Yesterday thousands of people rallied in hundreds of "tea party" protests across the country, expressing anger about the economy, politics, and taxes.

It is easy to make fun of the tea-baggers, to find idiotic quotes, and share pictures of wing-nut signs. It’s easy to dismiss the participants as foolish followers of well-paid demagogues. But I’m not going to join the collective progressive dunking of the tea-bagging events. Whenever thousands of people choose to break their usual nonpolitical routine and publicly protest, we should pay attention. We should try to understand, and—for those of who believe that massive structural change of our financial system is in order—we should probably reach out.

These are my preliminary thoughts about the tea parties:

First, I support public expression of political ideas. I am generally more impressed, than distressed, by peaceful, public, political civic action, even where I disagree with the policy goals.

Second, I am troubled that many of the views held by people at the rallies were factually wrong. Global warming is not a socialist scam.

Third, tea parties represent a genuine, authentic civic anger. While the right wing noise machine funded them and hyped them up, they did not pay people to draw posters and show up in Lansing, Michigan, or organize dozens of events in Arizona. Republican Party operatives mobilized for them, funders supported them, and Fox News shilled for them…that still doesn’t mean those were fake citizens at the rallies. Funding alone does not turn something into Astroturf.

Fourth, I am not willing to dismiss all rally attendees because of racist views held by some, comicly off-base views held by some, or ugly banners waved by others. I reject the habit of guilt-by-association in public affairs. If each of us had to endorse each banner held by each person at our rallies, we would not ever be on the sidewalk or at a public event.

Fifth, I do not think the rallies represented any coherent political view. The coherent, albeit very dangerous, policy proposals supported by Fox News and Michelle Malkin, cannot be attributed to the citizens protesting.

Sixth, I think the public anger is warranted. We are spending billions of dollars on bank bailouts that will not serve us. People are profoundly, and rightly, insecure about their jobs, where they live, their health care, and the economy. They are concerned, rightly, that the government’s response seems to be driven by the financial industry. They are concerned, rightly, about the cost of the programs and the degree of deficit spending.

Seventh, part of this anger is frustration that Congress is not being responsive, and that the administration is taking a "trust us" approach. In the Daily Show’s coverage, you’ll see video of a sign that reads, "Read the Bill Before Voting." I saw another that read, "Restore the Republic!" Another read, "I read as much of my bill as my Congresswoman." A popular bumper sticker bears the "no taxation without deliberation" slogan.

This CBS news interview of one protester is telling:

 

"None of our representatives – Republican, independent, or Democratic – listen to us," complained Maura Garvey. "This is a Republic. This is a government for the people, by the people. But that’s not happening here."

 

"This didn’t start in January with Obama," she added. "You look back 20, 25 years, it started. It’s just that nobody had the gumption to stand up before now, because now it’s really gone overboard."

 

In sum–despite a lot of idiocy surrounding them–the rallies represent real, and justified anger that the public has been largely shut out of the most important public decisions of our time. I hope they serve as a serious call for massive public education about economics. What is a corporation now, and what might a corporation be? What is a growth economy? Do we want a growth economy? What are the current tax rates? What do taxes pay for? What should they pay for? The essence of democracy is collective economic decision-making. If people are not equipped to make those decisions, we either make sure they are, or give up on democracy–I’m not willing to do the latter.

This is not just silly optimism. Every report I read of the rallies suggested a hodge podge of ideas and anger, and there’s reason to think progressive outreach makes a difference.Joan Walsh tells this story of Obama supporter Christina Plutarkos at the SF tea party rally:

 

Plutarkos carried a big yellow sign that on one side read, "The stimulus is already working saving essential jobs … it’s the bailout that’s the problem," and on the other asked: "Why did Treasury let AIG close out credit default swaps for 100 cents on the dollar?" I’m not kidding. She was trying to get the tea partiers to turn their anger toward the bailout, and she was getting a fairly respectful hearing.

 

Plutarkos should be a model for all of us.

Despite the return to the old status quo promised by language of "recovery" and "getting back on track" our economy is in the middle of a massive change. Decisions made right now will impact the shape our economy for decades. And many of the people at the tea party rallies–newly politically active people desperate for a new vision–might support reorganizing the banks, decentralizing the banking structure, limitations that make it impossible for a bank, or a company, to become "too big to fail"–but only if we reach out to them.