“Something is happening but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?”
Ballad of a Thin Man, Bob Dylan
The hippies are coming. They’re coming back and when they get here they’re going to turn our wives into radical feminists, hook our kids on drugs, burn our flags, triple our taxes, regulate our lives, regulate our speech, regulate our businesses to the point where they can neither function nor compete, give aid and comfort to our enemies, spit on our soldiers, force decent hard-working white males to the bottom of the heap, give all our money to lazy people on welfare so they can buy Cadillacs, force God out of all public discourse, distribute free condoms in all elementary school classrooms, put homosexuals in charge of everything, illegalize meat, allow anyone into the country who wants to come for any reason at all regardless of intentions or criminal record, grant citizenship to anyone who wants it, make it legal to marry animals, increase funding for the arts based on how offensive or incomprehensible the artwork is, force all Americans to speak Spanish, replace the national anthem with Kumbaya, and do so while being dressed like bums and showing a profound lack of respect for us, everything we stand for, and everything we care about.
This is the tea partiers’ nightmare. It scares them, viscerally. It's also a not terribly exaggerated vision of where they think the country is going if they don’t stop it.
As a liberal, my primary concern is justice. From what I’ve been able to observe, the primary concern of conservatives in general and tea partiers in particular appears to be order. While I don’t share their concern, I don’t feel I have a God-given right to be disrespectful about it. Order is a legitimate concern. To treat it as otherwise would be a significant ethical error and a more significant tactical error.
The Sixties were the era in recent American history when order was threatened most significantly and most frequently. Conservatives found that period so traumatic that we’re still fighting a lot of those battles. Think about it: When was the last time you heard about an American flag being burned in anger on American soil? For me, that would be about forty years ago, and yet it has been a political issue relatively recently. How traumatic would the original events have had to be to give them political relevance now? I’m not going to talk about shared conservative responsibility for Sixties events in this post; today I’m interested in the consequences of conservative trauma.
Making conservatives panic is not a good idea. During the Sixties, their panic got so bad that when four kids attending a protest were shot to death at Kent State University, an event some of us would equate with Tienamen Square, most conservatives thought those kids had it coming. How panicked do you have to be to think that attending a protest should be a capital offense in America?
When conservatives panic, liberals lose elections, even though there are times when a liberal agenda would actually address many conservative concerns in the long run better than their own agenda. (This is one reason I’m a liberal.) Sometimes that panic is a result of our issue stands but sometimes it’s a result of liberals being less than conscientious about how we frame our message. We use the same language and make the same arguments when we talk to conservatives as when we talk to fellow liberals. This is neither effective nor appropriate. (For an example of how I’d change arguments, please see the discussion of businesses in my previous Income Polarization post.1st Post: Why Income Polarization is a Problem )
There’s another factor that contributes to conservative panic, and perhaps even more importantly, to conservative fundraising: Our fringes. To go back to a recent example, most of us didn’t approve of flag burning. We understood it in that we shared a lot of that anger with those burners and we weren’t as upset as conservatives were because we didn’t view the cloth object itself as intrinsically sacred to the same extent, but we still didn’t approve. They, on the other hand, viewed burning the flag pretty much like I as a Jew would view the burning of a Torah scroll, which I’d find traumatic.
We didn’t approve but we left it to conservatives to condemn. This allowed the conservatives to paint us as complicit, as supporting these actions, which they still do to us to this day. When we allow ourselves to be painted with this brush, we allow ourselves to be viewed as a threat to order in instances where we aren’t. We can’t afford this. There are times when we have to condemn our fringes. When this happens, those on the fringes may accuse us of betraying them but, in actuality, the reverse is true: They are betraying us. Being over the top in politics is not a luxury we can afford.