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From Tea to Terror: The Roots of Demonization

In the aftermath of the debt ceiling debate, there has been a renewed push from the left to demonize the Tea Party movement. It has become commonplace for members of the movement to be labeled as “terrorists.” This increasingly bad image for the group is reinforced by a New York Times/CBS poll that claims more Americans have a negative view of the Tea Party than at any time since April 2010. The survey said 40 percent of those polled had an unfavorable opinion of the Tea Party while 20 percent were favorable. In response to another question, 18 percent of respondents said they considered themselves Tea Party supporters.

According to the Times’ article on the poll, “The Tea Party may have benefited early on from people not really knowing exactly what it was.” But the paper claims the debt ceiling debate changed this, and now most Americans see the group as being “inflexible” at a time when they wanted Congress to compromise on spending. But any discussion of the group’s image must be tempered by the fact it has been subjected to a campaign of non-stop demonization by media outlets such as the Times.  The media have sought–since the inception of the Tea Party–to brand its adherents as extremists rather than as a genuine expression of popular opinion.

There is no doubt the dustup about the debt ceiling did little to help build more support for the movement. But the assault on the Tea Party didn’t begin with the stand taken by some in Congress during the last few weeks.

From its beginnings, liberal papers such as the Times slammed the Tea Party as a dangerous form of populism. It was smeared with unsubstantiated charges of racism on the false premise opposition to President Obama’s signature health care plan was a sign of prejudice. Though it was one of the most broad-based popular protest movements in modern American political history with a reach that extended across the country, it was still treated by most of the mainstream media as a slightly more respectable version of the Ku Klux Klan. Indeed, when Tea Partiers vocally expressed their dismay to members of Congress and senators at town hall meetings, liberals reacted as if public dissent against politicians was the thin edge of the wedge of a new wave of fascism.

That line held until November 2010 when it turned out the only poll that counts — the ballot box — showed the Tea Party was a mainstream force in American politics. While the Republican victory put a damper on talk of Tea Party extremism, the theme was rediscovered this year as some members of Congress decided to act as if their campaign rhetoric about debt, spending and taxes wasn’t just hot air but a pledge of honor.

After months of the president of the United States, the Democratic Party and much of the mainstream press piling on the Tea Party in an effort to make the GOP accept Obama’s demand for tax increases, it would be shocking if the group’s image had not taken a hit. Indeed, with the abuse escalating to a point where liberals now feel no shame about accusing Tea Partiers of being “terrorists” for sticking to their position on no new taxes, is there any wonder the movement’s negatives have gone up a bit?

All political movements ebb and flow. It may be a double dip recession will result in a greater appetite for more government in the coming year than concern about its growth. That is an issue that will be decided not by polls but by the next election, when we will see whether a Democratic appeal for higher taxes will prevail. Despite the opprobrium it has been subjected to, the Tea Party remains a valid outpouring of popular opinion about the growth of government and taxes. Far from being an assault upon democracy, as liberals have claimed, it is an expression of democracy.


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