Friday, October 18, 2013

Should the Left be Jealous of the Tea Party?

Several writers, notably Alex Gourevitch and Jodi Dean, seem to think so, since the Tea Party has proven capable of collective political action that makes an impact. My answer would be no. I am about as envious of the Tea Party as I am of the vicious resistance mounted to integration in the South or the terrorist attacks of September 11. Both made a real impact, but neither molded the political future. The Tea Party is fairly isolated among one demographic, albeit a powerful one, older white men, relatively well-to-do, although not for the most part the very wealthiest. Ideologically, it has isolated itself from the American public, which turned against the Republicans during the government shutdown. It's effort to basically use extortion and threats to stop the Affordable Care Act, precisely what the Republicans ran on and lost in 2012, bombed. They got nothing. Their main accomplishment, such as it is, was to demonstrate that they are presently powerful enough to throw a wrench into the working of the US government. They came pretty close to triggering a default on US debt, which I sensed that they welcomed. Notwithstanding the failure of this strategy, I believe their nihilism will sustain them. If they are losing the country (and they believe, with some justification, that they are), then they would just as soon destroy it. It is not obvious, within the constraints of the American political system, precisely how to stop them. The more corporate faction of the Republicans may start in earnest to push back and try to unseat them, but people on the left tend to underestimate the way the base of a party can express itself through primaries. Lots of Tea Partiers won in primaries where their rivals had more money.

Over the next ten years, the US political system will probably become more authoritarian as this congressional obstacle proves insurmountable. Congress does not have a good image, to say the least, although it is a far more democratic institution than the presidency or the supreme court. The "Common Core" educational standards provide a model for how this might work. Even without the Tea Party, it probably would not be possible to pass such a program. So its development was outsourced to David Coleman, it promotion was outsourced to Bill Gates, and centrist media has been relentless in promoting them as something any right thinking American concerned about the future will go along with. The big problem is that this leaves the centrist program with even less of a fig leaf of popular approval than when it is directly promoted by Bill Clinton, Barak Obama, Nancy Pelosi, etc. So opposition to this soft authoritarianism will provide one avenue for the left.

Second, the deterioration of the Republican Party as a coherent, disciplined vehicle means that the left can sometimes stop bad things by de facto alliances with the Tea Party. This is what slowed the war drive to Syria, and it is also what tanked Larry Summers appointment to the Federal Reserve. Had Obama been able to count on the centrist Republicans whipping the party in line, both probably would move forward. I suspect this will also undermine any near-future "grand bargain," as well as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, although in both cases the intransigence of the Tea Partiers alone might do the trick (Obama's cancellation of his trip to the Pacific to deal with the shutdown didn't help claims that the US would lead the region in the future).

Finally, the crumbling of the right into this isolated, dysfunctional mess, rather than inspiring envy, should embolden the left. They don't want this country, increasingly consisting of non-whites, and longing for government solutions to their problems? Fine, we will take it. Taking it will require both a careful accounting of where we are at and the challenges of actually trying to enact progressive change (something missing in both Dean and Gorevitch's posts), and a serious investigation as to how the left should act in the case that the US state breaks down under the weight of Tea Party style battering. The latter may come sooner than expected.

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