What is the Tea Party, who do they represent, what do they stand for, and are they here to stay?

The media are newly interested, on the eve of the elections now undeniably shaped by this band of brothers and sisters, bound in common cause. How to pin that down…?

Here’s Peggy Noonan’s effort.

Two central facts give shape to the historic 2010 election. The first is not understood by Republicans, and the second not admitted by Democrats.

The first: the tea party is not a “threat” to the Republican Party, the tea party saved the Republican Party. In a broad sense, the tea party rescued it from being the fat, unhappy, querulous creature it had become, a party that didn’t remember anymore why it existed, or what its historical purpose was. The tea party, with its energy and earnestness, restored the GOP to itself.

In a practical sense, the tea party saved the Republican Party in this cycle by not going third-party. It could have.

Really, seriously. The establishment GOP was headed for this crash course.

That establishment, composed largely of 50- to 75-year-olds who came to Washington during the Reagan era in a great rush of idealism, in many cases stayed on, as they say, not to do good but to do well. They populated a conservative infrastructure that barely existed when Reagan was coming up: the think tanks and PR groups, the media outlets and governmental organizations. They did not do what conservatives are supposed to do, which is finish their patriotic work and go home, taking the knowledge and sophistication derived from Washington and applying it to local problems…

Part of the social and cultural reality behind the tea party-GOP establishment split has been the sheer fact that tea partiers live in non-D.C. America. The establishment came from America, but hasn’t lived there in a long time.

Welcome to mainstream America again.

Finally, the tea party stiffened the GOP’s spine by forcing it to recognize what it had not actually noticed, that we are a nation in crisis. The tea party famously has no party chiefs and no conventions but it does have a theme—stop the spending, stop the sloth, incompetence and unneeded regulation—and has lent it to the GOP.

Back to the points at hand…

The second fact of 2010 is understood by Republicans but not admitted by Democrats. It is that this is a fully nationalized election, and at its center it is about one thing: Barack Obama.

It is not, broadly, about the strengths or weaknesses of various local candidates, about constituent services or seniority, although these elements will be at play in some outcomes, Barney Frank’s race likely being one…

This election is about one man, Barack Obama, who fairly or not represents the following: the status quo, Washington, leftism, Nancy Pelosi, Fannie and Freddie, and deficits in trillions, not billions.

Everyone who votes is going to be pretty much voting yay or nay on all of that. And nothing can change that story line now.

Public Discourse sees it as the confrontation of the Intellectuals and the Masses.

It happens again and again. Liberal intellectuals revile the conservative masses and popular spokespersons for their fear and hate, yet their own comments seethe with fear and scorn.

Their visceral blindness to their own animosity indicates, once again, something beyond political disagreement. The rise of a decentralized, amorphous grass-roots association and voting bloc lacking pilots from credentialed intellectual circles seems to have stirred the intellectual identity against itself, to draw some darker impulses into the light. Social thinker Eric Hoffer explained the tendency 50 years ago in a piece entitled “Intellectuals and the Masses.” In it, he began with the historical fact that up until the modern era intellectuals always stood with those in power, “a governing elite,” and remained “indifferent to the fate of the masses.”

Ah, but…

The Tea Party violates the rule. The people who comprise it have managed to reject incumbents and Establishment favorites in Alaska, Nevada, Utah, Delaware, and elsewhere, forming a volatile political force that has befuddled Democrat and Republican leaders alike. More pertinently, they have marched out in front of intellectuals working in newspapers and media, academia, foundations, and public offices. They seem not even to care about the good opinion of their intellectual betters. An Ivy League credential doesn’t much impress them, nor does long service in public office or a segment on CBS News. They shrug at the lines on the resume that intellectuals care so much about and strive all their lives to compile.

And so some intellectuals see Tea Partiers as an affront, not an ideology, a denial of their own character. Nothing stings them more than disregard, and when the masses have the power to ignore them and not be ignored themselves, the intellectuals are stymied.

What a great observation, that. Here’s a perfect example:

Last year, Glenn Beck sat down for a 45-minute interview with Katie Couric of CBS. They had an amiable conversation, for the most part, but at one point (around 12:40 in the taping) she admitted to him that when her Twitter followers heard of the upcoming interview, “some people couldn’t believe that we were even giving you a platform because they feel that you are bad for America.” Beck didn’t bother to answer Couric’s correspondents. He simply delimited their authority: “You wouldn’t believe how many people Tweeted me this week and said, ‘I can’t believe you’re sitting down with Katie Couric—she’s bad for America!’”

They aren’t used to the comebacks. To the unblinking disregard for their sheer elitism.

Alas, the Tea Party….in spite of the sniffing and snorting indifference by the ‘ruling class’, regardless of the indifference to the ‘legitimacy’ conferred upon them by the cultural hierarchy…is prevailing in common wisdom and determination. Or so it appears.

Wise intellectuals step back from their hostility and return to the virtues they espouse. The more they disdain different social and political groups, the more they appear as but another social and political group. As intellectuals previously were identified with king and church and Party (in Communist nations), so today they are identified with “elites.” This is the opposite of intellectualism in a democratic society. There, intellectuals should be, above all, independent—independent of power and independent of any particular acculturation. They should be universal. They should tell the truth . . . but not get too confident of their apprehension of it. They should disagree with others . . . but not ridicule them. They should refine the common taste, not censure it. They should elevate public discourse, not echo its cheap coinages. We shall see on November 2nd where reactions will go next.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....