There’s this great line from Lily Tomlin’s “Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe” in which the central character is trying to explain to space aliens the difference between a can of Campbell’s soup and Warhol’s painting of said can.  The aliens go to see a play but ultimately — taken by the intriguing reactions from the crowd — decide that “the play is soup, the audience is art”.

And so it was tonight.  The candidates on the stage were soup, but the audience was a fascinating, impressionistic portrait of today’s conservative American electorate.
First, there was a lot of booing.  They booed at Ron Paul for suggesting that Muslim extremists may have reasons for attacking America other than just “hating our freedom.”  They booed Mitt Romney for not giving a knee-jerk endorsement of the so-called “Fair Tax”.  And they booed Rick Perry for giving in-state tuition access to undocumented immigrants, although just moments later whooping it up when Michelle Bachmann suggested forcing immigrants to speak English — failing to see the contradiction that undocumented immigrants going to college probably, uh, speak English.  In fact, much of the booing reflected a horrifying disinterest in nuance among the crowd.  They didn’t want to hear anything about how government might work, how taxes could be justified or how immigrants could strengthen America.  It’s no wonder the gravitational pull of the Tea Party has been not only ideological but pedagogical, creating a Republican Party that is more dogmatic and less nuanced than ever.

Second, the audience was markedly divided.  There were numerous answers to which, when the camera panned to the audience, only some people were clapping but certainly not all.  Repeal Obamacare?  Thunderous, universal applause.  But on issue after issue of domestic economic policy and foreign policy, the audience demonstrated a clear lack of unanimity that has oozed from the Tea Party and infected the once-united Republican Party.  Today’s Republican Party is clearly more united around what it opposes — everything associated with Barack Obama — than what it supports.  Post-debate commentators talked about the desire of candidates on the stage to “play to the Tea Party audience” but the Tea Party audience made their hard-to-pinpoint political schizophrenia and numerous ideological contradictions abundantly clear, such that through the lens of an applause-o-meter, the debate seemed like an impossible game of pin the tail on the moving elephant.

I won’t weigh in on which candidate came out on top tonight, but I will say that the Tea Party clearly came out on the bottom.  An audience that literally shouts its support that someone without health insurance should be left to die, among other base and immoral notions, reveals that the Tea Party’s political taste and temperament are as far removed from the American mainstream as imaginable.  Not necessarily a pretty picture, but a very accurate portrait indeed.

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