Commentary: Tea party's decline is a hopeful sign for thinking Americans

The Miami HeraldAugust 16, 2011 

PITTS LEONARD 1

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.

CHUCK KENNEDY — KRT

Cheer up. Not everything went down over the last two weeks.

Granted, most things did. The stock market tanked, government's approval numbers fell, America's credit rating slipped as if on a cosmic banana peel. All of which is predictable any time the world's largest economy is driven to the rim of ruin while "leaders" bicker like kids in the back seat of the family car on a road trip across Texas. In August. With a busted AC.

But in the midst of that bleak litany of decline, there was a bright spot. Indeed, one leading indicator registered a sharp uptick. For the first time, it seems, more than half the American electorate now holds a negative view of the tea party movement. If you're wondering what that is a leading indicator of, the answer is simple: common sense.

The noteworthy thing about the CNN/ORC poll, which was conducted Aug. 5-7, is not simply that it found 51 percent of Americans now regard the tea party unfavorably, up from 26 percent when they first started asking this question in January 2010. No, what's telling is where the dislike is coming from. You see, the spike does not reflect a change of mind from the tea party faithful. Approval numbers have remained relatively stable over the 19-month history of the survey, starting out at 33 percent, peaking to 38 percent twice, falling back to 31 percent this month.

Once one drinks the tea, apparently, the tea stays drunk.

No, the fluctuation has come from those who previously knew nothing about the party. Twenty-four percent of Americans said in January of last year that they had never heard of it. Only 5 percent say that now.

As that number has fallen, tea party disfavor has risen.

To put that more simply: The more Americans learn about this movement, the more they dislike it.

That is good news for those who had taken to muttering that famous old axiom about the birthrate of suckers, a hopeful sign for those who had resigned themselves to the fact that they lived in a nation where she who yells the most simplistic thing in the loudest voice wins the debate. It is a godsend for those who were ready to write an epitaph for American intelligence.

Not that one can afford to be sanguine about the fact that "only" one American in three supports the tea party. Still, there is something reassuring in the realization that we have not completely lost our national mind. Yet.

As the world grows larger and more fiendishly complex there is, make no mistake, something seductive about loud voices and simplistic answers.

Especially when they demand nothing more of you than your capacity to feel frightened, angry and put upon.

Government is the enemy! Taxes are unpatriotic! Re-education camps are being built! Death panels are raiding senior centers! Obama wants to destroy the economy! It is distressing to see that such obvious, asinine fear-mongering holds sway with a large number of Americans, amazing to know those fear mongers all but control a major political party, disheartening to realize they would rather wreck the economy than ding their ideological purity.

At the same time, it is encouraging to see evidence that some of us — most of us — yet retain the common sense for which Americans are renowned. Maybe there is hope for us after all.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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