I just read Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson's soon-to-be-released book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, and this passage stuck out as particularly notable. It ought to give some pause to both liberals and conservatives:
Midway through our interviews on the Middle Peninsula of Virginia, we were struck by a telling contrast. Between us, the two authors have attended many meetings of highly educated liberals in and around academic communities. In those meetings, detailed knowledge of public policies is common. People know exactly what is in Obama's health reform law, exactly how all kinds of taxes work, and can tell you who pays for and benefits from government expenditures. They can debate the intricacies of cap and trade versus carbon taxes. But even liberal Ph.D.s are often extremely vague about how U.S. politics actually works. People will proclaim in meetings that President Obama should just give a speech on a particular priority — and act as if that would get it done, forgetting the complexities of Congressional rules and alliance-building. Opinionated, educated liberals often have no idea what happens in state legislatures, local government boards, or political party committees. Grassroots Tea Partiers, by contrast, know the rules and procedures for passing bills and advancing regulations in detail — for local, state, and national government. But at the same time, they hold wildly inaccurate views of what is in, or not in, public policies or legislative proposals. They know process, but flub content — the exact opposite of the academic liberals.
I think liberals have a tendency to look at grassroots conservative activists and think they're just nutballs. After all, they get their information from Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, so of course they end up believing there are Obama care death panels, global warming is a hoax, and so on. But it's no accident that the conservative grassroots is able to take over your local school board while you weren't looking. It's because the smart ones among them are able to think small — to figure out just what practical steps are necessary to have an impact where they live.
A lot of liberals find that stuff boring and frustrating. Don't talk to me about the city council — what I'm really concerned about is the fact that Mitt Romney is a phony. Granted, there are plenty of exceptions on both sides, and one of the great achievements of the 2008 Obama campaign was how it was able to put so many thousands of liberals to work taking practical steps to help the campaign. If more of them had taken the skills they learned and applied them to politics on the state and local level (and to be sure, some did), it could have profoundly altered the landscape. But it's never too late!