of a day, not too far in the future, when the government would go door to door to collect everybody’s guns — despite the fact that the Obama administration has launched no initiative to change gun regulations.

And, of course, there’s the mother of all conspiracy theories: the absurd claim, circulated throughout the presidential campaign, that President Barack Obama is not eligible for office because he was born in Kenya. Only 41 percent of Tea Partiers believe the president was born in the United States, compared to 58 percent of the general public (a troubling statistic, given the ample evidence of Obama’s birth in Hawaii).

“[T]here is no social science evidence that people who join right-wing movements are any more or less crazy or ignorant than their neighbors,” writes Chip Berlet, an expert on right-wing populism, in the Progressive. “While some have psychological predilections for authoritarianism and tend to see the world in overly simplified us vs. them terms, the same predilections can be found on the political left. This is also true with belief in conspiracy theories.”

What Is the Tea Party Movement?

One difficulty in assessing the impact of the Tea Party movement on our politics is that different people have different ideas of who comprises it, and indeed, depending on where you live, the signature issues of your local Tea Party organization may diverge from those of a group in the next state, or the next town.

So, who are the Tea Partiers? Are they the middle-aged disrupters of town-hall meetings who turned out last summer to harass members of Congress about health care reform? Is it the guy who turned up outside the site of an Obama town-hall meeting with a gun strapped to his leg? Or the Ron Paul groupies screaming “End the Fed,” or the Confederacy-worshiping 10th Amendment boosters? Are they nativists and racists? Are they the religious right dressed up in secular clothing?

The answer: sometimes all of the above, sometimes some of the above, sometimes none of the above.

The Tea Party movement is a coalition of individuals and interest groups who feel threatened by the cultural shift signaled by the election of Barack Obama and the Democrats, a threat compounded by the state of the economy (the very thing that drove Obama into office). The overwhelming majority of its supporters — 75 percent — are over the age of 45, according to the New York Times/CBSNews poll.

Participants in the movement repeat mantras about limited government and make much of their veneration of the Constitution; or at least what they deem to be the Founders’ “original intent” in the words of the founding document. In truth, the Tea Party movement lacks ideological consistency. Look no further than Arizona’s new anti-immigrant law, which arguably violates the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against illegal search and seizure. Or the embrace of Marco Rubio, whose defense of water-boarding and the holding of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay is applauded by his Tea Party supporters.

The film Tea Party: The Documentary, features as one of the movement’s “patriots” William Temple, a Revolutionary War reenactor who is often highlighted at Tea Party events, and who turned up at virtually every large-scale event held in opposition to health care reform. Temple, it turns out, is a retired government employee who receives his health care through the federal government.

Jenny Beth Martin, who leads the Tea Party Patriots group in Atlanta, was also featured in the film. She and her husband declared bankruptcy — a kind of government bailout — after the couple lost their business for failure to pay their taxes.

The movement initially coalesced around the issue of taxes, with the “tea” in Tea Party an acronym for “Taxed Enough Already.” Bailouts of automakers and banks, taken together with the stimulus package, were opposed as a form of taxpayer abuse. These first protests, in early 2009, were small, but their message provided fodder for the anti-Obama Fox Newschannel.

They also provided a base for the corporate-funded lobbying groups, FreedomWorks and Americans For Prosperity, which organized the disparate Tea Party groups around opposition to health care reform, giving us the summer of rage, as town-hall meetings led by members of Congress on the issue erupted, one after another, according to scripts provided by FreedomWorks.

“They largely come from society’s ‘haves,’ who… are rallying to hold onto their wealth, status, authority and autonomy,” writes Richard Kim. He cites Thomas Edsall, who, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, observed that the Tea Partiers fear “the competition for resources cannot be resolved by…economic growth,” which leads to the notion that any attempt to create a more equitable society will cost them big.

Indeed, Tea Party supporters are twice as likely than the general public to disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy, according to the New York Times/CBS poll, with 91 percent of Tea Party supporters disapproving, compared to 46 percent of the general sample.

While economic insecurity gave the Tea Party movement its raison d’etre, its ferocity derives from the complicating factors of race and culture.

Despite their relative affluence and apparent good fortune, the Tea Party supporters displayed significantly higher levels of racial resentment and anti-immigrant sentiment than the overall sample in the New York Times/CBS poll, and they’re more pessimistic about the state of the economy than other Americans.

Compared to 11 percent of the general public, 25 percent of Tea Party supporters said Barack Obama’s policies favored blacks over whites, and 52 percent said that “too much has been made of the problems facing black people,” compared to 28 percent of the general public. And while 60 percent of all those surveyed named illegal immigration as a “very serious” problem, a whopping 82 percent of Tea Party supporters saw it that way.

Organic or Synthetic, It’s Still a Threat

In their assessment of the Tea Party movement, progressive doubters of the movement’s likely long-term impact often point to what they see as its inauthenticity, given the involvement of the big astroturf organizations, such as FreedomWorks and AFP, and the involvement of Fox News in spreading the movement’s message. They also cite the movement’s lack of a central leader as evidence that the Tea Party movement is a mere flash in the pan.

While it’s true that the astroturfers are adept at exploiting certain factions of the movement, the Tea Party movement itself is an organic creature, often incoherent and confused in its aims. Grassroots chapters meet in homes and halls far beyond the machinations of the Beltway-industrial complex. Those invested in diminishing the movement’s importance point to its lack of organization and lucidity.

But those are exactly the reasons it remains so dangerous: anybody with a paranoid claim that seems plausible in the right-wing universe can pick off a portion of the movement, and with some money and moxie, mobilize a throng of foot-soldiers for his or her cause.

The mobilizer could be corporate-backed astroturfers, the media empire — which includes Fox News — of Rupert Murdoch (whose anti-regulatory agenda is furthered by the Tea Party), or a one-note organization such as the so-called constitutionalist Oath Keepers (an organization of people either currently or formerly serving in the armed forces and law enforcement who pledge to defy enforcement of laws they deem to be unconstitutional).

But Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum (with whom I usually agree, but not about this) pooh-poohed the size of the Tea Party movement on his blog last month, highlighting observations from a Politico story in which the small size of tax-day demonstrations were noted.

But the Tea Party movement should not be measured simply by how many people turn up at state capitol buildings with wacky signs. Look at the polls: Whether you believe the April New York Times/CBS poll, which charted self-identified Tea Party supporters at 18 percent of the population, or a March USA Today/Gallup survey, which put the figure at 28 percent, it’s a movement of significant proportions.

Drum also suggested the Tea Party was virtually a creation of Fox News, which has trumpeted the movement’s themes since the first tax day protest on April 15, 2009. But to say its message gets more amplification than it deserves doesn’t mean the movement isn’t significant.

That very amplification has enlarged the boundaries of socially acceptable political expression, effectively granting people license to publicly channel their fear of change through a previously laughable right-wing filter of conspiracy theories and grievances. In fact, that amplification only serves to grow the movement.

The USA Today/Gallup survey found 37 percent of Americans saying they “approved” of the Tea Party movement. As employment figures continue to lag, that figure could easily grow.

“The argument over spontaneity versus coordination largely misses the point, which is the way that a loose network of groups sustains and encourages opposition to the administration and gives the movement currency and power it would not otherwise have,” wrote Michael Tomasky in the New York Review of Books just after the movement’s September 12 march on Washington, which was sponsored by FreedomWorks, and partly organized by the 912 Project of Fox News host Glenn Beck. “Money is the ultimate lubricant of politics,” Tomasky continued, “and the potential money supply for Tea Parties and other astroturf contributions is virtually limitless.”

After attending the April 15 FreedomWorks event at the Washington Monument, Richard Kim wrote off the movement as a poison pill for the Republican Party, unsustainable in its aims for a government so tiny at a time of such great need. In the days that followed, the anti-immigrant law was signed by Arizona Gov. Janet Brewer, a move that will likely hurt the Republican Party in the 2012 presidential race.

Yet, while the movement’s demands may hurt the GOP in some electoral contests (even as they help in others), the Tea Party movement is, in the end, not about any one election or election cycle. Right-wing leaders have always been in the game for the long haul, willing to build movements whose triumphs they may not live to see.

The right-wing strategy is not about electoral victories in the short term. It’s about building a long-term movement based on raw emotion, fear of change and sentiment. The unifying principle is not internally logical ideology. It’s resentment.

And there is no sentiment so imminently sustainable — or destructive — as resentment.

Is This Anything New?

In his dismissive take on the Tea Party movement, Kevin Drum writes, “These people have been around forever, and they’re always upset when liberals take over. In fact, if there’s anything new about the Tea Partiers it’s that the movement is smaller, less organized, and less influential than either the Birchers of the ’60s or the anti-Clinton wingnuts of the ’90s.”

There’s an inherent contradiction in Drum’s claim: They’ve been around forever, but they’re new and disorganized.

The first part of Drum’s assertion is fundamentally correct: the right wing has been a persistent strain in American politics, its current form arising from the New Right movement of the early 1960s, which gave birth to Barry Goldwater’s failed 1964 presidential bid.

The Tea Party movement per se is not a new movement; it’s the latest expression of that same New Right movement — and it comprises the Birchers and the anti-Clinton wingnuts of the ’90s, as well as a host of new recruits. It’s all part of a continuum. The John Birch Society is on the upswing after a long, fallow period. The militia movement is again on the march. And many of the participants in these organizations identify with the Tea Party movement.

But never before in our lifetime has the Right taken to the streets. As Tomasky pointed out, that’s what makes this time different. Combine that with the very ingredients Drum sees as evidence of the movement’s insignificance — its lack of a central leader, the astroturfing, and the megaphone of Fox News — and you have the recipe for a powerful force.

With its predilection for authoritarianism, the Right has generally ceded to the Left the defiant tactics of street protests and rallies. But over time, a narrative promoted by such right-wing leaders as Patrick J. Buchanan and Howard Phillips has taken hold, one that demands acts of defiance as proof of one’s patriotism: right-wing populism imagined as the story of the American Revolution.

It’s a potent theme, one drenched not only in glory, but also in blood. Here’s Buchanan, explaining the birth of the American people from a group of British colonies. As South Carolinians or New Yorkers, they were simply subjects of the British crown, he explains. But when they united in opposition to King George III, he writes, they became a new people, “the Americans”:

In 1770, New York colonists had erected a statue of George III in Bowling Green in grateful tribute for his repeal of the Townshend taxes. In July 1776, they pulled it down and melted it for lead bullets after Washington read his soldiers the Declaration of Independence portraying George III as another Ivan the Terrible.

That’s why the Tea Party’s signature description of President Obama and congressional leaders as agents of tyranny is so threatening. Taking down a tyrant — by any means necessary — could look, when dressed in the regalia of the American Revolution, like an act of patriotism to a certain type of 21st century “revolutionary.”

And don’t expect the Tea Party movement to remain disorganized for long. The current Congressional elections will provide the movement its first opportunity to compile voter lists for get-out-the vote activities from its many listservs and Web sites, which will find their way into the right-wing database empire.

Tribalism, Racism, Fear and Resentment

While race may be a catalyst that fueled the ferocity of the Tea Party’s response to the 2008 election of Barack Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress, there’s a broader dynamic in play, one that encompasses race but is not limited to it.

Tea Party activists rarely speak of race when recounting their grievances; they talk of “culture” — American culture, of course, which they define by the cultural attributes of a particular type of white heterosexual man, one described as the provider for and defender of his family. He speaks English, may own a gun, and perceives himself as asking nothing from his government but the defense of the nation from invaders.

His self-concept as an exceptionally hard-working, freedom-loving and patriotic man is tied up in the narrative of American exceptionalism, meaning he can brook no criticism of his nation’s actions, or evidence of its past or present brutality.

Although, at the ground level, Tea Party groups are often organized by women, the movement is majority male (59 percent, according to the New York Times/CBS poll) and overwhelmingly white (89 percent according to the same survey). Compared to 19 percent of the general public, 53 percent of Tea Party supporters described themselves as “angry about the way things are going in Washington.” The Tea Party, at its essence, can be summed up in a subtitle: “Angry White Men and the Women Who Love Them.”

At the very moment when a plurality of white men are feeling their claim to entitlement slip away in a devastated economy, the nation elected its first black president — and not your regular kind of black guy, but a black man with an exotic name, whose father was African. And not just your regular kind of African, but an African doctor schooled at Harvard who married a white American woman.

But race is just one part of it. The Democrats have already elected a woman as their speaker of the House — and not just your regular kind of woman politician, but one from San Francisco, a virtual Disneyland for gay people and granola-crunchers.

Never mind where that Hillary, with her pants suits and law degree and philandering, draft-dodging impeached ex-president husband fits into this picture.

In other words, if you’re a conservative white man, none of these people is anything like you, as far as you can see. Their ascension to power speaks to you of your own diminishment, and the individual’s loss of control of his own environment.

Look at it through the eyes of one of these men: Wages have been stagnant for more than 30 years. Over the course of those years, it’s become increasingly difficult to “get ahead” in a culture where doing better than your parents is the measure of success, a culture in which the acquisition of stuff is seen as a measure of one’s Americanism.

You look around you: some people are making gains relative to their previous position, be they black, Latino, female or gay. It doesn’t matter that their previous position was one of disempowerment, or that they haven’t caught up to you in terms of income (blacks, Latinos, women) or legal rights (women, gays, blacks and Latinos in Arizona): the point is that they’re moving ahead in some way, and you’re not.

In a world in which the individual is increasingly marginalized by the power of corporations and financial wizards, white men of the manly-man set have only been able to maintain a sense of their own power, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, by their place at the top of the heap of a citizenry living under the thumb of corporate greed.

Yet, because the so-called “free market” system has been effectively sold to them as part and parcel of the American brand, they must look elsewhere for the cause of their falling fortunes.

Pat Buchanan suggests that Tea Party supporters represent a kind of “[e]thnonationalism” — “that relentless drive of peoples to secede and dwell apart, to establish their own nation-state, where their faith is predominant, their language spoken, their heroes and history revered, and they rule to the exclusion of all others.”

Buchanan sees the Tea Party followers as unmoved by charges of racism, but that’s not quite true. In fact, they seem quite stung by those charges, seeing their own attitudes about race as based in fact, not prejudice. At the April 15 tax day rally in Washington, FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe urged the crowd to take action against anyone who turned up carrying racist signs; they were likely only liberal infiltrators, anyway, he said.

“If you see anybody acting bad, I want you to surround them, I want you to ask them to stop,” Kibbe said. “If they won’t stop, I want you to take their picture, and I want you to post it online.”

Yet Buchanan’s screed, posted on his blog, drips with resentment over the gains made by African Americans over the last 45 years. But he also sees that success as a recipe for a stronger brew of Tea Party: blacks of disparate backgrounds were brought to America in chains, only to craft a unifying identity out of their oppression, and create a new people: the African Americans. “Black America seems united,” he writes. “White America is the house divided, for it is in the womb of white America that this new people is gestating and fighting to be born.”

What Buchanan fails to address overtly is the sense of lost privilege that is stoking the drive toward this “ethnonationalism” — a circumstance that liberals have largely failed to address, as well.

Ye Olde New Right

Go to the Conservative Caucus Web site of Howard Phillips, who worked with Buchanan in the Nixon White House, and you’ll find a virtual messaging clearing-house for the Tea Party movement, a clearinghouse that actually existed long before a 21st-century Tea Party was a twinkle in anyone’s eye.

In accounts of events convened by Phillips’ Conservative Caucus, you’ll find speakers such as Ron Paul, the libertarian Texas congressman, and John McManus, president of the John Birch Society. Accepting awards from the Conservative Caucus in recent years were Phyllis Schlafly and Cliff Kincaid, who did much to advance the Obama-as-socialist narrative.

When I interviewed Phillips by phone in November 2008, he said he had just gotten off the line with his good friend and ally, Jerome Corsi, who was in Hawaii, still trying to find out “the truth” about Obama’s birth certificate.

Another fixture of the old New Right is Richard Viguerie, who is organizing Tea Partiers to launch primary challengers in state-level and congressional Republican primaries. I last ran into Viguerie, an affable protégé of William F. Buckley, at the Virginia Sovereignty March on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, which marked the occasion of the delivery of a letter signed by members of the Virginia General Assembly “serving notice” to the U.S. Congress that the state would not enforce federal laws it deemed to be unconstitutional. The event was organized, in part, by Tea Party activists.

A delegation of sovereignty marchers, by their own account, were warmly received by House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., in his office, where they were given soft drinks. Two Virginia congressmen, Frank Wolf and Rob Wittman, addressed the tiny throng assembled on the Capitol grounds.

Together with the late Paul Weyrich, founder of the Heritage Foundation, Phillips and Viguerie founded the Religious Right, which launched the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Go to any Phillips or Viguerie event, and you’ll find a few dozen people, many of whom seem to be marginal at best. Yet the impact these men have made on American politics as we know it today is undeniable.

The truth, you see, is not always in the numbers. It’s in the organizing of small cells of people who change the political calculus in strategically important arenas — be they school boards in the towns of Iowa and New Hampshire during presidential primary years, or political party committees at the local and state levels.

A Virus in the Body Politic

If cancer is the Right’s metaphor, as articulated by Glenn Beck at the Conservative Political Action Conference, for the danger ostensibly posed by progressivism, progressives would do well to envision right-wing politics as a virus.

The greatest danger posed by the Tea Party movement is not what it will achieve in the next election, but in the toll it will take on the body politic over time. I do not fear some third party called the Tea Party. It doesn’t work like that.

The Right truly works like a virus, injecting its DNA into the host body, so that the host body becomes overrun with right-wing cells. In our nation’s two-party system, the host body is the Republican Party. In a two-party system, the other side wins from time to time. The more infected one party is with the virus of fear and resentment, the more destructive our politics become.

Just look at the Republican politicians scrambling to appease the Tea Partiers. Right-wing leaders won’t care much if Marco Rubio loses the general election for Florida’s U.S. Senate seat; they’ll have served notice to the GOP that stimulus-accepting, Obama-hugging traitors no longer have a place in the party. In a special election earlier this year, the GOP’s loss of the congressional seat in New York’s 23rd District to a Democrat was actually a win for the Right, when they forced the moderate Republican, Dede Scozzafava, out of the race.

This is just the beginning. It can only get worse from here if the Tea Party movement isn’t held in check by vigorous progressive opposition. Ridicule does not equal effective opposition. Dismissing this movement as crazy or tiny or bad news for the GOP won’t cure the nation of the threat it poses.

Viruses don’t die; they go dormant, sleeping peacefully, often along the spine — sometimes forever, but often not, drawn to eruption by some stressful event.

Every time the Right recedes into the core of the nervous system of the body politic, progressives and liberals gleefully declare it dead, only to see it resurface in a more destructive form.

What’s a Progressive to Do?

To halt the destruction that would follow in the wake of a successful Tea Party movement, progressives need to do two big things: thwart the growth of the Tea Party movement, and organize as a counter-force.

To hold the growth of the Tea Party movement in check, progressives will need to be strategic in their messaging, making arguments for enlightened self-interest to suburban white men for progressive causes, and framing as much as possible in economic terms.

Compared to the Right, the Left is at a serious structural disadvantage that will require creativity to overcome.

There is no natural big-money sponsor for progressive causes on the scale of the corporate giants the Right is able to call upon to fill its coffers. We rely on the good graces of fair-minded donors of means, and the small contributions of average citizens. Consequently, the funding model of the Left encourages the kind of balkanization I describe above, a model driven by primarily by the funding of individual issues and projects rather than an overall vision.

There is no progressive counterpart to the Fox NewsChannel. The hosts of MSNBC do an admirable job offering a liberal critique of American politics, but they are not organizers in the way that Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity of Fox News are — nor would they likely choose to be. Fox News is a vanity project for Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of its parent company, News Corporation, who can decide it’s worth his while to let the “Glenn Beck Show” lose money in order to advance his own anti-regulatory agenda.

MSNBC, on the other hand, is designed as a profit center for parent company General Electric. Its liberal identity is the result of market research that revealed a void in the cable news universe for progressives and liberals who wanted a news channel of their own.

While the Left currently has a more sophisticated and diverse range of options for information consumption on the Internet, those outlets reach mostly people like us. Meanwhile, progressive ideas and issues rarely appear on the op-ed pages of newspapers, which are still read by the very demographic targeted by the Tea Party movement.

As Paul Waldman and his Media Matters research team documented in 2007, of the top 10 syndicated newspaper columnists in the nation, five are conservatives, and only three are progressives. In 38 states, the Media Matters team found, the reach of the conservative voice on newspaper op-ed pages dominated. A wise funder might put her dollars behind a syndicate of liberal columnists whose content would be provided free of charge to starving newspapers.

Since the 2008 election, the various components of the progressive/liberal coalition have gone back to their respective corners to work on their specific issues. The Tea Party, however, is less divided by individual issues. Gun enthusiasts, constitutional originalists and anti-tax groups all came together to oppose health care reform.

To thwart the Tea Party movement from making further inroads, progressives have to re-coalesce not just around elections, but around issues. Immigration reform needs to become the issue of gay-rights activists and feminists. Women’s rights need to be advanced by environmentalists and labor unions. Racial equality, energy reform, Wall Street reform — these all have to become everybody’s issues at some level.

But perhaps the hardest thing of all that progressives will have to do to defeat the Tea Party movement is to stop defining all of its members as extremists, racists and conspiracy nuts. I’ve fallen victim, at times, to the temptation “wing-nut” rhetoric myself. But as Chip Berlet points out, that allows centrists to put themselves forward as the nation’s savior, by equating the worst of the Right’s rhetoric with the ridicule that comes from the Left. And when we ridicule the Tea Partiers, we only alienate the fence-sitters who may see more resemblance between themselves and Tea Party followers than they do with us.

The bottom line is this: We dismiss the potential impact of the Tea Party movement at our peril.

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet’s Washington bureau chief.