There has been a bit of recent analysis as to who the "Tea Party-ers" actually are. The New York Times recently conducted a poll which concluded that, "Tea Party supporters are wealthier and more well-educated than the general public." My own experience with NJ Tea Party acolytes has been a bit different. In the most wealthy enclaves of the Garden State, the same people that never talked to me still never talk to me. What has changed is the response in the middle/working class suburbs. Only a year ago, right-leaning working-class Jersey folk would cautiously ask, "I'm Republican. Can I still do this?" Now, angry older white people viciously berate canvassers for any number of perceived slights including "Obamacare" and immigration. What the hell happened? What follows are "Kerry's Conversations With the Tea Party in New Jersey".
First, I have to sort the regular right-leaning folk from the Tea Party. Luckily, Tea Partiers identify themselves with bumper stickers such as "Legalize the Constitution" (which I don't really get) and the "Don't Tread on Me" yellow flag. Forewarned, a savvy canvasser is now prepared to strip their rap of any buzzwords like "community organizer" or "environment". Removing the latter word from the conversation can limit me a bit, but uttering it can elicit the same reaction as throwing steak to starving wolves.
Generally, canvassers are advised to disengage from folks who disagree with us, but I can't help it. I hate when people disagree with me not because of a genuine difference of opinion, but because they are factually wrong. So, follow me down the rabbit hole to the Tea Party!
Scotch Plains, recent Friday in April
Tea Party tip offs: "Dont Tread on Me" flag and "Where's the Birth Certificate?" car magnet
KPd.: Howdy! Happy Friday!
TeaPartier: Hello! What are you doing? You aren't a census worker are you?
KPd.: Naw. I'm working on a neighborhood effort to clean up NJ's water for fishing. I'm Kerry. :::extends hand for handshake:::
[Note: Tea Party-ers love a strong handshake.]
TP: Oh... is this going to raise my taxes?
KPd.: Actually, its cheaper to protect our waterways now than to clean them up later. As a person who fishes the Garden State, I know how important it is to keep the trout streams clean.
TP: Oh yeah! I definitely agree with that! I fish all the time.
KPd.: Great! Then jot down your name, and I'll explain how you can help.
TP: Sure no problem.
See? In this example, I was able to completely avoid all talk of the "E word". He actually gave twenty bucks, and I gave him some striper fishing updates. The frustrating thing is that protecting trout streams and fishing is one of the main components of the Clean Water Act, so I was, in fact, fairly representing what we do, but had I phrased it as "community organizing for the environment," the conversation would have gone very differently. It ended with him noting that I am "not like those environmentalists," and he offered me a bumper sticker. Sweet!
Tea Party tip offs: "Don't Spread My Wealth Around" sticker and "Dont Tread on Me" flag
KPd.: Howdy! I'm Kerry. Getting neighbors involved with making it more affordable for towns to preserve open space!
TP: Open space is usually just the government taking land from homeowners.
KPd.: Actually, we are asking the Governor to veto a bill that would give the state more power over local towns as to how they do their zoning and planning.
TP: A veto? That sounds reasonable.
TP's wife: Don't sign anything! You don't know who will get that!
KPd.: You can read it too if you want.
TP: It actually sounds pretty reasonable, Dear. My wife is very angry about the government right now. Ya know... what you are working on sounds right to me, but those folks in Washington... Taking our money and our rights...
KPd.: Well, I only want a little bit of your money. We're taking contributions.
TP: :::laughs::: I'll see what I have!
The bill we are currently working to veto is the gift that keeps on giving. If a liberal answers the door, we are working to stop developers from forcing more strip malls on Jersey towns. If I talk to a wealthy Republican, I can note that the bill we want the Governor to veto was passed by the Democratic legislature. (Eat it Jersey Democrats!) If I talk to a Tea Partier, I point out that the state government is trying to strip the local planning and zoning boards of their power. It's the best. This guy went on to complain about health care reform. I noted that, "I'm not sure what I think yet, but a lot of my friends don't have health care because they are young and got laid off." This isn't entirely true, but anecdotes are a great way to build trust and plant seeds of ideas in Tea Partiers and other rigid fundamentalists. "Really?" he asked. "Hmm..."
Lake Parsippany, Friday, with an African-American trainee
Tea Party tip off: None! Caught off guard here.
KPd.: Hi! I'm Kerry. This is Ashley. We are community organizers for the environment!
TP woman: :::eyebrow shoots up::: Oh, really? You just said a few words that really make me mad.
KPd.: Like, "hi"? =) Or "Kerry"?
TP: You know what I mean.
KPd.: Okay, time out. Let's back up. Community organizer just means a person from the community, in this case the community of North Jersey, who wants to talk to you about something and hopefully get you involved. You can "community organize" against taxes or Obama just like you can "community organize" for the environment. It's just a phrase.
TP: :::nervously::: Well, you may not be Acorn, but those words just really set me off. You know Al Gore made like a billion dollars?
KPd.: Well, I can assure you that I am not making a billion dollars right now, or I would dress better.
TP: :::smiles::: Well, you *might* be alright yourself, but you never know. I think environmentalists go too far.
KPd.: Like what?
TP: Well... I can't think of any examples just standing here, but they just do!
KPd.: Hey, we're a local Jersey group. A lot of your neighbors' names are already on here. It's not some government take-over. It's people working together to protect our state. Can I just leave you the letter to the governor? I am pretty sure you will agree with it.
TP: Okay, I will read that.
[Later the same night, I encountered her walking her dogs.]
TP: I read your flier. Sounds okay.
KPd.: Oh awesome!
Ashley the trainee: Thank you for taking the time.
TP: Yeah, it's just... you have to understand. When I hear "community organizer," it makes me think of DARK things. Ya know?
:::Ashley's eyebrows raise almost to her hairline:::
KPd.: Okay, well, now you met two, and we aren't so bad.
TP: Still kind of gives me chills...
Subtle racism sucks. Ashley and I were asked if we were "from the area" so many times that night that Ashley finally asked me if that always happens. It doesn't.
Unfortunately, I was unprepared to strip my rap of chill-inducing phrases, but even so, we managed to have a bit of a break through with that woman. The scary part was her using words like "dark" and "chills". If you can make the people you think you are opposed to into evil caricatures, it's easy to attend hate-spewing rallies. This is why I have striven so hard to find points of commonality with the Tea Partiers. When we can start seeing each other as fellow Americans again, they'll stop seeing me as a communist soldier of Obama trying to take their property and send grandma to a death camp.
...and maybe I'll stop seeing them as racist uneducated Fox News-watching morons who can't even articulate what it is they are so mad at.
We both like fishing...
It's a work in progress.