Suppose I establish a grassroots organization claiming that God created human beings in just six days about 10,000 years ago.
We then march on Washington as well as state capitals and even secure some ballot victories, requiring schools around the country to teach my creationist curriculum and vilifying scientists as out-of-touch atheists and elites who want to control the minds of young people. I then boast widespread popular support – Gallup and other surveys show that as many as half and upwards of two-thirds of Americans sympathize with my views.
The media would love and indulge me. They would invite me on cable and talk radio, pitting me one-on-one against those arrogant and condescending scientists. They would quote me without question, balancing my views against those of mainstream biology. They would give me equal time and credibility because my cause makes for exciting news, meaty controversy, and good TV. The chattering class would be obsessed with me as an authentic voice of real America.
What they wouldn’t do is tell the truth, that I’m a delusional kook living in an alternate universe whose views have no foundation in fact or reality. Which is too bad, because that’s exactly what I would be if I held these views. As would my supporters. And the more popular and successful I become, the more often they would need to say it. Which they wouldn’t, of course, because they then might not be able to book me on their shows.
Now forget creationism for a moment and think about the Tea Party and their enablers in the Republican leadership. I have no quibble with good and vigorous debates about the size of government or the scope of regulations or the level of taxation in America.
But I worry that the paranoid and delusional side of this movement is getting a free ride in the press and public debate. Where are the Edward Murrows and Walter Cronkites in the media willing to call them out on it?
Just recently a leading Republican member of Congress worried that we might be on “the road to serfdom in America.” Last year House Minority Leader John Boehner – and presumptive speaker if the GOP wins a majority in November – called the health care bill “the greatest threat to freedom that I have seen.” Serfdom? Health care reform as the greatest threat to freedom?
How different are they from the Tea Party demonstrator who says he’s “tired of my freedoms being stolen away”? Or another who claims that “the more I hear Obama, the more I hear [Fidel] Castro”? Or another who says the Obama administration “wants to enslave” our children? Or yet another who is convinced that “the Democrats have embraced socialism”?
The argument that President Obama seeks to impose a socialist tyranny over America is a popular one among Tea Party advocates. We must rescue America “from the depredations of the socialists, who wish to take away our liberty,” writes a Tea Party activist in The Washington Times. Tea Party favorite Christine O’Donnell, newly minted as the Republican candidate for Senate in Delaware, agonizes that “America is now a socialist economy,” and in Kentucky Tea Party Senate nominee Rand Paul equates Medicare and health care reform with the big red menace.
Then there are those so angry that they see the Obama policies as enough of a threat to consider arming themselves. One tells The Washington Post: “I’m not ready for outright violence yet. We have to be civil for as long as we can.” According to the Post, he then grabs the bullhorn at an Iowa rally and to cheering demonstrators says, “The president controls the crowd, controls the message, controls the people of this country. That is not freedom! That is not democracy!”
And consider the words of the Tea Party promoting organization, FreedomWorks, a group founded by former GOP House member Dick Armey and partnered with Glenn Beck. To them, Americans are in danger because Obama’s policies “threaten their pocketbooks as well as their fundamental freedoms.”
Is the President really threatening our free speech rights? Our ability to attend a house of worship? Our ability to vote, sign petitions, assemble, and write what we want? Our ability to own property?
What are they talking about?
Okay, they might feel put upon by a government mandate to purchase health insurance. But Americans who have health insurance feel put upon when they have to subsidize emergency room visits for those with no coverage. The freedom argument there is a wash.
Or they might worry about the government’s role in saving the financial industry and General Motors. Free markets, they shout, not government intervention. But that of course is an absurd argument because free markets created the problem and government stepped in to make sure the free markets can prosper once again. What it’s not is an assault on our fundamental freedoms.
Saying so is about as logical as the sputtering Tea Party advocate who told a Democratic member of Congress to “keep your government hands off my Medicare.”
Perhaps the Tea Partiers think that Social Security as a mandatory tax threatens us. Or maybe it’s all taxation that doesn’t go to the defense and security of our country. Is it a threat to our freedom when government builds new roads, inspects food, approves new drugs, researches cancer, and provides kids school lunches?
So what are they talking about when claiming our fundamental freedoms are under siege? That’s nothing short of the same delusional thinking that believes we should be teaching that God created humans in six days a few thousand years ago.
Whether government is too small or too big is a legitimate issue to debate. But let’s say it clearly and loudly: the Obama White House and its policies are not threatening our fundamental freedoms. And if those who think so ever claim power, we’ll have far more problems than anything the Tea Party says is wrong with America today.
A former speechwriter and strategist for causes, candidates, and members of Congress, Leonard Steinhorn has written on American politics and culture for major newspapers and magazines, among them The Washington Post, Salon and Politico.