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The Tea Party Test

What are Jews to make of the Tea Party in this maddening election cycle? The raw anger directed at Democratic incumbency is understandable but highly disconcerting, since that anger promises to be far more destructive than constructive. The longing for a return to a constitutional nirvana is also understandable, but too often displays an appalling ignorance of what actually happened in American history.

And every day, it seems, there is fresh evidence of a candidate saying things that would have gotten him or her thrown out of high school civics.

“That’s in the First Amendment?” GOP Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell asked, twice, in a debate with her opponent in Delaware, appearing to either disagree with the constitutional prohibition against the establishment of religion, or to be unaware of it. That was October 19. The week before, O’Donnell could not name a single Supreme Court case with which she disagreed.

It may be too easy to pick on a relative neophyte like O’Donnell, considered among the weakest of the Tea Party insurgents. We’re in a deeply anti-intellectual moment, when candidates for high office feel no shame about what they don’t know. Sarah Palin couldn’t answer the Supreme Court question, either.

Yet it’s a mistake for liberals to arrogantly dismiss this powerful insurgency, and not just because it may earn the winner’s crown on November 2. The Tea Party-affiliated GOP candidate for New York governor, Carl Paladino, is also another clearly unqualified candidate in background and temperament, but his ascension is a reaction to the inexcusable incompetence of the powers that be in Albany. Reason lies behind this madness.

Progressives can’t ignore the legitimate causes of this anger, but neither can they fail to speak out against its excesses and dangers. Concern about the ballooning federal deficit, disagreement on tax policy — all fair game in a robust discussion about the limits and effectiveness of federal power.

But campaigning that Social Security is a “violation of the First Commandment,” as did Sharron Angle in Nevada? Arguing that the separation of church and state is a Nazi idea, as did Glen Urquhart in Delaware? Suggesting that East Germany is a model for immigration control, as did Joe Miller in Alaska?

These aren’t simply one-time gaffes made by unsuspecting candidates. They are outrageous perversions of facts that cannot be waved away or minimized, and they speak to a worldview that ought to be well outside acceptable civic dialogue.

That the Tea Party has wrapped itself in the mantle of the Revolution should not be surprising. As the historian Jill Lepore wrote recently, “Beginning even before it was over, the Revolution has been put to wildly varying political purposes.” All the more reason, then, to put this latest iteration of American populist anger to a serious test. You don’t need to be a constitutional scholar to pass — but it’s a good idea to at least read the text.


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