Spooky election campaigns jump-start Halloween this year. Christine O'Donnell, a Republican from the Tea Party running for a Senate seat from Delaware, is looking for a metered space to park her broomstick. "That's the kind of candidate Delaware hasn't had since 1694," cracked a player on "Saturday Night Live" as a skeleton in the background played the piano with bony fingers.
Rich Iott, a Republican candidate for Congress in Ohio, also backed by the Tea Party, decks himself out in a Wehrmacht uniform for a re-enactment of a World War II battle and takes incoming fire for becoming the figure he impersonates. What does that say about actors who portray Nazis in Hollywood movies, or children who dress up as monsters when they go trick-or-treating?
The Tea Party, according to columnist Richard Cohen, is leaderless and amorphous, which has President Obama "swinging wildly, punching at ghosts." But Mr. Obama's got lots of company in the netherworld of contemporary politics, where ghosts are driving Mr. Cohen and the conjurers crazy.
A small coven met with Bill Maher on HBO's "Real Time," and you might have confused them with the witches in Macbeth, stirring the boiling caldron with fillet of fenny snake, wool of bat, tongue of [Blue] dog and eye of newt (but not that Newt). Rob Reiner, Hollywood director-activist and deep thinker, formerly known as Meathead, stirs the pot by suggesting that all the Tea Party needs to complete its legions is a leader like Hitler because the Tea Party, like the Nazi Party, wants a fuehrer.
"My fear is that the Tea Party gets a charismatic leader," Mr. Meathead says. "Because all they're selling is fear and anger. And that's all Hitler sold." He compares the United States circa 2010 to Germany circa 1934. "They were having bad economic times - just as we are now - were out of work, they needed jobs, and a guy came along and rallied the troops." To rapturous applause, he decried the Tea Party as "selling stupidity and ignorance."
Such condescension and paranoia - and attacking the voters Democrats need to survive a tsunami - is contagious on the Left Coast, where the intelligentsia meet to eat and greet at learned academic conferences. The University of California's Center for the Comparative Study of Right Wing Movements at Berkeley recently called together left-wing scholars, political commentators and think tankers to decipher the "truth" about the Tea Party and find an original thesis for a book or doctoral dissertation. They're going to have a hard time accomplishing their goal if the abstracts describing their research are an indication of their current attempts to think.
One paper considers "Prospects for an American Neofascism," which examines, along with the Minutemen, the Christian right and the Tea Parties, "corporate/government interpenetration, and the explosive growth of the military/industrial/security complex." If that becomes a book, you might be wise to wait for the movie. Another learned paper is titled "A Macro-Micro Model of Participation in Political Action: The Tea Party and Cognitive Biases in Information Consumption and Processing." Its research results show "that strongly held pre-existing beliefs (particularly economic and political individualist ideology) heavily impacted levels of dissatisfaction with government policy and choices of information consumed." Imagine that (if you can).
Steve Martinot, who teaches at San Francisco State University, eschews such academic obfuscation by locating the source of the Tea Party movement in "white supremacy" and a "lynch mob mentality." A visitor from Australia asks if the Tea Parties might provide incentives for "a Timothy McVeigh situation." Such ranting was characterized in Slate magazine as the latest in "Radical Shriek." Boo.
These academics don't understand that they can't "refudiate" a movement merely with attitude. They're part of what they rant against but are too narrow-minded to notice.
In a new book, "Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement Is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System," Scott Rasmussen and Doug Schoen show how populist uprisings are occurring at both ends of the ideological spectrum. But populists on the left, closer to the power centers of the White House and Congress, can't understand why those they supported failed to keep campaign promises. As their enthusiasm morphs into disillusionment, they can only play the blame game. The right, by comparison, finds voice in the Tea Party movement, and "despite being systematically ignored, belittled, marginalized, and ostracized by political, academic and media elites," grows stronger.
Pollsters have found that 40 percent of Tea Party members are not Republicans. Neither are they extremists. Who they are is succinctly captured by a man with a small business, quoted by the authors: "We aren't racists, or bigots, we aren't Astroturf puppets, and we aren't fringe right-wing zealots. We are just ordinary hardworking Americans who love our country but are mad as hell." Spooks and goblins should prepare for a fascinating election.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.
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