My primary source of news is “The Daily Show.” So what I know about the Tea Party movement is mostly that they’re pretty funny. Bill Maher did a routine wearing a tricorn hat with tea bags dangling down in front of his ears. That was funny too.
In a special election in November 2009, the Tea Party backed an insurgent conservative against the Republican candidate in New York’s 23rd Congressional District, along the Canadian border from Plattsburgh to Oswego. They forced out the party’s choice, Dede Scozzafava a moderate. Scozzafava dropped out of the race and endorsed the Democrat, Bill Owens.
By a razor thin margin, the Republicans lost the 23rd for the first time since the Civil War.
In January, 2010, the Tea Party enthusiastically threw their support behind Scott Brown in a special election to replace Ted Kennedy. Brown won what was supposed to be the safest Democratic seat in the country. The Tea Party claimed credit.
When he got to the Senate, Brown voted for the jobs bill. Tea Party members immediately called him a sellout, a traitor, and (ohmigod!) a RINO (Republican in Name Only).
But at the end of April they helped drive Governor Charlie Crist of Florida out of the race to be the Republican candidate for US Senate. (Crist is now running as an independent.) Just a year ago, Crist was one of the brightest rising stars in the Republican Party. A moderate, he was touted as a possible vice-presidential candidate in 2008. The English Independent newspaper recently summed up Crist’s fate since then: “He has been strung up in a political crucifixion about as swift and cruel as any you are likely to see in America.”
On May 9, the Tea Party helped defeat three-term senator Bob Bennett at the Republican nominating convention in Utah.
Bennett was anti-immigrant, anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-affirmative action, anti-tax, anti-minimum wage, anti-health care, pro-business, pro-oil, pro-offshore drilling, and pro-national security—from wars to wiretapping. Anybody on the left would have thought of him as an unredeemable God and guns enemy of humanity. But Bennett voted for TARP (the bank bailout) and sponsored a bipartisan health care bill (though of course he voted against Obamacare). So he had to go!
On Tuesday, May 18, Tea Party candidate Rand Paul (son of Ron Paul, a rare combination of randomly sane and truly loony), was in the Kentucky primary against Trey Grayson to be the Republican candidate for Senate.
As Kentucky’s Secretary of State, Grayson illegally purged 8,000 voters from the rolls. Call him a Republican’s Republican. Republicans do. He was endorsed by Senator Mitch McConnell, Dick Cheney Rudy Giuliani, Senator Rick Santorum, and Representative Hal Rogers. He was endorsed, then unendorsed, by Paul Dobson (the beat-your-child-and-your-dog psychologist who founded Focus on the Family).
Rand Paul thrashed Grayson.
So, we have some questions.
What is the “Tea Party?” Who is in it? Should we take them seriously? What effect will they have on national politics and the nation?
First off, the Tea Party is not an organized political party. It is a movement.
They don’t have a platform or an official list of positions.
What is certain is that they hate taxes, big government, and Obama. They think of themselves as the defenders of “The Constitution” and the “real” America and are certain both have been, or are about to be, taken from them. They are virulently pro-gun, often because they think that gun ownership—including assault rifles—is the only real defense for when socialist-communist-fascists come to take them away, without warrants, to concentration camps.
They are astonishingly popular. According to a Rasmussen poll in April, 24 percent of Americans “identify with” the Tea Party movement.
That sounds somewhat terrifying. But they almost entirely overlap the right wing of the Republican Party. (Not that there is a left wing or even much of a centrist one anymore.) In the words of Glenn Greenwald, the movement “is, at bottom, nothing more than a cynical marketing attempt to re-brand the right wing of the Republican Party under the exact same policies and principles which defined it for the last couple of decades.”
A lot of their rhetoric, and many of their fears, sound like a mirror image of the Left (and dare I say it, my own) during the Bush years: Washington is broken. Government doesn’t care about real people. Politicians are owned and operated by malignant financial powers (their list is somewhat different, but the “mainstream media” and Goldman-Sachs are on everyone’s). They love Naomi Wolf, who warned against the onset of fascism under Bush in her book The End of America. The Tea Partiers use her lists and logic to see the onset of fascism under Obama.
Klein’s The Shock Doctrine describes how free market ideologues use crises to destroy democracy, social welfare programs, and unions. According to the radical right, Obama is part of a vast conspiracy to take advantage of the crash and the recession to destroy capitalism and democracy, and replace it with totalitarian socialism.
There are real issues here. The Bush and Obama administrations rescued the banks. But they did not rescue the American worker, American industry, or the real economy. Rich stockbrokers and speculators had their losses made good and are now getting rich again, often because of TARP funds and cheap money from the Federal Reserve, another favorite on everybody’s sinister conspiracy list.
Activists are most important during primaries. As they have just demonstrated, the Tea Party can win primaries. They will, without doubt, push the Republican Party further to the right. Or, more precisely, keep it pressed up against the conservative wall, no compromise, no reason allowed.
Other factors aside, their strident and ideologically pure candidates will lose general election in swing states. Republican states that are irredeemably Republican will elect polarizing Republicans.
To the degree that Democrats fear them, as they have feared the radical right in the past, they will drift further to the right.
The Democrats—Liberals, the Left, the Obama Administration—need to articulate some set of clear positions. Along with that, a list of enemies.
Nothing brings out the activists like scary enemies.
As to the election results this November, and in 2012, it’s the economy, stupid!
- Larry Beinhart.