Dumb Tea Party Article from Michael Kinsley

[Atlantic June 2010 cover]

I subscribed to The Atlantic magazine back when it was good. I coasted for a few years, while it declined. Now, I'm just waiting for my subscription to expire. But it still shows up, and the latest issue bore an attention-getting blurb. In case you can't make it out over there:

Michael Kinsley:
Real Patriots
Don't Have
Tea Parties p. 42

So I turned to page 42, but you can click here to read Kinsley's article, titled: "My Country, Tis of Me: There's nothing patriotic about the Tea Party Patriots."

You might think from the blurb, and the title, that Kinsley is following in the tedious, predictable tradition that deemed Tea Partiers and their ideological kin to be racists, traitors, un-American, etc.

But the article itself doesn't fit that genre. Instead, the closest Kinsley gets to a "patriotism" issue is:

What is most irksome about the Tea Party Patriots is their expropriation of the word patriot, with the implication that if you disagree with them, you're not a patriot, or at least you're less patriotic than they are.
I've heard that magazine article authors do not typically write their own headlines. Certainly (however) someone at the magazine should have noticed that the article's headline exemplifies the more-patriotic-than-thou tactic that Kinsley calls "irksome" in the article's text.

And note that Kinsley uses "Tea Party Patriots" throughout his article; I assume he visited this site. He seems unaware of other national groups, like Tea Party Nation, Tea Party Express, Glenn Beck's 9.12 Project, and so on. But that would be (a) more work and (b) complicate Kinsley's simple story; by concentrating on "Tea Party Patriots", Kinsley gets to pretend that TPers generally have "expropriated" the word "patriot".

That's a quibble, though. Kinsley's analysis of the TP phenomenon is lazy and superficial, researched (as near as I can tell) entirely through hit-and-miss Googling. In fact, it sounds as if he would have preferred to avoid the whole topic:

… the Tea Party Patriots, I predict, are just the flavor of the month: the kind of story that the media are incapable of not exaggerating. … The Tea Party Patriots will be an answer on Jeopardy or a crossword-puzzle clue.
Then why bother writing a cover-teased article about them in a national magazine? (Well, I imagine he was paid to do it. I guess that's a decent excuse.)

Kinsley's essential uninterest in his topic causes him to get sloppy. For example, he happened across an LA Times article covering March's Tea Party rally in Searchlight, Nevada, population 700, hometown of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Kinsley's takehome point from the article:

"I like what they're saying. It's common sense," a random man-in-the-crowd told a Los Angeles Times reporter at a big Tea Party rally. Then he added, "They've got to focus on issues like keeping jobs here and lowering the cost of prescription drugs." These, of course, are projects that can be conducted only by Big Government. If the Tea Party Patriots ever developed a coherent platform or agenda, they would lose half their supporters.

But in the original LA Times article, this "random man-in-the-crowd" was identified as a "51-year-old assistant kitchen manager at the Searchlight Nugget Casino, where some tea party backers asked him for directions." I.e., not one of the 8-10 thousand people who came to the rally in Searchlight. Yet Kinsley (almost certainly unintentionally) tries to hold him up as a typical incoherent Tea Partier.

Another example comes when Kinsley tries to confront what he sees as Tea Party ideology:

The government's main function these days is writing checks to old people. These checks allow people to retire and pursue avocations such as going to Tea Party rallies. This basic fact about the government is no great secret. In fact, it's a huge cliché, probably available more than once in an average day's newspaper. But the Tea Party Patriots feel free to ignore it and continue serving up rhetoric about "the audaciousness and arrogance of our government," and calling for the elimination of the Federal Reserve Board or drastic restraints on the power of the Internal Revenue Service.
Start with the one thing Kingsley has in quote marks, which I've boldfaced. Where did he get this quote from? Kinsley doesn't bother to say, and it's not even linked in the web version of his article, but that's why we have the Google. Here, as near as I can tell, is the source of the quote. It's seven words out of the "Tea Party Manifesto", written by Karen Miner Hurd, founder and chair of the Hampton Roads Tea Party, Virginia Beach, Virginia.

At least this is an actual quote from something an authentic TPer actually said or wrote—congratulations on getting one of those in your article, Mike. But it's only quoted in order to dismiss it as "rhetoric".

Do TPers generally call for the "elimination of the Federal Reserve", as Kinsley implies? Probably some do, some don't, many don't have an expressed opinion on the matter. Although Kinsley quotes Karen Hurd, he doesn't seem to have noticed that she considered this particular issue to be, at best, secondary:

It won't matter if you want the Federal Reserve abolished if Congress keeps appropriating power for itself, and voters are ignored.
What about Kinsley's allegation that "government's main function these days is writing checks to old people"? I assume this refers to Social Security; while it's a big chunk of current and projected federal spending, it's sloppy and silly to call it "government's main function."

And let's not ignore Kingsley's snarky implication that there's something illegitimate about people who have had Social Security taxes yanked from their paychecks during their entire working lives getting benefits in return.

Kinsley seems befuddled by the simple fact that the TP phenomenon doesn't have a great deal of ideological cohesion. There's no "party line", no make-or-break litmus tests.

Here's something perceptive Daniel Foster wrote in the Corner last month on that issue:

We knew the tea party movement was grassroots and decentralized, but perhaps we haven't fully realized the extent to which, in its nascence, the very idea of the tea party is plural. In other words, the "tea party" that poll respondents identify with is what the philosopher Walter Bryce Gallie called "an essentially contested concept," or a term that can't be employed without begging all sorts of questions about what that term means. We have a pretty solid grasp of what it means about a person that he or she identifies as a Republican or a Democrat. But the tea party is too young, too diffuse, too morally and politically charged in the minds of both supporters and detractors, for us to be able to say at this point that it means any one thing.

Still, it seems fair to say that, at its core, the tea party is unified by a legitimate worry that government has grown too big, too intrusive, too expensive, and too unresponsive to the concerns of ordinary Americans. And though that worry has yet to (and perhaps never will) cohere into a single platform or set of policy prescriptions, the fact that the tea partiers are the single most engaged and vocal force in American politics today should, as I've suggested before, give conservatives and proponents of limited government hope.

Those two short paragraphs are far more insightful about the Tea Party than Kinsley's entire article. Too bad Kinsley didn't read them first.

It's not as if a lefty can't write a smart, perceptive article about TPers. As David Boaz notes at Cato@Liberty, John Judis managed that feat in a recent issue of The New Republic.

Last Modified 2012-10-03 1:58 PM EDT