Sunday, May 29, 2011

What the Right is Doing Right

Sarah Palin is deservedly the butt of many a good joke. But it's irresponsible to underestimate the qualities that she represents for the American people. This Jane of all Trades (and Master of Populism) gets herself tangled in her words again and again, and the Left stand waiting for her to fall. I've read comments from liberal writers claiming that “we should just let Sarah Palin keep talking [and] Obama will be guaranteed a win at the next election.” Will it be as simple as that?

We need to have a closer look at the Tea Party movement, an unbiased look, in order to understand some of the political structures in the U.S. today. The movement erupted in 2009 as a result of the economic crisis. Right? I'd like to suggest that it's a result of the 1960's. And a result of the failures of the Left.

Although most modern liberals would view the 1960's as a time of breathtaking achievements, it was also the birth of a splintering of ideologies. The New Left of the 1960's turned away from labor unions in favor of a broad-based, anti-establishment crusade for civil rights. The worker was replaced by the student as the new leader in social activism. Minority rights and, after that, women's rights and gay rights (in the 1970's), were accompanied by the birth of modern environmentalism. The workers who organized were replaced by activists who protested. The issues became more controversial. The controversy became more wide-spread. Collectivism was replaced by individualism. And the government, as the father of all establishments, became the enemy.

Ironically, the New Left was extremely opposed to Roosevelt's New Deal and saw in it a missed opportunity to turn away from capitalism. Any Post-Depression success the Left had gained in terms of social security was abandoned step by step in favor of libertarian radicalism. This is where liberal ideologies crossed paths with those of the neoliberals. But in bemoaning the failings of government, they neglected to envision new models of social solidarity. Diversification led to fragmentation. And as the Left found themselves targeted in their own controversies, they neglected to develop a proactive plan. Politics became reactionary.

Meanwhile the Right, superficially entangled in leftist controversies, found much freer rein for implementing capitalist ideologies and advancing anti-regulatory trading practices. Fear, although very often a divisive sentiment, empowered the masses to move in one direction: toward freedom. McCarthyism, the Cold War, and the Bay of Pigs left Americans terrified. Literature, too, from Orwell's “Nineteen Eighty-Four” to Rand's “Atlas Shrugged,” helped solidify fears that any government regulation ultimately leads to a failed socialist state, wherein personal liberties are fully absent. Freedom became the common fertile ground of the Left and the Right. The seeds of the Tea Party movement were planted in this freedom.

In the 1980's the seeds sprouted. Reaganomics was the hot house in which the little saplings thrived. And even under the Democrat Clinton the saplings could begin to bear fruit. Indeed, conditions were good. Clinton passed NAFTA, the economy was good, unemployment was down, fiscal responsibility was on the agenda, there were even fantasies about paying back the public debt. Government wasn't exactly limited, but even welfare was overhauled. Aid to Families with Dependent Children was replaced by Temporary Assistance to Needy Families with a cutoff point after five years. A Democrat had torpedoed the welfare system.

But history brought an Autumn upon the land, and the fruit of the saplings fell to the ground in the State of Emergency of 9/11. A new fear of a new loss of freedom crossed the country like the first frost of winter, freezing the fruit where it lay rotten beneath the trees. After a hard winter of wars and recession the sun came out unexpectedly on a January morning in 2009. Change was in the air and a new hope that Obama could bring relief. But winter has never ended in January. And the sunshine proved ill for the trees' branches, which snapped in the ensuing ice storm. The Spring of 2009 brought about the Tea Party movement, yes, but only in terms of revealing what was already there.

But what is the Tea Party really? What are their unifying characteristics? Is it about “Guns, God, and Guts,” as one of my favorite Tea Party slogans states? Or, less comically observed, is it a new form of identity politics? The older, middle-class, white male swinging back on the pendulum of civil rights with one fist in the air screaming, “Don't Tread on Me!” That may indeed play a role, but it's not the whole picture. Unifying characteristics of the Tea Party movement are a fond attachment to concepts like freedom and aversion to big government and over-taxation. At the same time, however, they have no distinctive, systematic fight against all government involvement. Indeed, they are not against certain government action or against taxation in general. They want “less” government and that “less” is arbitrary. Just as arbitrary as the adherence to the Constitution, which is interpreted with varying and sometimes ambivalent degrees of strictness.

The most unifying characteristic of the Tea Party movement is a sense of threat. The threat of a government that takes more than it gives back to its citizens. The threat of an economy out of control, the fear of personal and even national ruin becoming more than just a vague tremor on a sleepless night. The threat of displacement, of a scorching drowning in the melting pot. The threat of bureaucracy run amok, with laws hampering every liberty and encroaching on more than just the ideals of autonomy. The threat of shame, of being belittled by an intellectual elite, of being portrayed as red-neck or backwoods by coastal snobs, of being trapped into failure by ever tightening demands on social behavior. The threat of being voiceless for so long that one can only throw open the window and scream, “I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more.”

The Tea Party movement is the voice of protest from the Right. And the sense of threat has served to not only unify, but also provide a framework for a common value system. This is solid ground won in the political tug-of-war with the Left. The Left lost their solid ground when they lost their solidarity. They became progressive and focused on issues instead of people, all the while playing the ventriloquist's puppet espousing the capitalist's morality of growth and progress. Each social issue was like a new rope laid across the line and advocates went to tug full force on their policy of choice, abandoning the primary liberal principle of the state insuring a minimal economic and social standard for all. The Left diversified, complicated, fragmented, became riddled with infighting. The Left lost their answer, destroyed their own common value system.

The value system of the Tea Party rests heavily on moral responsibility. Even when their path doesn't always cross with that of the Evangelical Christian's, the sense of moral responsibility is equally dominant. There is the moral fiscal responsibility, the moral adherence to the Constitution, and the morality of the free individual rendering anything more than the most limited of governments redundant and counter-productive. There is the morality of entrepreneurship, of free-trade, of rewards for those who are worthy. There is the morality of nationalism, the nation again taking the dominant role in a common means of identification. And there is the woven system of morality, taken almost one-to-one from the Christians: charity, protection of the weak (at least if the weak are not yet born), traditional family and social structures, and a faith that God is on “our” side.

It is exactly this morality, this structure, this consensus, that speaks to Americans. Americans want change; with good reason. And the change they've gotten with Obama? Well, another favorite Tea Party slogan: “$11 Trillion – Now That's a Lot of Change!” Hope quickly turned to disenchantment for many Americans and Obama's victories became far too often eclipsed by a nebulous mass of doubt. The far Left doubt that Obama is doing enough, see his bipartisan diplomacy as a missed chance. Change? Not the change they had hoped for. The poor and (un-) working classes couldn't see change come fast enough to qualify as real or better their plights. And the political middle and middle-right witnessed the first year of Obama's presidency as if watching the ocean's water level drop and feeling that sickening sensation of remembering that it's a sign for the coming tsunami, before bolting for higher land. “The Audacity of Hope”? Better to return to a more cautious, more reserved plan, even if it means trading in on a little of that hope.

This is the America of the Tea Party movement. This is the America of threatened Citizens, grown up from their virgin naivety. This is the America, willing to overlook the impairments of a Sarah Palin, conscious that she is only a small part of a bigger picture.

The Left is not in the position to ridicule the Tea Party. And in less than two years the Left might not be in much of a position to do anything any more. If Obama fails to win the next election, it will take a very, very long time for the Left to define their solidarity again. It will take a new movement, a movement that remembers how to organize instead of how to demonstrate, how to incorporate instead of how to isolate. This new movement will need a comparable, and well-structured value system; a morality beyond nationalism, beyond religion. A morality built up upon the fundamental liberal principle that no one – no individual and no group – can fall beneath a minimum social and economic standard. No one may be left behind.


  1. First, thank you for addressing the Tea Party seriously and thoughtfully.

    That said, there are some misconceptions in the piece. The Tea Party has been portrayed in an unflattering light by an openly hostile media, and consumers of mainstream news are to be excused for absorbing these misconceptions.

    On demographics, yes some Tea Parties are heavily old white people, but many others are much more diverse. I've been to several with young families of all races, and many are organized by women. And the redneck/hick thing is false. Even the NYT found that Tea Partiers are better educated than the general public. My own circle of Tea Party friends includes a wide range of graduate degrees.

    As for political affiliation, most Tea Partiers I know are independent/libertarian, NOT Republican.

    But the most important misconception is the focus on cultural/social issues. The #1 issue by far is fiscal unsustainability. We are running serial deficits of 10% of GDP. The last country to try that was Greece -- how's that working out for them? And we spend far more per capita and as a % of GDP on health care than any other country -- an unsustainable situation that ObamaCare only makes worse.

    You really should come to a Tea Party some time. You'd be surprised how the people are nothing like the media caricature.

  2. You're dead on about it being a mistake for the left to ridicule the Tea Party movement. I know so many people on the left who don't have any idea of what the Tea Party actually is; and if they really understood it, it would scare the hell out of them. The Tea Party is not a racist, religious, anti-government movement; it's a movement about on reducing the size and authority of the of the government because many people feel that the federal government has gotten too controlling and is spending way too much money.

    Although you're correct that the Tea Party has ancient roots in the 1960s, I believe that the primary motivation for the modern Tea Party is to push back against the corruption of the Democratic party. Now by "corruption" I don't mean illegal activity; - although there is plenty of that in American politics - rather, I mean the fact that the Democratic party made a decision to get on the "gravy train" rather than look out for the best interests of the American people. The allure of power and money is just too much for politicians to withstand. The Democrats publically railed against "evil corporations" while behind the scenes they engaged in "crony capitalism" where corporations that paid tribute to them were rewarded with lucrctive contracts, favorable laws, massive tax breaks and reduced regulations.

    Then the Democrats decided to partner up with the public employee unions. In exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions, the Democrats agreed to massively expand the ranks and increase the compensation of public employees. Again we have more behind the scenes deals being made that are counter to the interests of the American people. Many - not all - public employees are massively overcompensated. School superindendents, board members, advisors, comission members, managers, supervisors, ect...all being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year with free health care for life and the ability to retire early at 80 or 100 percent of their pay. And then when the tax payers protest that they can't afford all this government spending, the politicians parade the teachers, police and firefighters out and threat to lay them off first unless taxes are increased to pay for all this increased government spending.

    And finally there's the allure of power; the ability to control people and make people live their lives the way that you want them to live their lives. So many Democratic politicians see the government as a parental entity (with themselves as the parents) and feel that they are morally justified to pass thousands upon thousands of laws each year regulating every aspect of everyone's lives. Americans don't object to common sense laws like wearing your seat belt or having to be truthful in your advertising; it's gone way too far in many cases. The politicians now tell us what kind of cooking fats we're allowed to use, how much salt we can have in our diets, what kind of plants we can have in our front yards, what time of the day we can water our lawns, ect, ect. They passed a law here last year requiring gas stations to remove the little locking devices from the pump handles because some politician was afraid that someone might spill some gas by removing the nozzle from the tank while the gas was still pumping. (even though there is already an automatic cut-of mechanism built into gas pumps that shut off the pump if the nozzle is pulled out of the tank.) The term that the Tea Party people call this kind of activity is "nanny state."

    The United States constitution calls for a small, limited federal government; and we don't currently have that in this country. If the American people want that to change, there is a mechanism in place to amend the constitution. The problem is that the constitution was never intended to be changed by legislation, executive order or court rulings, and that's what's happened; and a lot of people are very unhappy about that.

  3. @Anonymous: of course I was playing with caricatures! If that didn't come across as such I am surprised. And I would expect the readers of my blog to not only rely on corporate media as a rule. If the caricatures of the Tea Party were accurate, one could indeed dismiss them. But it is precisely the diversity and the common ground which give undeniable weight to the movement.

    I maintain my position however that although as you claim "the #1 issue by far is fiscal unsustainability," the number one driving, consolidating factor of the movement is fear. The Tea Party wasn't born out of economics; even if their main "issue" isn't cultural/ social, they could never have achieved their level of power without the given social prerequisites of the last three quarters of a century.

  4. Sure, social, and generational factors affect all political movements.

    But the important thing is we have a major fiscal crisis on our hands, and the Tea Party is the only faction taking it seriously.

  5. The Tea Party movement a result of the 1960s? I don't know. The Tea party is mostly right-wing libertarian, and right-wing libertarians were fully PART of the 1960s. The anti-war movement of 40 years ago represented a coalition of libertarians of both left and right, (and to a lesser extent left-wing statists sympathetic to communism.) The Tea Party today is also a coalition. It represents both right-wing libertarians and right-wing statists. Left-wing rallies typically draw twice the number of protesters as Tea Party rallies, which tells me that the population as a whole is not in motion to the right, although the government certainly has been. Just as the 1960s anti-war coalition broke up after the Vietnam War ended, so the Tea Party coalition would break up if there were clear signs of impending right-wing dictatorship. In both examples, support by the right-wing libertarians falls away. Ironically, support for the Tea Party by right-wing libertarians actually INCREASES the chances of a left-wing dictatorship, as the people grow ever more desperate and begin to need food more than freedom. If instead a right-wing dictatorship begins to solidify power, will the right-wing libertarians realize it in time to withdraw their support?

  6. Fay, because I enjoy satire, this is why The Tea Party was formed.

  7. Then again, it's not all fiscal.

    Some people just object to being labeled terrorists for not liking TSA gropes.

    Maybe those teabaggers are on to something after all...

  8. What the Right is Doing Right Comments

    @ Loudog: Why do you think the Tea Party movement would “scare the hell” out of the Left if they understood it properly? Please expand on this through your perspective as a Tea Party supporter.

    Thank you for the rest of your comments. As always, I find your opinions insightful, although biased. In attacking the Democratic Party you activate a built-in protection for the Republican Party, implying that they are not on the “gravy train” and are not involved in corruption. Which I would consider a very hard point to argue. Or is it the hypocrisy of the democratic politicians which gets to you? After all, no one expects Republicans to be on the side of “the people.”

    The United States constitution isn't being changed by legislation, executive order or court rulings. It is being circumvented. Perhaps that is more what you intended to say.

    @ Philip: Thanks for your comment. I don't fully understand it all though. Although I didn't mention the anti-war movement and instead focused on identity politics of the 1960's in my essay, I'm not aware to the degree that right-wing libertarians played a role in any of the protests of that era. But the idea fascinates me. Could you provide me with more information here?

    @ Anonymous: Speaking of terrorism, I wonder if we'll see “terrorist activity” stem from the Tea Party? If the Tea Party either engages in “terrorist activity” or is perceived as a terrorist threat by the government, this could lead to an interesting and unexpected coalition with other radical groups.

  9. Oh, this isn't new.

    The Obama regime has been blatantly working to paint its domestic political opposition as terrorists for a long time.

    Sadly, the ACLU, Amnesty International, and other civil liberties groups have been completely silent on the matter.

    First they came for the libertarians, and I did not speak out, for I was not a libertarian...

  10. Thank you for your article Fay. I enjoyed it very much. I think you made good points; well founded and backed up.

  11. My only disagreement with your analysis is that I feel the media had a decisive role in all of this.

    First because Noam Chomsky notes that the discussion in the Beltway, including the Carter administration, at the end of the 70's was that the tumult that was just ending had been "too much democracy." The media showed great interest in Reagan's take on things, in part because it was new and they love novelty, but also because they sensed in the populace this desire for a return to normalcy and order and wanted to emphasize it. They painted Reagan as the Exciting Challenger.

    Second because the Tea Party seems to be the most successful astroturf movement thus far. I remember Fox News advertising the initial gatherings repeatedly, telling viewers where and when the events would be held throughout the country. The size of the gatherings were a joke at first. It was called a “movement” even while left-leaning protests outnumbered them by a factor of ten or more but went ignored. But Fox painted the new group as the new Exciting Challenger. Imagine if a major network bankrolled a leftist movement in the same way and then ballyhooed the turnouts and the passions displayed at them.

    The media acts as a potent sounding board for the things it likes and a dampener of the things it dislikes. That's its power. Yes, seeds of the tea party movement were already there. And, yes, the media are diverse in terms of ideology and approach, but they're all commercial enterprises wedded to capitalism in some way, and if a movement like the left opposes capitalism, well, they can find some other way of getting out their message and connecting with each other. After the 2010 midterm losses, the left fell upon itself in an orgy of self-loathing for being so moribund. But there is no real, physical community in this country and the media that has supplanted itself as the substitute ignores us. We should give ourselves a break. We're outnumbered and outspent and that's like trying to win a boxing championship with both arms amputated.

  12. @Anonymous: Michelle Malkin and you are obviously concerned about civil rights so why do you make it sound like civil rights groups are the enemy? As long as we allow the statists to set us at each others' throats, they win. I have my problems with the Tea Party, and I'm sure you have plenty of problems with the left. Note that I self-identify as a "leftist", not a liberal, which from your standpoint is probably even worse. But we're ultimately pissed off about the same tyranny.

    @Loudogblog: You say that the TeaParty opposes the power and size of the federal government, yet many of your examples seem to come from statutes issued at the state or municipal level I'm not attacking you about this; I just want to know. Do you and does the Tea Party extend its opposition to all levels of government or just the federal level?