Beyond the Tea Party

Elite pundits and other members of the political class love to blame the Tea Party for the ever more insane rightward drift of American politics and policy that has been on terrible display in 2011—culminating in the “debt ceiling deal” of August 2, 2011, when the conservative Democratic president Barack Obama signed on to a “deficit reduction” plan that included only spending cuts and no tax increases while setting up Social Security and Medicare for future near-term attacks. Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, reflecting on why the Republicans would fail to sign on to Obama’s initial offer of a $4 trillion reduction in the deficit over ten years—a reduction that would have relied primarily on social spending cuts for Social Security, Medicare, and other social programs—argued, “If the Republican Party were a normal party it would…seize the opportunity to put a long-term limit on the growth of government. It would seize the opportunity to put the country on a sound fiscal footing.” But “over the past few years,” Brooks argued, the Republican Party “has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative. The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms…. The members of this movement do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities” (New York Times, July 5, 2011). Though he did not formally say so, this “protest movement” Brooks referenced was, of course, the Tea Party.


Three weeks later, Washington Post national correspondent Dan Balz pointed to “the hold the tea party movement continues to have on [the Republican] party”—the “biggest obstacle” House Speaker John Boehner had to “overcome” on the path to a “deal” (WP, 7/25/2011). At the outer reaches of blame-the-Tea Party madness, Brooks’s fellow Times columnist Maureen Dowd waxed knowingly on how “the Tea Party drives [the government] Thunderbird off the cliff with the president and speaker of the House strapped in the back.” Dowd was astonished at the power of “the towel-snapping Tea Party crazies,” who have “changed the entire discussion. They’ve neutralized the White House. They’ve whipped their [GOP] leadership into submission. They’ve taken taxes and revenues off the table. They’ve withered the stock and bond markets,” Dowd wrote (NYT, 7/30/2011), echoing Obama’s  claim that a small House “faction" of Tea Party “conservatives” was  holding the U.S. economy “captive.”


By the time of the manufactured debt-ceiling crisis that sparked Brooks’s comment, it had become standard fare in media commentary to refer to extremism in Washington as being driven by the Tea Party “insurgency,” which was thought to be pulling the more “establishment” and “moderately”-oriented Republican Party (and Democrats) to the right, in what represented a veritable “revolution” in U.S. politics. But Brooks and the rest of the media establishment were missing key points, as usual. The Republican Party didn’t, and doesn’t, care about “putting the country on a sound fiscal footing.” Part of its ultra-rejectionism is, sadly, a normal hyper-partisanship of a GOP that refuses to accept any Democratic presidency, and resists anything Obama wants. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has explicitly stated more than once that the Republicans’ top priority is to make Obama a one-term president—a rather brazen thing for him to announce as the country struggled with its worst economic crisis in 70 years.


Partisan goals and Tea Party histrionics aside, the Republican Party’s official goal of “deficit reduction” has long been cover for its deeper, ideologically driven, and plutocratic agenda. Republicans have taken advantage of every opportunity over the last three decades to run up sky high deficits and debt in the name of promoting tax cuts for the rich, endless expansion of the militarist-imperialist state, and ever increasing corporate welfare, as seen in recent examples such as the bank bailout. Most of the nation’s public debt is a creation of the Republicans themselves, who expect the public to believe that they have “found God” again, after they were thrown out of power in 2008.


The extraordinary cynicism of this practice is clear enough: pursue irresponsible fiscal policies while in power, then push forward with propagandistic initiatives such as the “cut, cap, and balance” amendment, which Republicans would never have considered passing when they controlled the White House and Congress. “Deficit reduction,” after all, is not a serious policy in its own right, but a weapon to be called upon whenever Democrats take power. This is no small part of what former Vice President Dick Cheney meant when he said that “deficits don’t matter,” in response to the soon-to-be-fired Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill’s warning about the fiscal impact of massive tax cuts for the rich combined with giant increases in military spending.


Republicans want nothing less than complete destruction of the last remnants of the liberal state. They are driven by the desire to wage hard-right ideological warfare, demolish social welfare programs, smash workers’ organizations, concentrate political power, and advance the interests of their big money backers. Observing that Obama had actually been pressing for greater deficit reduction than the Republicans last July, Times correspondent Jackie Calmes noted that the Republicans’ “dynamic in the debt talks reflects the culmination of a 30-year evolution in Republican thinking, dating to the start of President Ronald Reagan’s administration. The change is from emphasizing balanced budgets—or at least lower deficits—to what tax-cutting conservatives have called ‘starve the beast,’ that is, cut taxes and force government to shrink” (New York Times, July 15, 2011). Calmes forgot to mention that the Republicans only want to shrink what the left sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called the left hand of the state—the parts of the public sector that serve the social and democratic needs of the non-affluent majority, while the right hand of the state remains well fed.


The Tea Party is the GOP


Brooks was further off base when he argued that the Republican Party had been taken over by the Tea Party “protest movement.” As we show in our new book Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics, the conventional mainstream description of the Tea Party phenomenon as a popular protest movement is dramatically off base. The Tea Party is a loose, elite-directed conglomeration of partisan interest groups set on returning the Republican Party to power. Despite protestations to the contrary, it is partisan Republican to the core, its leading activists and main supporters accurately described by one mainstream reporter as “super-Republicans.” It is not an uprising or protest against the existing political system. Rather, it is a reactionary, top-down manifestation of that system, dressed up and sold as an outsider rebellion set on changing the rules in Washington and across the country.


Consistent with the long-term rightward trajectory of the Republican Party and U.S. politics since the 1970s, its basic function, enabled by a corporate media, was to help the deeply unpopular (because so transparently plutocratic) Republican Party re-brand itself in deceptive grassroots and populist clothing to take political advantage of the widespread economic insecurity imposed by the epic recession of 2008-2009 during the mid-term congressional and state elections of November 2010. Matt Taibbi got it right last year: “The Tea Party today is being pitched in the media as this great threat to the Republican Party; in reality, the Tea Party is the GOP.”


Tea Party/“super Republican” positions are consistent with the deeper and longer-term rightward drift of the Republican Party and American politics more broadly over the last 35 years of the neoliberal era. According to a common narrative in the mass media, the contemporary bipartisan political system is terribly polarized along a left/right continuum, with Democrats moving dramatically to the left and Republicans moving somewhat less dramatically to the right. This is a great illusion. Republican politicians have become far more reactionary than the Democrats have been “liberal” over the last half century and the rightward shift of the Republican Party is the main cause of such polarization. Democratic Party liberalism rose in the 1960s and 1970s—a reflection largely of the defeat and subsequent exodus of center-right southern Democrats from the party. From the Carter administration onward, however, Democrats have grown increasingly conservative in their embrace of neoliberalism and their declining support for worker protections and entitlement programs. The Democratic Party today is essentially a party of moderate conservatives, as reflected in Bill Clinton’s celebration of his “Eisenhower Republican” orientation, and in Obama’s deep commitment to “compromise” and “middle ground.” (Such an approach can’t help but pull Obama and the rest of the party in an ever rightward direction.) Since the 1970s, by contrast, Republicans became nearly twice as conservative, never moving back to the center.


This dangerous rightward tilt has resulted from a number of factors in the neoliberal era, including:


·       The ever-rising significance of big money in U.S. politics and policy at the same time that the U.S. has grown more savagely unequal


·       The rise of powerful new organizations (e.g. Americans for Tax Reform, the Club for Growth, the Christian Coalition, and many others groups) representing the right wing and business agendas


·       The atrophy of the U.S. labor movement (unions now represent less than 1 in 10 private sector workers, down from 1 in 3 in 1970) and mass membership in liberal and progressive organizations, formerly critical counterweights to an unmitigated business agenda in federal and state government


·       The increasingly immigrant-based composition of the U.S. workforce, which fuels nativist reaction at the same time as it robs labor of workers with citizenship rights and a long-term commitment to working and living conditions in the U.S.


·       The Republican takeover of the formerly Democratic U.S. South and the rise of a more deeply reactionary, largely southern-led Republican Party in the wake of the Civil Rights legislation and judicial decisions of the 1960s and 1970s


·       The rising significance of primary elections (which tend to empower the GOP’s hard right base relative to more Republican moderates) relative to general elections resulting from the escalated creation of solidly Republican and solidly Democratic legislative districts


·       The rise of mass voter apathy and demobilization, which favors highly organized right wing and right-leaning business interests


·       Corporate media consolidation, the decline of reliable and quality journalism willing and able to give the popular majority the accurate information it requires to be productively engaged in democracy, and the right wing’s construction of a powerful media empire and noise machine that includes: newspapers like the New York Post and the Washington Times; Fox News; a range of “public affairs” broadcasts on cable television; and a vast talk radio network that leans far to the right and promotes a nearly constant assault on the supposedly socialist Democratic Party, on the allegedly “liberal” mainstream media, and on purportedly dangerous left activists, groups, and causes


Our review of ideology in Congress (as revealed in analysis of voting records of the parties from the interest group Americans for Democratic Action) finds that the current crop of Tea Party Republicans are no more extreme in their voting than Republicans were in other extreme right-wing periods in the past—as in the highly polarized late Clinton and early George W. Bush years, and in the mid 1990s, when the “Republican Revolution” shut down government numerous times in the name of gutting the social welfare state. With the partial exception of  the August vote to raise the debt-ceiling (supported by 53 percent of the House’s Tea Party Caucus and 81 percent of non-Tea Party House Republicans), there have been no real differences in the voting records of “Tea Party Republicans” and “establishment” Republicans when it comes to key political-economic issues. Last July, to take one example, House Republicans pledged to vote for an increase in the national debt limit only if it was accompanied by a “cut, cap, and balance pledge.” That pledge required supporters to vote for “substantial cuts in spending,” “passage of a Balanced Budget Amendment,” and “enforceable spending caps.” As a hallmark of the Tea Party agenda, support for such an effort should have separated Tea Party and “moderate” Republicans to a significant degree. In fact, the bill was supported by 93 percent of the House’s 60 Tea Party Caucus members and by 94 percent of its 180 non-Tea Party Republicans.


Dismal Demobilizing Democrats


Democrats have also consistently pointed to the Tea Party specter to rally voters to agree to cower under the umbrella of a lesser evil Democratic Party. “Sure,” the Democrats’ message to their liberal and progressive voting “base” runs: “we may not have lived up to our progressive campaign promises of democratic change, but look at who we have to deal with and who stands to win if we are voted out: the swamp-fed Tea Party monster.”


Times columnist Ross Douthat put his finger on a key point: “The not-so secret secret is that the White House has given ground on purpose. Just as Republicans want to use the debt ceiling to make the president live with bigger spending cuts than he would otherwise support, Obama’s political team wants to use those cra-a-a-zy Tea Partiers to make Democrats live with bigger cuts than they normally would support” (NYT, July 11, 2011). Douthat thought the Administration wanted a “right-leaning deficit deal” in its effort to woo those all-powerful (in a winner-take-all two party elections system with a closely divided electorate) and supposedly ideology-averse independent voters for the 2012 election, who had been told again and again (falsely) that Obama is a left leaning big government liberal.


There may have been some truth in that formulation, but the bigger story was that the center-right Obama wanted to reward his big money backers and was more than willing to alienate much of his liberal base—even going to the point of screwing with Medicare and Social Security (in by now standard defiance of his campaign pledges)—in order to serve his elite business class masters.


The wishes of those masters were confirmed in mid-July when Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s (the nation’s and world’s leading credit and bond-rating agencies) made it clear that they wanted to see roughly $4 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years in order for the U.S. government to be permitted to maintain its longstanding AAA rating.


Of course, “those cra-a-a-zy” Teapublicans owe no small part of their current powerful position in Washington to the Democratic Party’s savage demobilization of its own progressive base as it acted in accord with its own longstanding identity as (in former Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips’s phrase) “history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party.” The left-liberal political scientist Sheldon Wolin easily foretold this pathetic Democratic performance in his chilling 2008 book, Democracy Incorporated: “The timidity of a Democratic Party mesmerized by centrist precepts points to the crucial fact that, for the poor, minorities, the working-class, anticorporatists, pro-environmentalists, and anti-imperialists, there is no opposition party working actively on their behalf. And this despite the fact that these elements are recognized as the loyal base of the Party. By ignoring dissent and assuming the dissenters have no alternative, the Party serves an important, if ironical, stabilizing function and in effect marginalizes any possible threat to the corporate allies of the Republicans. Unlike the Democrats, however, the Republicans, with their combination of reactionary and innovative elements, are a cohesive, if not a coherent, opposition force.”


The electoral consequences of the dismal Democrats’ centrist timidity were deadly. In the general midterm contest, the Democrats suffered from significant declines in voter participation on the part of segments of the electorate that played key roles in their triumphs in the 2006 (Congressional) and 2008 (Congressional and presidential) election cycles—union households, young voters, black voters. By contrast, voters who identified themselves as “conservative” increased their share of the active electorate significantly from 2006 and 2010. This was all it took for the highly energized and re-branded Republican Party to clean up in a mid-term election, when turnout is considerably smaller. As the left analyst and activist Charlie Post notes, no big “shift to the right” was required or took place. “An 8 percent shift in an election where only 40 percent voted—a shift of approximately three percent of the total eligible voters—accounts for the Republicans’ victory.”


Yes, He Did Mean It


As Wolin noted well before the contemporary Tea Party brand was formally launched, the word “conservative” merits quotation marks when used in connection to the radically regressive 21st century GOP. This is the hard right party that the deeply conservative Obama can’t stop readily accommodating, much to the all-too-credulous dismay of many liberals and progressives who cling (against mountains of evidence) to the childish notion that the president is really one of them.


 One of the more ridiculous aspects of the debt-ceiling drama has been the claim of Democratic pundits and spin doctors (e.g. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell) that Obama never really meant to institute draconian Social Security, Medicare, and social spending cuts—that the “grand bargain” he offered was really just a clever ploy to expose the Republicans’ partisan and arch-regressive agenda.


This was another preposterous narrative, as was seen when Obama subsequently signed on to the bipartisan “Gang of Six” budget plan, which “offered huge tax breaks for the wealthy, while lowering Social Security benefits for retirees and the disabled” (Dean Baker, Center for Economic and Policy Research, July 19, 2011).


The Irrelevant Majority


The high stakes budget and debt-ceiling policy drama of 2011 stood in standard bold defiance of majority public opinion. Most Americans believed that:


·       job creation should be a bigger government priority than deficit reduction 

·       social protections should be expanded (not contracted)  

·       the rich are under-taxed 

·       wealth inequality and poverty are the nation’s leading moral issues 

·       big business and the wealthy exercise far too much influence over government  

·       government dollars should be significantly transferred from military to social programs (Obama’s non-existent peace dividend) 

·       Social Security and Medicare benefits should be protected and expanded  

·       public sector workers deserve and require full collective bargaining rights the very rights that have come under attack in numerous Republican-controlled state legislatures this year


But none of this sort of longstanding majority progressive opinion ever seems to matter in the U.S., where, as the American philosopher John Dewey noted more than a century ago, “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” The hope that anything progressive can be achieved within and through that system seems ever more dubious with each passing electoral extravaganza and political branding campaign. But elections and opinion polls are hardly the only or most effective method of expressing public sentiments over and against concentrated wealth and power. Mass street demonstrations and strikes and social movement formation beneath and beyond the dominant institutions are the more relevant popular avenues.


While serious progressives must surely fight for reforms and corrections like the expansion and protection of labor rights, carbon emission limits, and welfare benefits (and much more), they should also realize that reforms will not suffice. Dewey was surely correct when he warned that the nation’s democratic institutions would never escape the giant capitalist “shadow” as long as power rests with “business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by command of the press, press agents, and other means of publicity and propaganda.”


Paul Street is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004) and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010). Anthony DiMaggio is the author of When Media Goes to War (Monthly Review, 2010) and The Rise of the Tea Party (Monthly Review, 2011). Street and DiMaggio are the authors of Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011).