Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Tea Party Paradox

In The Stairway to Nowhere I have a Plot Device called the Crystal. It’s one of two powerful magic talismans, each of which has an order of magicians built around it. The magicians of the other talisman, the Star, are the Good Guys. The Crystal’s magicians are the Bad Guys. They’re nasty, ruthless, and mean. They cast spells on people and turn them into slaves. They torture people in creative ways just for the fun of it. They practice human sacrifice (the Aztec religion was their idea). In so many ways, these are Not Nice People. But they play a crucial role in the Star’s secret plan to turn human society into a utopia. It couldn’t be done without them. They provide the goad of pain to move humanity in a direction it would not go unless pushed. As the Star itself put it: “Each set of adepts has a role to play, and I appeal to each in the language they can understand. The Crystal’s selfish power drives the world forward, towards the supposedly ideal world the Star promises. The Crystal adepts are being used for a goal not their own. I give them what they desire, though. They are not deceived in that. It’s simply that there is a larger process of which their selfish ends are subroutines. The Star’s agenda is that larger process.”

Turns out the Star’s agenda itself is a subroutine of an even larger process, but that’s getting away from what I want to talk about this week, which is the Tea Party movement. If you want, you can read some more about the Star and the Crystal here: The coupon from last week’s entry is still good for a free copy.

Now, about the Tea Party movement. It’s not a perfect analogy. I’m not suggesting that our misnamed modern Samuel Adamses are nasty, ruthless, Not Nice People. But I do believe that they are, in the pursuit of what they desire, serving ends not their own, just like the Crystal’s adepts. Strange as this may seem, those ends may well be appealing to those of us on the left side of society’s political divide. (You thought I was going to say they were being used by the Corporate Interests, didn’t you? I believe just the opposite, in fact.)

The Tea Party movement, like its unfortunately less-visible and less-active left-wing counterpart, cuts across the lines formed by the political parties. (I can’t think of a cool and catchy name for the leftist insurgency, so I’m going to be unimaginative and call it the Leftist Insurgency, or LI. If you can think of a better name, post a comment.)

One can oppose the status quo from either the left or the right these days. That’s because the Democrats and Republicans today together form a deceptive system of control that was crafted during the 28 years from the administration of Ronald Reagan through that of George W. Bush. Although there are individuals in Congress who are not part of this system, enough are to make it work, and all of the presidents of those years (including the lone Democrat, Bill Clinton) played important parts in it as well. The system presents an illusion of political conflict and electoral choice, or rather it presents real choice but only on strictly limited issues. In any meaningful sense, the Democrats (most of them) aren’t liberal and the Republicans aren’t conservative. Both serve the Corporate Interests, because that’s who pays their campaign expenses for the most part, and without that money they wouldn’t have a job. At the height of this system’s power, which means during the Clinton years – it began to come apart under Bush 43 – the political discourse redefined “liberal” and “conservative” in terms of positions on abortion, gay rights, gun control, and a few quite trivial economic issues around the margins of the system. Politicians of both parties argued vehemently and demonized one another over this nonsense, while remaining silent (and silently agreeing) on questions of marginal tax rates that encouraged concentration of wealth into very few hands, trade policy that encouraged outsourcing of jobs and loss of industrial capacity, deregulation of banks and other industries, environmental shortsightedness, and a foreign policy designed to ensure a plentiful supply of raw materials, particularly oil, and of cheap labor. Anything the Corporate Interests cared about was a matter banned from discussion between the two parties, who were consigned to dispute only issues of no importance to those Interests one way or the other. The important thing to recognize here is that, while there were a few remaining politicians (most but not all of them Democrats) who still represented the public interest, the majority in both parties represented the Corporate Interest instead. And so the victory of one party over the other was really no more a victory in any meaningful sense than vice-versa.

The system began to break down under George W. Bush. That’s partly because Bush himself was so clumsy a politician and so inept an administrator, but partly because during his administration many of its inherent problems reached a boiling point. In other words, it wasn’t entirely his fault. A lot of it was just the luck of timing. At the beginning of his presidency, our ugly foreign policy provoked an even uglier terrorist attack, which in turn provoked two very ugly wars. In the middle of it, the government bungled response to a disastrous hurricane. At the end of it, imbalances in the economy finally led to a massive breakdown, the worst since the Great Depression. The public distaste with all this elected Barack Obama and a big Democratic majority in Congress, but this wasn’t really a solution (see above). Obama was elected because he talked as if he was going to clean up the system and restore government in the public interest, and the Democrats mostly because George W. Bush is a Republican.

The LI gave Obama his margin of victory. But after he took office, another insurgency arose on the right, greatly annoyed with, among other things, Obama. Now, that should be bad news for liberals, right? Wrong! Because although the Tea Party movement is in some ways “conservative,” it shares with the equally-distraught (but, alas, not equally visible) LI a state of being fed up with Government Of, By and For the Corporate Interests. Moreover, although the Tea Party’s Public Enemy No. 1 is the president, as a practical matter a lot of their main targets have an R after their names. After all, Obama’s not up for reelection this year. Where this movement has an impact in this year’s Congressional elections, it is likely to torpedo the campaigns of about as many Republicans as Democrats. And it is also likely that their victims will be exactly the right Republicans and Democrats.

The movement has helped secure an upset in two early elections last year and this year, and I contend that we may take these outcomes as templates for likely impacts in the general election this fall. The first was the 23rd Congressional district of New York. This election saw a third-party candidate backed by national populist conservatives against the Republican nominee, throwing the race to the Democrat in a district that had been staunchly Republican for decades. The second race was the Massachusetts special election for U.S. Senator to replace Ted Kennedy. Here, a populist, moderate Republican secured an upset victory against a machine Democrat. That race actually deserves a closer look.

Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate, is not much of a prize, frankly. She has a record of support for heavy-handed police actions that are questionable in terms of civil liberties, such as the use of forensic chemical testing of alleged illegal drugs without any opportunity of the defendant or defendant’s counsel to cross-examine the expert witness, or the overreaction of Boston’s emergency services that mistook signs advertising a cartoon for bombs and disrupted traffic for hours. On the other hand, as state Attorney General she has been quite lenient towards Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, declining to investigate his office for alleged illegal destruction of public emails, and earlier as District Attorney of Middlesex County towards Somerville police officer Keith Winfield, declining to prosecute him for the sexual abuse of a girl under the age of 2, for which he was later prosecuted by Coakley’s successor, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Her career in public service has shown her to be deferential to those holding power, whether corporate or political, at the expense of ordinary people. Throw in her staunch defense of abortion rights (the faux-liberalism of the corporate-owned Democratic Party) and you have a very typical corporatist Democrat in the Clinton mold. By any reasonable appraisal, Mr. Brown is the better – and even the more liberal – choice, and only the arithmetic of Senate rules could suggest to the contrary.

Note that in NY23, the TP supported a right-wing wacko, while in Massachusetts, they supported a moderate Republican. The common feature of both these candidates was that they gave the impression of being outsiders, and of not being the paid-for property of the Corporate Interest. The wacko lost. The moderate won.

Taking these two races as templates for this fall, we can expect our right-wing populists to have an impact in various close races. But which races? What effect?

The LI is, alas, not as noisy or as visible as the Tea Party movement, but it’s almost certainly bigger. It was that insurgency, which unlike the TP is concentrated in younger people (the TP is largely a movement of the middle aged and elderly), that put Obama in the White House. It can put genuine progressives into control of Congress, if there are enough of them running, and if it votes, and the second follows from the first. That is, if a genuine progressive is running for office in any given district, the leftist insurgency will come out to vote for him. They may also hold their noses and vote for a corporatist Democrat if the alternative is a thorough right-wing wacko (as happened in New York). In a race between a corporatist Democrat and a corporatist but non-crazy Republican, or even more so between a corporatist Democrat and an apparently non-corporate-owned Republican, the leftist insurgents will mostly stay home, as they did in Massachusetts.

Which brings me to an analysis of likely Tea Party effects on the coming election based on hypothetical consideration of who’s running. Bear in mind the TP is unlikely to do much to influence Democratic primaries; they will be targeting Republican primary races for the most part, or general election campaigns.

If a genuine progressive, anti-corporatist Democrat is in the race, he’s invulnerable. The LI will come out and vote for him, and he will win, and the TP won’t make any difference. (The exception would be if he’s running in a seriously Red district, but progressives don’t run in those districts anyway, so that’s not a real exception.) The only races the TP can influence are ones without a progressive, and as I see it there are only two possible outcomes.

One, the TP may support a right-wing wacko challenger in the GOP primary. The wacko may win, in which case the Democrat will be much more likely to win the general election. Or the wacko may lose, in which case the outcome will be unaffected or affected in unpredictable ways. Net effect: increased probability of a Democratic victory.

Two, the TP may support a non-wacko challenger such as Brown in the GOP primary. The challenger may win, in which case the Democrat will be much more likely to lose the general election. Or the challenger may lose, see above. Net effect: increased probability of an anti-corporatist Republican victory.

The net effect will almost surely be a weakening of the corporatist majority in Congress. There may also be a weakening of the official Democratic majority (that’s the norm in midterm elections with a D in the WH), but so what? If the debacle of the health-care reform initiative has taught us anything, it’s that the terms “Democratic majority” and “progressive majority” are not synonymous. The weakening of the health-care bill, the removal of any provisions in it threatening to the health-insurance industry, and the transformation of it into something corporate-friendly – these were not accomplished by Republicans.

So in short, the TP is not something to be feared by the left. Like the Crystal Mages, in pursuing their own agenda, they’re helping ours.

Of course, ours would be helped even more, if the LI were to take a leaf from the TP’s playbook and become more visible, noisy, and active themselves. But that’s another subject for another day.

1 comment:

  1. This excellent post helped me make sense of how I, a Kucinich supporter, find myself "in sympathy" with my neighbor who is a Minute Man Republican -- guarding the boarders and extreme enthusiasm for the 2nd Amendment are his issues. Ever since the Bailout, I'd say, we find ourselves agreeing in our casual conversations on the road.

    Now I look forward to a future post about how the LI must somehow access its Inner Crystal! I'm 193 pages into your novel STAIRWAY TO NOWHERE which is well-written, and the Crystal and Star metaphor is very intriguing -- psychology's Shadow? -- and the idea that selfish power drives the world forward, but ultimately serves ends not its own. I guess this is true, but something inside me baulks:) Are idealists completely ineffectual in this world?

    Thanks for starting this blog, Brian. And for sharing your creative work so generously! I've been a follower of the Fourth Turning Forums for years -- a lurker? -- and always appreciate your posts there.

    Also, it's been fun to read your alchemy references after recently finishing Catherine MacCoun's On Becoming an Alchemist: A Guide for the Modern Magician. Your Background matches her Between very well. Anyway. Ha! That sounds strange:)

    Finally, my name is Christi Killien. Email:
    I'm a '56 Boomer, too, raised in Houston, Texas but I've lived in the Seattle area since 1979. Currently I'm in Olalla, WA on 2.5 acres with my second husband. I am the mother of 3 Millennials -- 2 girls (26,23) and 1 boy (19). I'm a children's book author (all 6 of the novels are out of print), plus there are other published writings, but not recently. I completely agree with your Pretentious, no? initial post. Publishing has so changed!!

    Keep up the good work, and thanks again!