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Tea Party 101
Political science professor and students chuck course syllabus for spirited deliberation of rising political movement

by Andrew Hogue

Whenever someone asks what I do for a living -- to which I'm delighted to respond that I teach American politics -- the conversation usually proceeds in one of several predictable (and not usually neutral) directions. Whatever the response, the interaction almost inevitably concludes with the insight that "at least you always have something to talk about."

"In my role as a teacher, I care less about whether the Tea Party 'wins' or 'loses' and more about how the movement affects the conduct of our political life together."

It's true. And it's been especially true this fall because of the great privilege I've had, alongside a class of 17 Whitworth political science majors, to engage in rigorous study of American political parties. At the outset, the course description seemed pretty straightforward: Learn about "the role and functioning of parties in American politics and government." Easy, right? Despite my careful syllabus crafting over the summer, it took just two weeks of trying to sustain the planned pace of the course while giving due diligence to the excitement going on in politics around us before I had to put an important question up for a vote: Examine the most exciting midterm election in recent memory -- you know, the one stoking passions across the political spectrum, the one featuring a new, self-described "party," the one that has the potential to be as game-changing as any in a while (you know, that one) -- or stick to the syllabus? Framed this way, you can guess the outcome I was hoping for; the students, unanimously, did not disappoint. The course schedule went out the window, and what a ride it's been ever since.

Anyone who turns on the news is undoubtedly aware of the recent rise of the Tea Party movement. But because the textbooks and literature in my discipline don't yet address this important development, my students and I have been discussing it completely on the fly. What is this thing? we've asked. Does it belong? And how is it affecting our politics?

It would be easy to rely on caricatures of the Tea Party as we try to make sense of it. After all, the narratives from both sides are compelling, and depending on whom you believe, Tea Partiers are either a heroic band of patriots bent simply on fending off the yoke of tyranny (á la their tri-fold-capped forebears in the Boston Harbor), or they're a mob of racist reactionaries and cocksure extremists, opposed to anything that might smack of "big government" (save, ironically, Medicare and Social Security). As is the case with most things political, perhaps there's a nugget of truth in each of these narratives, but we would do well to look somewhere in the vast space between these accounts and, more important, to examine the movement as objectively as we can, to look for nuance, and to bring history and political theory to bear on emerging questions of immense political significance.

"Because the textbooks and literature...donít yet address this important development, my students and I have been discussing it completely on the fly."

This is why I love my job. The things I get to study are rarely static, and more often than not, they are highly charged, with the media pundits so invested in the outcome (and so eager for ratings or readers) that the truth gets lost in the crossfire. My job as a teacher and a scholar is to try to transcend that battle, to look at its broader implications, and, when the stars align, as they seem to have done this semester, to try to do this among a community of concerned citizen-scholars. So while the often-astute Wall Street Journal columnist and former Reagan aide Peggy Noonan has been lauded from the Right as the first journalist to fully understand the movement in context (see the Oct. 22 edition of the WSJ), and lambasted from the Left as a partisan hack and a Tea Party apologist, the perceptive Whitworth students I get to teach step back from that fruitless battle to observe instead that "apparently, Ms. Noonan doesn't know Duverger's Law" (I'm guessing neither do most people, but try Wikipedia if you're curious). Such an observation is like a symphony to this professor's ears.

As we've examined the Tea Party movement this semester, I have framed my own analysis, as I do in most of my classes and as I hope my students will grow to do, less as a partisan for or against the movement, and more as a partisan of the American political system. What I mean is that in my role as a teacher, I care less about whether the Tea Party "wins" or "loses" (whatever that means) and more about how the movement -- like any movement in American politics -- affects the conduct of our political life together. While it's always exciting to teach about movements, people and events that are unfolding by the day, the difficulty is that objectivity -- and often truth -- can be elusive when we are prone simply to apply our own ideological and partisan perspectives and to follow the lead of the media intelligentsia.

But whenever ideological and partisan preferences are diverse -- and they're almost always diverse -- I find that if we start from a mutual commitment to the defense of a healthy deliberative political process, we usually end up with classroom discussion that steers clear of the vitriol modeled for us on TV. Instead, we usually engage in discussion that is civil and respectful -- the sort that is most fruitful for reaching common ground and for gaining nuanced understandings.

The standard for a properly functioning political system that I often have my classes aspire to is the one penned by "His Excellency," George Washington, when he wrote what I call the "cover letter" of the Constitution. As he addressed the American people, who, for the first time, were about to view their prospective Constitution, Washington made clear that the process that had led to the drafting of the document was marked by hearty debate, disagreement, and at times even dissent. But above all, the process was guided, he said, by "a spirit of amity, and of that mutual deference and concession which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable." Washington's is a high standard for Americans to pursue. But it is one, I'm convinced, that is well worth pursuing.

The Tea Party movement began in anything but "a spirit of amity," when commentator Rick Santelli, on national television, screamed and cursed his way through a rant against the "bailouts" passed by Congress and signed into law by the president, and called for a "Chicago Tea Party" in Lake Michigan like the one staged in Boston more than two centuries before. While there are undoubtedly notable exceptions, the grassroots movement that sprang up following Santelli's harangue has continued, on the whole, in a similar spirit, guided by anger and given to absolutism -- hardly the "mutual deference and concession" that marks healthy democracy functioning at its best.

To be sure, many of the movement's criticisms are valid, and in the cases where it does offer policy prescriptions, they're often based on coherent arguments. But the problems lie in the movement's spirit of anger (think Sharron Angle's "Second Amendment solutions"), in its seeming unwillingness to compromise, and in the ongoing claim that Tea Partiers are simply carrying out the sacred will of the founders (which leaves us scholars of the founding scratching our heads, as apparently they've never read the likes of Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, George Washington, and the many other key framers of the Constitution who were ardent proponents of a strong national government).

In the end, some of my students disagree with my assessment of the movement as more damaging than constructive to our political process. Some think I'm too hard on the Tea Party, others too accommodating. At times, they've probably both been right. But whatever the case, our discussions have been hearty, and I think we've all gained a useful understanding of an important movement that has ripened before our eyes. I hope, too, that the students have developed a framework for analyzing politics that will serve them well in their lives as citizens.

If nothing else, our class has definitely had "something to talk about."

Andrew HogueAssistant Professor Andrew Hogue joined the Whitworth Department of Political Science in 2009. His areas of specialization include presidential rhetoric, the presidency, and religion in American politics. Hogue earned his Ph.D. and M.A. at Baylor University and his undergraduate degree at Clemson. While his fiercest loyalties will always remain with the Tigers, he's an avid fan of both Clemson and Baylor.


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