As a general rule, I am not supposed to laugh at things students say unless he or she is trying to be funny. Even when a student says something ridiculous – "How often did kings come up for re-election in the British system?" – it is unacceptable for the nominal authority figure in the classroom to bring him or her shame and humiliation by openly laughing in their face.
That said, I laughed at a student last week. I couldn't help it. Stuff was funny.
The student in question self-identified as a Republican and voiced concern about the apparent popularity of Sarah Palin in his party. He spoke quite negatively about her and expressed dismay about her lofty status among the party faithful. This touched on one of the course themes, perception and reality in politics, so I responded by asking what caused him to conclude that she was wildly popular among Republicans. He said, "Well, whenever I'm watching Fox News they just go on and on about her, and everything they say is positive."
The class laughed. I laughed. Not a lot, but more than I should have (i.e., more than zero). The student did not realize she was on the Fox payroll to the tune of several million dollars – Didn't that get a lot of publicity? Am I incorrect to think this might be common knowledge? – but we turned it into a fairly useful discussion about one of the maxims of public opinion in the age of electronic media: the loudest voices don't necessarily represent the greatest numbers of people. And I hate to bring them up two days in a row, but there is no better example of this right now than the Teabaggers. The early returns on Election 2010 underscore its status as a fringe movement. Prior to 1968, McGovern-Fraser, and the advent of primaries, the major parties nominated presidential candidates at the conventions. Amidst the back room dealings and corrupt bargains made among the delegates, powerful state and local party bosses would promise to "deliver" areas under their control if they got their way, i.e. "If you nominate ______ I can deliver California in November." Right now it's quite apparent that for all their demands of the establishment GOP, Tea Party USA can't deliver shit.
The success of Teabaggers in electing the candidates they anoint is meager at best, "totally non-existent" at worst (hat tip TS). From the Doug Hoffman fiasco in the NY-23 special election to the 2010 primaries, Tea Partiers have become the Washington Generals of contemporary elections. In my home state of Illinois, evil "RINO" Senate candidate Matt Kirk destroyed Teabagger Patrick Hughes for the Republican Senate nomination while Adam Andrzejewski parlayed endorsements from Rush Limbaugh, Erick Erickson of RedState.com, and every Teabagger alive into a fabulous 5th-place finish in the gubernatorial primary. Out of six candidates. If you ever question Rush Limbaugh's exaggerated sense of self-importance, just remember that his weighty name virtually guarantees you a top-5 finish in a field of six candidates in a Republican primary. The results were no better in Texas – Texas, for crap's sake – where Teabaggers failed spectacularly in their primary challenges of Governor Rick Perry and nearly a dozen House members. Not one came within 30 points of winning.
The media have latched onto the Tea Parties for their own self-serving reasons. The conservative media love them because the crowds of yokels satisfy the American right's desperate need for a veneer of working-class authenticity. The liberal and centrist media love the rallies because they are a petting zoo of deformed, barely literate freaks at which viewers will enjoy laughing. Regardless of how or why the media cynically exploit Teabaggers, the fact remains that there simply aren't that many of them. The fractured, incoherent movement is only "sweeping across America" or "a grassroots uprising" in the minds of people who think that wishing will make it so.