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Rebuilding the American Dream: Why Starting a Liberal Antidote to the Tea Party Movement Isn't Going to be Easy

The Tea Partiers' sense of shared identity is crucial to their success. Who were those gathered this weekend to kick off Van Jones' new project?

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More importantly, the Tea Parties are a cultural phenomenon. Activists, writes Zernicke, say “the most rewarding aspects of the Tea Party work is the ‘friendship’ and ‘fellowship’” it provided. For all of its emphasis on individualism, they “believed in this fellowship, of belonging to something greater.” That was not seen at the meetings I attended on Sunday. At the second meeting, we opened with a perfunctory round of sharing our personal stories as recommended by; in the first meeting, the group unanimously voted to skip that part altogether.

For all their claims that the Tea Partiers have a laser-like focus on fiscal matters, it's that cultural affinity rather than any set of policies that sustains the movement. Zernicke visited the offices of Freedomworks – a corporate-backed conservative group that helped propel the “leaderless” Tea Party movement to prominence with professional training and slick PR. There, she found that “the real work of spreading the Tea Party brushfires was done by a small knot of about twenty take-no-prisoners young conservatives” working with “the Red Bull-and-beer spirit of a fraternity.”

But the far-larger majority of Tea Party supporters—those who forward the emails, sign the petitions and occasionally attend the rallies—are a different story. For them, writes Zernike, “fiscal responsibility meant not bailing out the car companies or the people who had taken out mortgages they couldn’t afford. It meant cutting waste and earmarks.” Couched in the rhetoric of patriotism and “freedom,” such ideas were incredibly attractive, but “it wasn’t clear that [these Tea Partiers] understood that the strict Constitutionalist approach would eliminate benefits for the elderly, subsidies for students who could not afford college on their own, laws that made sure banks couldn’t disappear with people’s savings overnight.”

The movement, says Zernicke, “depend[s] on the blurring of ideological differences,” which she likened to “an older man ignoring that he had no music or cultural references in common with his young trophy wife.”

The Tea Partiers' sense of shared identity is crucial to their success. Who were those assembled in San Francisco on Sunday? American dreamers? Baby-boomer liberals? The Tea Partiers may be just a new name for the Republican party's conservative base, but it is a brand that allows them to claim to be “ordinary Americans” standing above the partisan fray.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to emulating the Tea Partiers is that those in attendance on Sunday, while ideologically liberal, were also members of the “reality-based community.” They were angry about rising inequality, the out-of-control growth of corporate influence over our elections, the GOP's hardline positions on the role of government and a host of other real-world issues. We pored over these issues the way any gathering of engaged progressives might – arguing back and forth about which ones represented “core” problems, and which ones were merely symptoms arising from those problems.

But we were not convinced that we were fighting for the nation's very existence. It is far easier to be incensed when you believe your opponents are “socialists,” who “hate America” and are trying to undermine its very essence. It is far easier to be spurred to action when you fear the government is being run by an illegitimate foreigner, setting up “death panels” with which to kill your grandmother, or threatening to intern its opponents in FEMA concentration camps.

Unlike the Tea Partiers, whose views of America's past is, in the words of historian Jill Lepore, “not just kooky history, but anti-history,” progressives understand that Americans had long been divided ideologically, and had always wrestled with questions similar to those being debated today. The Tea Partiers' greatest strength may come from their hubristic belief that they are not simply descendants of the Federalists, the Bourbon Democrats or, more recently, the Southern Democrats, but that they represent the heart and soul of a largely mythic America.

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