Elephants and Tea Parties
Life is a matter of perspective, as much as recognition of longstanding truths. Today, the Tea Party is a force in American politics, in the same way that discovering an elephant in your living room would be a newly discovered force in your life. But what is the Tea Party? Like the six blind men who all touch an elephant and see it differently, that depends on your perspective.
One of the blind men in the iconic poem by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) touches the side of the elephant and feels a wall. While few of the Tea Party’s adherents urge voter registration under that name, they are grounded in limited government, lower taxes, and the Bill of Rights. They see the movement as a wall of wisdom, built one brick at a time, since the days of our Nation’s Founding.
To Saxe’s second blind man, who discovers a tusk, the elephant is a spear. Faced with an unaccountable, increasingly intrusive and incorrigibly expansive Federal Leviathan, some see the Tea Party as the tip of a popular uprising, the pointy end of what will be a resurgence of accountability, respect for individual rights, and reduced Federal footprint.
The third blind man in the poem grasps the elephant’s trunk. To him the elephant is a snake. To those in opposing camps, the Tea Party -- although not a party -- seems to present a threat. Like the curling trunk, it is a movement in motion, not defined by shape, size, reach or impact. To some Republicans and to more Democrats, the Tea Party demands caution, distance. It has an ability to strike unexpectedly, to bite. Recently defeated U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor must count himself in that camp. Also in his company are those comfortable with big government, and those less trusting of the individuals, community, or State to make good decisions.
The fourth blind man felt the elephant’s knee, sure he was a tree. To these souls, the Founders’ words, actions, and intent, the conservative doctrine of strict construction of the U.S. Constitution, and a primacy of local decision-making are well-rooted in our past. Our country’s exceptional past – oak timbers like tradition and a free market, trust in creativity and entrepreneurialism, individualism, and self-reliance are self-evidently how we got here, and how we will get to the next level.
The fifth blind man felt only an ear of the elephant. To him the ear was a fan, powerful but fragile, strong, and thin. He misunderstood the ear’s ability to guide the larger body, yet liked what he felt. To some -- particularly those of us who remember a Republican Party led by Reagan’s principles, good humor and openness, pride, and peace of heart, the Tea Party is an echo, a welcome echo, but still thin. Reagan was never divisive or quick to condemn Americans who sought, with a good heart, to live by honor and tradition, even when they erred or missed the mark. To him, we were One Nation, blessed by Providence and courage, strong because we knew ourselves, trusted our instincts and each other. We could bend and lend an ear without fear of losing our bearings.
The sixth blind man found only the elephant’s tail, sure it was a rope, and in that way underestimated the whole, even as he disparaged what he knew of it. Perhaps that is what the media today sees in the Tea Party. So, today, we enter the living room of our political life and find an elephant, the Tea Party -- still a mystery. What exactly is the Tea Party? Is it who we all are, want to be, or are afraid of being? Is it a wall of comforting principle or spear of activism, a source of suspicion or of rooted solace? Is it the Nation’s ear, able to guide the body politic to a brighter future, or a foil for detractors, a way to divide the Republican Party?
Maybe there is something bigger afoot, something we are missing? Is this elephant not new at all, but the living room itself -- the Leviathan -- what is new? Is it possible that we see in the Tea Party what we want to see, and are all partly wrong? Is it possible that the Tea Party is an outgrowth of our common desire to again be One Nation, hard as it is to get our arms around that idea? Maybe this ill-defined elephant has undefined potential.
If the Tea Party helps us reexamine who we are, as Americans, and better understand what we value most, it is by definition good. If it becomes a distraction, another way for dividing us on ourselves, the potential force for good will be wasted. Not very poetic, but there you have it: There was more to Saxe’s elephant, and there may be more to the Tea Party than any of us, blind as we are, yet imagine.
Robert B. Charles was Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, worked in the Reagan and GHW Bush White Houses, and taught law and oversight at the Harvard University Extension School. He presently leads a Washington DC consulting firm.