Tea Party luring US into adventures in irrationality
12 October 2010 by Chris Mooney
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Compared with what may be in store for the US, George W. Bush's administration looks positively friendly to science, says Chris Mooney
THE Tea Party isn't nearly as entertaining as it ought to be. It is still unclear whether this particular brand of patriotic extremism is a passing fad or something more. Come the US mid-term elections on 2 November, those of us who care about science and rationality may not be laughing.
On the surface, the movement seems impelled by the economic pain Americans are feeling. But look more closely and it's hard to miss what historian Richard Hofstadter called the "paranoid style" in US politics, marked by "exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy". An essential strand of that is anti-intellectualism and disdain for science.
Nearly every Senate candidate with Tea Party backing rejects the established reality of human-caused global warming, usually with gusto. "I absolutely do not believe in the science of man-caused climate change. It's not proved by any stretch of the imagination," Wisconsin candidate Ron Johnson has said. "I think it's far more likely that it's just sunspot activity, or something just in the geological aeons of time."
The most notorious Tea Party candidate, Delaware's Christine O'Donnell, rejects evolution and opposes stem cell research and, more creatively, chimera research - which with typical cluelessness she thinks means growing human brains in mice.
There is great uncertainty over just how influential the Tea Party will be. It may actually damage the Republicans; the unelectable O'Donnell, for example, beat an eminently electable moderate to win her Senate nomination. Alternatively, the momentum and sense of outrage that it has generated may swing the mid-term elections decisively in the Republicans' favour.
If that happens, there are serious implications for the Obama administration's attempt to forge a reason-based and science-driven presidency. The president has pledged to "restore science to its rightful place" in government, and minus the greatest prize of all - comprehensive climate and energy legislation - he has largely succeeded. The administration is staffed with distinguished scientific leaders and advisers, and Obama himself embodies austere rationality and deliberativeness, almost to a fault.
Now, though, the Democrats face the prospect of losing significant ground in the mid-terms, thanks to the Tea Party and general Republican mobilisation. If that happens, many aspects of the administration's agenda - particularly on climate change - will face stiffer resistance. I'm not looking forward to a Republican-controlled House of Representatives holding hearings on "climategate".
What the Tea Party ultimately shows is that you can have, simultaneously, a scientific Washington and an unscientific America. And it suggests the nation's adventures with irrationality did not end with George W. Bush.
If anything, Bush was genteel and moderate in comparison with the Tea Party. As a defender of science and reason, it feels odd to say it, but when surveying the Tea Party, I almost miss him.
Chris Mooney is co-author of Unscientific America: How scientific illiteracy threatens our future (Basic)