What is a nice Latino like me doing at a Tea Party like this?
Even though I have donated to Michele Bachmann's campaign, I am not of the Tea Party. I am for it, but not of it.
In order to explain "for, but not of," I may also provide conservatives with an insight into their complex relationships with the Latino community going into 2012. Here goes.
The Bronze Age of Tea Party history: I was there!
I volunteered at the Sarah Palin rally in Carson, California, in October 2008. She referred to Barack Obama "palling around with terrorists," a comment which was blown out of proportion, until it became common practice for editorialists to refer glibly to everything she said as bigoted. One progressive blogger wrote about the Palin rally:
Among this raptured crowd of 20,000 was a frightening mix of Christian zealots, anti-abortion fanatics, and mostly white suburban women and men reconnecting with their high school mentality. Bright colored pom-poms were everywhere - as if Sarah Palin were head cheerleader, the women were on her squad, and the men were the football heroes.
I was there for eight hours working security. I have photographs I wish I could share but cannot (copyright fears!). I saw a highly multicultural crowd sporting a colorful mix of Armenian, Iranian, Mexican, Guatemalan, Nicaraguan, Filipino, Chinese, Korean, Jewish and countless other ancestries. They were orderly, polite, and thoughtful. Much discussion occurred, bridging the views of fundamentalist evangelicals and fiscally concerned libertarians.
Those days now feel like the Bronze Age. I knew Sarah Palin and later strong women like Michele Bachmann would galvanize the movement, which had -- like many Asian and Latin American cultures -- a profound reverence for women and a liking for traditional mother figures.
How to serve the cause?
I have been busy with my work as a father, soldier, and scholar and have not had the chance to go to a lot of Tea Party rallies. After seeing the brutal distortions by liberal "intellectuals," I decided my best service to the cause would be as a literary scholar.
I wrote The Colorful Conservative: American Conversations with the Ancients from Wheatley to Whitman, a monograph tracing the right-wing activism embodied by Sarah Palin back to the writers of the early Republic, especially Phillis Wheatley, the first African American poet; Edgar Allan Poe, who warned against the utopianism that would soon prevail in the American left; Henry David Thoreau, who I believe wrote both Walden and Civil Disobedience as a conservative rather than as a radical; William Wells Brown, the first black playwright, whose play The Escape illustrated the dangerous link between medical care and slavery; and Walt Whitman, whose poems in Inscriptions and Drum Taps provided a way for men who love men to sublimate their erotic leanings into patriotism -- a useful model for sexual liberation which I believe the gay rights movement failed miserably in applying to their own struggles.
I would no more permit activists to brand Phillis Wheatley a sellout, call Thoreau a misogynist, or label Whitman racist, than I would allow someone to call the Tea Party racist. I think they are doing great things.
But I am not of the Tea Party for a few simple reasons.
The Historical Fork
First, there's a historical disconnect. The bulk of American literature pertinent to Tea Party values clusters not in the eighteenth but rather in the nineteenth century. In fact, it makes much more sense to view the 1850s, when the Republican Party was founded to protest against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, as the ideal mirror for today's struggle against the Democrats.
In the 1850s, the Republicans were the new party, much as the Tea Party is like a new party within a party. The Democratic Party was the anathema back then, pushing paternalism and demagoguery to defend the plantation as social sustenance, just as they now peddle paternalism and demagoguery as "social justice."
In the 1850s sex was a hot topic. Some of the decade's greatest male writers struggled with what we would now call bisexual tendencies. The only President never married to a woman and often accused of homosexuality, Democrat James Buchanan, served in the White House 1857-1861.
Talk about links to the media! The Democrat President who served 1853-1857 was Franklin Pierce, one of Nathaniel Hawthorne's classmates from Bowdoin and a close friend.
In the 1850s, socially conservative issues merged with capitalist thinking to form the core of the Republican Party. J ames Buchanan's unmanly veneers were not only a cosmetic but also a practical issue, as his inability to be a manly husband presaged his inability to be faithful to any principles; as a result, the nation foundered and the Civil War erupted.
The Tea Party, like the 1850s Republicans, really wants to win a cultural civil war rather than effect a cultural revolution.
So the Tea Party's focus on the 1770s and 1780s, while great for renewing Americans' interest in figures like John Adams, has snubbed the literary and social rhythms of American history, which point me to a century later.
The Disciplinary Fork
Literary study is immeasurably more leftist-leaning than political science. In Left Turn (St. Martin's, 2011), Timothy Groseclose points out with some sadness that only four out of forty-eight professors in his political science department at UCLA voted for McCain. I wish I could be so lucky
this post) all find that the humanities and social sciences are where the academy's liberal hegemony is most inexcusable. It is natural that the Tea Party would draw from political theory, one of the few academic contingents where Republicans comprise at least 5-10% of the faculty.
At my English department, I was the only McCain voter out of over 160 professors, lecturers, adjuncts, and teaching assistants. Studies by Solon Simmons, Eli Lehrer, David Horowitz, and others (see
The result is that statesmen, philosophers, and pundits are overrepresented and cultural forces such as literature and the arts are less prominent as forebears for conservative rhetoric. The eighteenth century is a great source for political philosophy, while the nineteenth century is stronger for literary movements.
The Taxes Fork
Nonetheless, I might still be of the Tea Party if it were not for taxes. I do not think the Bush tax cuts were a good idea. With the middle-class and working class no longer paying an appreciable share of tax revenues, not only is the revenue stream destabilized and subject to greater vicissitude (fewer people with unpredictable fortunes now foot the major bill), but also, the government becomes less democratic because the only group with a lot of bargaining power when it comes to taxes is the wealthy. Not a great situation.
Many Tea Party members talk about a flat tax, an idea I like. But for the most part, the default position of Tea Party spokespeople is to refuse raising any tax rates at all, which I think is a bad idea.
Disagreeing with the Taxed Enough Already party about whether we are taxed enough already is a little like disagreeing with the Southern Baptist Convention about the role of Jesus Christ as our personal lord and savior. I could compare myself to Jews who support evangelical Christians for their loyalty to Israel even though they know evangelical Christians think that rejecting Jesus Christ jeopardizes a person's soul.
El Tenedor Latino
And here is where I can relate all this to the situation between Latinos and the Tea Party for 2012. Not many people have commented on it, but in a recent Gallup poll only 45% of Latinos approved of the job President Obama is doing.
In the most recent Pew report on wealth disparities, Latinos are deteriorating worse in wealth than in income. Between 2005 and 2009, the net worth of white households fell from $135,000 to $113,000, but Latino households dropped from an average net worth of $18,000 to roughly $6,300.
Because their wealth is disappearing, Latinos are likely to rely more keenly on the family and social support that their Catholic cultures predispose them to, so social conservatism is inextricably linked to fiscal conservatism, inasmuch as socially conservative values bind families and communities around religion and family values. Never have Republicans had such an opening with Latinos as now.
A minor glitch is that many people in the Tea Party feel intuitive dislike for people who happen to be Latino. No judgment calls here; I am not calling the Tea Party racist. It is simply that immigration is a sacred issue to many in the Tea Party. I respect their adherence to their principles, which translates to opposing partial amnesty projects like the DREAM Act (which I have always supported). Marco Rubio has been among the staunchest opponents of the DREAM Act, so it is not a universal Latino position to be for or against it. Since I disagree with Sen. Rubio on tax policy, I do not think disagreeing with him on the DREAM Act makes either me or him a traitor!
Many in the Tea Party also feel that their culture is important to preserve and they cannot see, practically speaking, how a large number of people rooted in a Mediterranean Latin culture can assimilate comfortably into a Northern European, Protestant, Anglo-Teutonic social landscape which one could argue frames North American society. Put simply, I respect their fears and cannot ask the Tea Party to change who they are.
Nor can I change who I am. Immigration is a personal issue for many Latinos, since we have relatives and close friends whom we love and whom we view forgivingly. If given a chance to serve in the military or attend school to prepare for high-demand jobs, many of them could compensate for the main crime they committed by entering the country illegally. Latino neighborhoods suffer disproportionately from illegal immigration because illegal immigrants hide out in our neighborhoods where they are less likely to be noticed, yet many of us are torn and cannot snitch on them.
I confess, I would not report an illegal alien in my building unless he committed a grave evil in my mind, which illegal immigration is not; it is not in me to betray someone I know and feel commonality with. I support voter ID check and enhanced border security at the Canadian and Mexican borders. I oppose safe haven cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. I've long supported physical fortifications along the Mexican border (i.e., a wall) since bricks, unlike humans, do not waver under pressure and accidentally shoot the wrong person. But I draw the line at roundups, mass deportations, and invective against American culture being ruined by inferior foreigners; such rhetoric is not universal in the Tea Party, but I do hear it often enough to feel taken aback by it.
When I drink I sport a Spanish accent. I like the music, theatrical gesticulations, and upbeat life philosophy that I inherited from Latin America. Like Jews who like conservative Christians but know they can never believe in Christ, I like the Tea Party but know I can never be one of them. And that's okay.
Latinos going into the 2012 election cycle need now, more than ever, to consider seriously supporting the Republicans. All of us will confront the Tea Party in our individual ways and decide as individuals how to relate to their complex rhetoric. It is important to remember that the Tea Party is not a monolith. Perhaps the vast majority of its members support deporting all illegal immigrants and many if not most are uncomfortable with the cultural identity that is part of what makes Latinos who we are. There will be some comments from Tea Party spokespeople that will hurt our feelings, but my advice is to engage them as intellectuals, disagree respectfully where we must, and find common ground.
We can be for the Tea Party while not being of it. It shouldn't be that hard.
Robert Oscar Lopez is the author of The Colorful Conservative: American Conversations with the Ancients from Wheatley to Whitman (Rowman & Littlefield's University Press of America, 2011). He can be found at www.colorfulconservative.com. The book will be coming out in October and can be ordered through firstname.lastname@example.org with the ISBN 978-0-7618-5627-6.
 Timothy Groseclose, How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2011), 112.