Drawing the Line for the Tea Party

The NAACP's demand that leaders of the insurgent group confront racism in its ranks may ultimately help increase its legitimacy.

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I regularly receive e-mails from the Tea Party movement. Sometimes I delete them, but mostly I read them. They're interesting. Here's a sample of some of the statements contained in the Tea Party e-mails I've received:

The Army of Darkness will not be defeated easily; they lust for control of our beloved Nation.

The guy [President Obama] who appointed her [Kagan] doesn't even have a birth certificate, we don't know his real name, it is reported he has multiple social security numbers and now his appointee, Kagan, is an 'unknown.'

We-The-People were forced into serfdom by the passage of ObamaCare . . . the first poison pill of the thug-ocracy has been shoved down our throats without even the traditional glass of water to wash it down.

Although bizarre, disagreeable and steeped in fantasy, these statements aren't particularly remarkable ones for a fringe organization that's still in its early days of formation and coherence. Groups on the left and the right develop with some regularity, and early on, many of them make statements that rally their core -- statements that are over the top, paranoid and even kooky.

In a democracy, all kinds of political groups, so long as they do not stir up violence or engage in criminal conduct, should be allowed to express their views to their constituents. The problem is that most of these kinds of groups never see the media light of day. They don't get their own "line" (along with the "Republican line" and "Democratic line") on C-SPAN's morning call-in show. Congressmen and -women don't go speak at their rallies. Political-party leaders don't quake in their boots and change their rhetoric and policy positions to mollify these groups. The mainstream media, if they report on them at all, do not refer to these groups as a populist "movement."

But the Tea Party movement has enjoyed a degree of coddling and legitimization from the start that is almost unprecedented. Although less than a year old, the Tea Party already commands precious minutes of network and cable-news broadcasts each evening. Republican candidates scurry for endorsement and approval by the nascent group. Michael Steele, the embattled and perpetual foot-in-mouth head of the Republican National Committee, recently defended the Tea Party against charges by the NAACP that the party had failed to condemn racist elements within in its ranks.

The Tea Party, according to Michael Steele, is ''your mom or dad, your local grocer, banker, hairdresser or doctor.''  Umm, no, Mr. Steele, not really. And even if they are, do we really want the barber shop guys -- much as we love them -- running the country? And if the guys at a barbershop Mr. Steele might patronize in, say, West Baltimore had conducted mass rallies, wielding the kind of rhetoric we've heard directed at the president over the last year against, say, George W. Bush in 2003, do you think that they would be embraced as a "populist movement" with their own telephone line on C-SPAN call-in radio? Especially if some members arrived at rallies with loaded weapons strapped to their legs, or their candidates advocated the use of ''Second Amendment remedies'' to defeat those in power?

The NAACP's recent resolution condemning racist elements within the Tea Party movement is an attempt -- admittedly a problematic one -- to draw the line. Of course, it's a difficult task for the civil rights organization to take. The careful wording of the resolution demonstrates the organization's self-consciousness about condemning the speech of another grass-roots organization -- no matter how extreme. The diffuse nature of the organization and the refusal of many Tea Party groups to take responsibility for some of the billboards comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Lenin makes it difficult to hold the fractured Tea Party groups in different states accountable for the racial undercurrent that has marked some of the group's rhetoric.

The NAACP's action could be seen as a courageous, albeit imperfect, effort to end what has been the Tea Party's free ride. Receiving the benefits of a legitimate political party ("Ted is calling on the Tea Party line") requires a level of responsibility that is usually demanded by the media and by the leaders of our existing political structures. That level of accountability has thus far not been required of the Tea Party movement with any consistency -- even for the over-the-top statements in the e-mails that some supporters send out, or the literal "call to arms" that some of its adherents espouse.