Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Why The Tea Party Failed

Yeah, I'm going to use the past tense there. It's true that the Tea Party movement exists and will exist for a little while longer, but I think it should be clear by now that they will have no real impact on the political scene. They've become little more than an appendage for the Republicans--something used merely to advance conservative memes--and perhaps it was impossible that they would become anything else. Some might argue that the Tea Party types haven't failed, that they're moving the electorate to the right, but that was somewhat inevitable in a period of Democratic governance during a recession. If the Tea Parties had never existed, what would have happened? The right would have still become hypocritical on spending. There would have been the same sort of relentless attacks on Obama. What's happening now is little different from what Republicans did in 1993-4. The Tea Partiers have merely given Republican operatives some visuals to testify to the power of their message. But the Republican Party has not changed very much.

Here's how I see it: the GOP has many problems at this point, but probably the biggest one is that its supporters are thoroughly captured by its elites. Because much of the Republican base is animated by the culture war message rather than by strict policy proposals (not a risky assumption, I should think), they can be fairly easily manipulated by the conservative elite, whose interests largely don't lie with solving big problems or helping their constituents, so much as enriching very specific groups. They make big promises and don't follow through on them, and then invoke the specter of the evil liberals to justify inaction. This is where you get the (accurate) accusation on the left that the GOP is run largely by grifters: you have almost a perfect set of circumstances for widescale corruption.

I think that the Tea Parties understand this on some level. They get that it's incompatible to both extol the virtues of the free market and then bail out the big banks. The problem is that they share very little substantive policy differences from the mainstream conservatives, and they don't really have much space to launch the critique that it would make sense for them to make. It would make sense for them to decry corporate collusion with government and to back regulation and legislation to reduce it, but this is a tacit admission that capitalism isn't a uniquely just system that gives everyone what they deserve, and that the Republican approach to the market is flawed. Most of them aren't ready for that. The Tea Party movement has not correctly identified its enemies, preferring to make partisan attacks instead of getting the Republicans' house in order and demanding accountability. There has been little backlash against the people who misled them for all these years: I've heard of little anger at Karl Rove, or Bill Kristol, or Fox News among these folks (or, at least, among Dave Weigel's persistent reporting on them, as well as some of the random conservative blogs I read). In fact, Fox News is more popular than ever, despite having fed these very people lies for many years. The deep-down fear of liberalism pushes them back to the very people who failed them because the alternative is unthinkable, or perhaps merely unthought. What the Tea Party movement seems to me to be is a movement that is trying to rebel with a group with which it agrees with almost everything. There is little imagination within the movement, less vision, and it overwhelmingly reeks of futility and chaos. It's like some late-90s pop-punk group raging at the system underneath a Doritos banner. Or, to use a political metaphor, I'm continually reminded of liberal hawks' decision to turn against the Iraq War in 2005-06. The tide was palpably turning against the war, and many of these hawks needed to pivot away from defending it, but the problem was that their ideology--which found American hegemony, national security ideology, and the notion of preemptive war acceptable--didn't allow much space for critiques of the war. Eventually, they decided to criticize Bush's conduct of the war, which was handy because Bush did such a poor job of it, but it was weak as far as these things go. The Tea Parties folded their complaint against the bailouts into a complaint against spending, which is fair enough I guess, but it is about as obvious as the liberal hawks' rationale and it doesn't really try to solve the problem that was, for a time, their raison d'etre.

This is why I think calls for some sort of right-left populism are misguided. I think that such a dialogue could be interesting, and I think that some of the same things motivate populists on both sides, but I have seen little evidence that this sort of right populism has a substantive case to make on these issues that differs from standard Republican thinking. Perhaps dialogue could discover some common ground, but I doubt there would be too much trust on either side. They've chosen to base their movement around spending, but anyone who actually thinks that a Tea Party-powered Republican majority would actually take action on this issue is sorely mistaken, as can be seen with Paul Ryan's neglected budget ideas.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.