The Tea Potters’ sweeping attacks on government remind me of earlier political clichés: “Where’s the beef?” Some critics now call the Tea Potters all sizzle and no steak. That flatters them. Their rages don’t sizzle, they just sputter, like a smoking fat fire in a fast food kitchen. No ideas, just noise.
But in politics, the customer wants to know a little about his burger. What’s in this fun meal for him? Not long ago, people were expected to vote their economic interests, not their moral beliefs. Has that changed? Many vocal Tea Potheads say it has, thanks to technology.
In the second half of the 20th Century, our voting patterns did show signs of change. The “Reagan democrats” were an early harbinger of a real shift. Reagan was elected in spite of his “trickle down” economic theories. He was an actor who arrived on the scene just in time for television. Many “blue collar” voters liked Reagan and voted for him.
Business leaders in America already had years of experience in using television to sell everything from cars to coffee to canned soup. This was mass marketing and the GOP was the first to apply it to candidates and political issues. The internet, seen by people as a merchandising tool, was spotted by others as an “aggregator.”
One of those smarter, political types was Lee Atwater. Atwater saw a way to bunch voters and aim messages at them, indentifying their biases, resentments and fears. Tailoring ads to these biases (especially in the South) allowed Republicans to fan the flames of resentment against Democrats. These ads especially played to civil rights issues, rights for women, and other social conflicts.
The technology for aggregating voters turned out to be a genie that the Republicans couldn’t put back in the bottle. The Party had always exploited social and moral issues to win elections. But now, were confronted with people who actually believed that their stand on those issues was morally right.
The internet is also an amplifier for people determined to be heard. True believers had much more impact than your old-style Republican activist combined with the new Super Pac billionaires. They have now driven our political conversation far to the right.
So far, this moral minority has had more success driving moderates out of the GOP (Bennett of Utah, Lugar of Indiana, Snowe of Maine.) Where the race is more local than in one congressional district, the Moral Mouseketeers haven’t been electing people. They’ve done better in some state-wide elections.
During the Iowa caucuses earlier this year, I wrote in my blog that these vehemently virtuous groups were “splinters.” I still believe that, but the GOP should always remember that stepping on a splinter can be very painful.