Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My Letter to Senator Mark Warner

It's been a long time since I've posted here, and I really wasn't sure I'd ever return to this blog, but I had something I wanted to get off my chest, and it didn't fit in my newer foodie blog: Yesterday I noticed a Huffington Post story in which Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia is quoted as equating the "super left" of the Democratic Party and the " crowd" with the extremists of the Tea Party movement.

As it happens, Sen. Warner spent part of his young life in my home town of Vernon, CT, and graduated from the local high school. I've met him on a couple occasions at fundraisers for Vernon resident, Congressman Joe Courtney, and I cheered as loudly as anyone when Warner was elected to the Senate in 2008, replacing the retiring Republican John Warner (no relation). I knew he was more conservative than I am, and that Virginia is more conservative than Connecticut, but his attack on Democratic progressives saddened me, and I felt I had to respond. Here is the text of the letter I just posted to his Senate website:

Dear Senator Warner:

I am not a Virginia constituent, but I am a proud resident of your old home town of Vernon, Connecticut. I’ve met you on a couple occasions when you’ve been gracious enough to lend your presence to fundraisers for my congressman, Joe Courtney, and I had a brief friendly chat with your father at the polls this year on primary day. Vernon and Rockville High School are proud to call you our own.

So it was with more than a little dismay that I read your recent comments equating the “super left” of the Democratic Party and the “MoveOn crowd” with the Tea Party movement on the right. Obviously I don’t have the inside knowledge you do, but to a relatively well informed, engaged layperson like myself, this comparison smacks of the very same sort of false equivalency that has folks claiming Rachel Maddow is a mirror image of Glenn Beck, and that leads the media to treat paranoia about “death panels” and birth certificates (or, more recently, assertions that the president is spending $200 million per day to travel to India) as if they were legitimate news stories, on the same level as stories based on actual facts.

I recognize that both your state and you personally are relatively conservative, and there are surely factions of the Democratic Party that are well to your left. I don’t think MoveOn is really as far to the left, ideologically, as the Tea Party seems to be to the right, but even if we stipulate that it is, there’s a world of difference between rational, principled advocacy of an ideological position, on the one hand, and the sort of inchoate rage and fact-free fearmongering I have personally witnessed from the Tea Party.

Last summer I attended several of Congressman Courtney’s Town Hall meetings on the topic of health care reform, at which the crowds were dominated by self-identified Tea Party activists. I’m quite sure you would have been shocked to see the rage and personal insult directed at your friend Joe Courtney, who is as thoughtful and principled a man as I have yet met in public life. These remain the only political events I’ve ever attended at which I have been nervous about my physical safety; these crowds were much ruder – and much less rational or well informed – than anything I’ve ever witnessed on the left… including several passionate anti-war rallies hosted by MoveOn and similar groups during the Bush administration. And based on what we witnessed during the run-up to the recently completed elections, the Tea Party has gotten worse rather than better since those angry summer days.

Clearly you have philosophical differences with some Democrats to your left (including, no doubt, me), and more power to you for speaking out. But please refrain from making sweeping equations between our party’s left and the craziest elements of the American right; such comments can’t possibly add anything useful to our already severely challenged political discourse.

Thank you for your attention…

I actually agree with Sen. Warner that extremism in our political discourse can be toxic, but I think we far too frequently mistake strong ideological differences with extremism, and we too quickly judge the worth of ideas by their distance from the ideological center rather than by their rationality, humanity, and basis in fact.

No doubt there are thoughtful people in the Tea Party movement, but that doesn't mean it and MoveOn (for example) are comparable: The most "extreme" progressives and liberals I know are by no stretch of the imagination equivalent to the hateful, rude, and stubbornly ignorant people I have personally met and experienced among self-proclaimed Tea Partiers. I respect Sen. Warner's opinion, but there really aren't always two equal sides to every contest.