Zaleski: Tea Party crowd can learn from Nader

Jack Zaleski

I’m a Ralph Nader fan. The man who almost single-handedly changed the way Americans think about auto safety has been on the public policy scene for more than four decades, and has not lost his edge. He’s the unpleasant, uncompromising gadfly he was from the beginning. He’s as sure of his beliefs now as he was then. His consistent and stubborn commitment to his principles has guaranteed he will never hold high public office. It also means he probably sleeps well.

In one sense, Nader’s sometimes lonely public life reminds me of the nascent Tea Party movement. The obvious difference, of course, is that Tea Partiers don’t have an enigmatic leader or as focused a purpose as Naderites did early in their auto safety campaign. Tea Partiers can’t claim a figure of Nader’s intellectual stature or a foundational bible, such as Nader’s 1965 “Unsafe at Any Speed.”

So unlike the Nader movement, the Tea Party phenomenon rose up among angry and fearful Americans without relying on a Pied Piper. Think Ross Perot during the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton years. Think George Wallace or John Anderson or Theodore Roosevelt. Political and social movements coalesced around those men and their ideas. They created third political parties. Ultimate impacts varied, but eventually the movements were either melded into the two major parties or became historical footnotes.

The genuinely grass-roots Tea Party movement is vulnerable to the machinations of political operatives and opportunists. The covert campaign to convert Tea Partiers into shills for the Republican Party or some other cause is under way in several states. In Washington, D.C., professional political manipulators are hatching schemes to harness Tea Party energy for their own purposes. It is beginning to work as some Tea Partiers fall for the siren song of grievance queen Sarah Palin and conspiracy nut Rand Paul of Kentucky, son of Texas Congressman Ron Paul.

The power of the Tea Party phenomenon is its unaligned spontaneity. That’s its weakness, too, because the movement has attracted a boatload of goofballs ranging from “birthers,” who question Barack Obama’s citizenship, to 9/11 “truthers,” who believe the U.S. CIA brought down the Twin Towers. If fringe factors begin to define “Tea Party,” the movement will lose its grass-roots legitimacy.

The Tea Party parallel with Nader’s sustained auto safety and consumer protection success is not perfect. But Tea Partiers can learn from his self-imposed outsider status. Even when Nader ran for president knowing he would lose, he used the platform to advance his cause. He changed the way we think about product safety in large part because he resisted assimilation by the prevailing political culture.

All manner of special interests, from the Republican Party to the lunatic fringe, are lusting after the Tea Party crowd. It would be wise for sincere, grass-roots Tea Partiers to check the ranks to expose who among them wants to harness the Tea Partiers’ power for old-style partisan agendas.

6 thoughts on “Zaleski: Tea Party crowd can learn from Nader

  1. More

    Letters to the Editor
    Published: Sunday, Feb. 21, 2010
    Page 3E

    Does tea party invite minorities?

    Re “Is there a tea party nation?” (Forum, Feb. 14): Yes. It’s hard to turn on the TV news and not see the groups of angry folks, many in patriotic costume, shouting, carrying signs – some with nasty, racist caricatures of President Obama. What I don’t see, though, are any people of color in the crowds; you know, folks like African Americans, Latinos or Asian Americans. Where are they? Strange, as one would expect that these groups would also share the same grievances as the tea party folks. Or don’t tea baggers consider them “real” patriots, Americans?

    They have fought bravely, with honor, in our wars, haven’t they? Tea partiers, if yours is truly a national movement, when will we see a full spectrum of the American population involved? Come on, tea partiers. We know what this is really about. Make a pledge now to clean up the racist stuff and get inclusive, or else people will identify you as just another racist movement, of which, unfortunately there are still too many.

    – Dan G. Tajbl, Auburn {California]

  2. Michael Cavlan RN

    Well shit. This 9-11 Troofer will just have to pack up my marbles and go home.

    Think again.

  3. paulie Post author

    I went to some tea parties in Alabama and Colorado.

    I didn’t see any racist stuff. I also didn’t see a lot of people that would be immediately identified as non-white, although there were some.

    I also didn’t see anyone screening anyone that came in, charging fees or asking for ID. Anyone who wanted to show up, showed up.

    I didn’t see any 9/11 truth being spread. But maybe it was below the radar?

    As for why the crowd wasn’t more diverse? I don’t know. It was probably due to the heavy conservative/Republican nature of the events.

    I did see a lot of Republican politicians and conservative social causes and militaristic mindsets on display. Including on the stage.

    Much as with the antiwar rallies I’ve been to, the event organizers and some in the crowd could not stay on topic, they had to bring the rest of their unrelated agenda and the issue allegedly bringing them there was just an excuse to talk about everything else leftist in the case of antiwar rallies, everything else rightist in the case of tea parties.

    I did meet some libertarians at both antiwar rallies and tea parties, but they did not have any libertarian signs or banners or anything identifying them as libertarians, and they were not gathering contacts like the socialist, democratic and green parties were at the peace marches or like the republicans and constitutionalists at the tea parties.

    Much like the Jewish approach to evangelism, libertarian outreach consisted of leaving it up to the uninitiated to find the libertarians and prove themselves (the uninitiated) worthy of joining.

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