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A Tech survey of over 2100 MIT undergraduates and graduate students conducted last year showed that only 2 percent of MIT students felt the Tea Party best represented their views. The overwhelming plurality of students — 48 percent — felt best aligned with the Democrats. Even the Green Party, with 4 percent, took a greater share than the Tea Party.
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The Tea Party is a very hot topic in American politics nowadays. This is especially evident in our publication, as a number of my colleagues at The Tech have published articles discussing the position of the party regularly. Depending on with whom you bring up the issue, however, it seems that opinions vary largely between Democrats and Republicans. When you add major media outlets and the Tea Party themselves into the mix, you’re left with a huge number of diverse views.

This got me thinking: what’s the feeling on MIT’s campus? In an effort to find out, I asked Prof. Carlos Diaz-Rosillo of the Department of Political Science whether it was possible to have a small debate on the situation of the Tea Party so I could have a chance to hear what the students’ ideas were. Happily, he agreed to help me out by moderating such a discussion in his class, 17.20 (Introduction to the American Political Process).

Diaz-Rosillo’s first question was, “What effect do you think that the Tea Party’s having on US politics today?” This very forthright question met a swift response from the students who said that the Tea Party serves as a major force that has begun polarizing the Capitol. Indeed, I agree that this is a valid point, as one of the major implications of the existence of the Party is that legislators as well as the American people are more aware of the growing chasm forming between the parties. If nothing else, the Tea Party significantly exacerbates this situation by accelerating polarization on the Hill.

As the discussion continued, the students’ divergence of opinions became more apparent. Some believed that the Tea Party is acting as an effective force, while others believe that it’s a brief stint that has been generating a lot of noise and will start to die off soon. They also attribute this eventual possibility to the fact that the Tea “Party” is not actually a party like the two major ones and that it doesn’t have the staying power to live on. Others, including myself, define it as a movement that has been gaining momentum the past few years and has been energizing the conservative base. And it is certainly an important goal to get people out to vote. Democratic turnout, after all, is how Barack Obama overcame his adversary in the ’08 elections.

As the discussion went on, it was noted that the Tea Party itself was not as large as people seemed to believe and, besides identifying very strongly with the Party, many supporters don’t actually participate in its activities. This led to the widespread realization in the classroom that a large portion of voters are oblivious to complicated issues such as federal spending cuts, taxation, and deficit reduction and that, despite supporting the Party, they don’t really understand what is being said.

Additionally, many voters are driven not necessarily by what is in their best interest, but by showmanship and preexisting prejudice toward all sides. Let’s be honest here: most of the people who vote know next to nothing about the people that they claim to be supporting and vote because something caused them to identify with a particular party. It may be their families, a single issue in which they’re deeply invested, or something else. While voting for someone because they care about solving a problem that you want resolved is a good starting point, it’s ultimately an inadequate reason.

The class also noted that energizing the conservative base could, if not done carefully, be playing with fire. It might scare away potential moderates that may have otherwise been interested in voting for the conservative side, but fear what their representatives could be capable of should they assume the Oval Office.

Finally, Diaz-Rosillo wanted to have a vote to see what the numbers are in terms of support, disapproval, and apathy for the Tea Party. When asked if they thought that the Party’s emergence was a good thing, eight hands were raised. Fifteen hands were raised in disagreement with the Party’s activities, and three people simply did not care.

While the Tea Party’s presence may be good to stir some things up, stirring a pot and overheating its contents are hardly the same thing. The Tea Party needs to understand that overheating your tea may eventually lead to burning it. And who likes drinking burnt tea?