We all have a little Tea Party in us

Earlier this week an old friend from graduate school asked me whether I thought the Tea Party had been hoodwinked into voting against its own interests. My gut reaction was a practiced “of course.”

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Supporters of the Tea Party gather for a Tax Day rally in Madison, Wis., on April 15, 2010.


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However, I hadn’t talked to this friend in some time and his question came with few tells regarding what his own views might be. So I paused and considered the question a bit more.
Truth be told, yes, the Tea Party votes against its own interests — but so do we all. That’s the game.

Representative democracy has won out as the civic model of the modern age and that representative is a compromise. I know for a fact that I’ve never voted for a candidate whose platform mimicked by beliefs point for point.

Claiming the Tea Party votes against its interests because it backs tax breaks for the extremely wealthy makes as much sense as claiming every liberal pacifist voting for President Obama is voting against her or his interests because of Libya. The United States doesn’t have much in the way of coalition governments or even political parties willing to give each other the time of day, but we have plenty of compromised politicians.

Well, politicians created by the compromises of voters trying to find the winning horse that best matches their needs. That’s why Romney’s economic message is the only one he cares about. Plenty of people will vote against their other interests just for the hope of a job or a better life for their families.

That’s why President Obama has gone on a coalition building spree given the poor jobs numbers. Maybe a job isn’t worth trading your right to marry, amnesty for your children, or affordable health care. Either way, the choice is a complicated one and we all sell out some causes once in the voting booth.

Selling out isn’t the Tea Party’s problem. Selling out is part of voting. If anything, what makes the Tea Party bizarre are the motivations behind the compromises that they make. The reasons are likely as numerous as members in the movement. The problem is that all of those personal reasons get lost in the political frenzy and all that remains is “the compromise.” This means we come to know movements more than people.

Perhaps this is the reason for the increased levels of anxiety and distaste in our national dialogue. Rather than seeing people, we see agendas. It’s hard to sympathize with an agenda you don’t support the way you can with a family member or friend with whom you disagree. Agendas are an easy way to detest those who oppose or disagree with you without detesting anyone specifically.

That certainly seems the take of the media. The Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, the 1 percent, the 99 percent, and on and on. Media segmentation and political constituency have transformed us from citizens to movements and our discourse appears none the better for it.

So, yes, we’ve all been hoodwinked to some degree. But not by the compromises we make in selecting political figures who don’t always have our personal best interest at heart. That’s simply part of the game when it comes to “one citizen, one vote.” The hoodwinking comes when we mistake the people associated with agendas with the agenda itself.

That’s the catch-22 of large-scale democracy, of course. Agendas get media coverage and agendas get politicians elected. They fuel donations, large and small, and those agendas becomes the measurables by which we evaluate success once in office. But agendas offer precious little room for discussion or deliberation.

Talk occurs between people. At some point, we have to remember how to talk to each other about our agendas.

Michael Trice has 15 years of experience working in the fields of technology, publishing, and communication for universities and Fortune 500 companies. In 2009, he worked at the Centre for Digital Citizenship in Leeds, England, as a Fulbright scholar to the United Kingdom. Michael’s thoughts on social media have been published in “Writing and the Digital Generation” and “The Ethics of Emerging Media.”