Enough Already! I “Get” the Tea Party—I Just Don’t Agree With Them!

The Left supposedly “doesn’t understand” the Tea Party, claims Peter Berkowitz of the Wall Street Journal. But this is patently false. What Berkowitz diagnoses as lack of understanding is rather a simple case of lack of agreement. Thus, in an attempt to show how a “leftist” can both “get” the Tea Party and legitimately disagree with it, here are a few thoughts:

If the Tea Party could be described so simply as voters who “want to reduce the massively ballooning national debt, cut runaway federal spending, keep taxes in check, reinvigorate the economy, and block the expansion of the state into citizens’ lives” then I would be a Teabagger. But this seemingly pure and innocuous ideological statement is not a complete picture of the Tea Party’s public persona. Firstly there’s the issue of ideological consistency, for which the Tea Party does not get high marks, and then there’s the added socially conservative, nationalistic aspect of the Tea Party which is completely incongruous with the fiscally conservative, libertarian side of the movement.

About the ideological consistency, It’s important to recognize that two-thirds of our federal budget is spent on entitlements; if the Tea Party is against ballooning federal deficits and runaway spending, do they plan to trim these programs? According to A recent New York Times/CBS poll “91% of Tea Partiers want a smaller government with fewer services.  Despite this hostility to big government, 62% of Tea Partiers believe that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are worth the cost”.

As I said in an earlier post, the Tea Party has some ‘splainin’ to do; where were they when George W. Bush passed the Medicare Prescription Drug Plan and launched two massively expensive, unfunded wars? Yes there may have been anger and grassroots stirrings, as some Tea Party pundits have claimed, but only in the last two years has the Tea Party become a prominent force in American politics.

Furthermore, if the Tea Party is truly committed to “block[ing] the expansion of the state into citizens’ lives,” where were they when W passed the USA Patriot Act or initiated a covert operation of warrantless wiretapping of US citizens? These are actual, bon-a-fide infringements of our civil liberties, but instead, the Tea Party decries government death panels and Bolshevik revolutions at the prospect of healthcare reform. Or What about Arizona’s new border security law, in which state law enforcement officials are required to check legal residence status upon circumstantial suspicion—this isn’t an egregious “expansion of the state in the citizen’s lives?”

The list of inconsistencies is virtually endless—prominent members of the Tea Party, such as Sarah Palin continually stress the idea that “real” America is the every-day people you find in small towns, with conservative, common sense values—not the fat cat Wall Street bankers or the big city Liberal Elites. But how is it possible that the Tea Party can paint itself as a populist, everyday, working man’s grassroots movement while at the same time opposing Wall Street reform, which attempts to establish some of the strongest consumer protections since the 1930’s and which curbs the reckless activity of the very fat cats they vilify? The same is the case for health-care reform. They don’t want Uncle Sam in the examining room, preferring instead that insurance companies tell your doctor what services you are and aren’t allowed.

The ideological rigidity of the Tea Party is so intense that any government service or exercise of power, no matter how basic or necessary seems to be in question. Everything is a “government takeover” despite ample evidence that US Auto makers are mostly solvent again and the Federal Govenrnment is planning to sell off it’s majority position in the near future. Despite the fact that most economists agree that the economic situation would have been far more dire without the stimulus, and that the “$700 billion lifeline to banks, insurance and auto companies — will expire after Sunday at a fraction of that cost, and could conceivably earn taxpayers a profit.” The stimulus may end up costing more money that the war in Iraq (which is itself debatable), but we cannot ignore that one was conducted under false pretenses and misinformation and cost thousands of lives despite no hard evidence of a direct threat, while the other represented a clear and present danger to the US and global economy. Isn’t one a slightly more worthwhile expenditure than the other?

But the Tea Party wants to get rid of even some of the most basic government functions despite the fact that they were enacted after a bitter history of abuse and exploitation which called for a federal response. Do they forget that the EPA was created in response to rising concerns over environmental protection and conservation? Do they forget that the minimum wage was first proposed as a way to control the proliferation of sweat shops in manufacturing industries? It seems that the Tea Party has a romantic view of history and a mind state that is far removed from the abuses of the past. Do we like having weekends? Do we like not having toxic waste dumped into our rivers? Then maybe the Tea Party ought to recognize that there is a balance between government overreach and basic government functions.

But all of these inconsistencies pale in comparison the most bewildering aspect of the Tea Party. If the Tea Party is supposed to be the party of fiscal conservatism, where does the socially conservative, tribalist, and xenophobic tendency come from? For a party that seems to emphasize individual freedom so greatly, why the general opposition to gay rights? Why such hatred toward illegal immigrants, Muslims, non-integrated residents who don’t speak English (disagree? Just watch some of this year’s GOP campaign ads)? Why the insistence that America needs to reassert it’s foundations as a Christian nation? Such corporatist, socially divisive, “real” America vs. everyone else, traditional values vs. godless secularism are exactly the kind of stances we find in the ugliest movements of history, be they the Italian Fascists or Al Qaeda, and it’s certainly not appropriate for a pluralist, democratic society.

The Right’s Trump Card

Like an ominous church bell tolling the Day of Reckoning cometh, we hear incessantly in the polls that Democrats are due for a walloping in the November mid-term elections. Anti-incumbent fever has reached epidemic proportions and disgruntled Americans are all too anxious to send packing the party holding the reins.

Whether this scenario will come to pass though depends heavily on the sway the conservative narrative holds over the national political discourse.

Consider the remarks made by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell regarding Health Care Bill in November 2009:

“…this bill doesn’t reflect the views of the American people. Americans have been asking us to cut costs, not raise them. They want the kinds of step-by-step reforms that would actually make a difference, without bankrupting the country and without further expanding the role of the government in their lives. Americans don’t want this bill to pass. Instead, they want us to earn their trust with the kind of commonsense reforms Republicans have been talking about all year… Americans also want us to address the rampant waste, fraud, and abuse in the current system before we create an entirely new government program. And yet Democrats don’t seriously confront this problem in their 2,074 page monument to more government, more taxes, more spending, and more debt.”

Or the infinitely more absurd proposal to repeal the Financial Reform Bill made just this month by Republican Conference Chair Mike Pence:

“We need to repeal this new Big Government program and replace it with common sense reform that protects taxpayers from bailouts, helps put Americans back to work and deals with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”

Now, if I may be so audacious, I believe what you have just read is the most powerful  argument in our political discourse today. In 2001 you beheld the power of “they hate us for our freedom,” just 20 months ago, you ooh-ed and aah-ed at the monumentality of “yes we can!”, now, the “Big Government” narrative has captivated the national political imagination.

I don’t mean to suggest that the Republican trope is illegitimate, for as humanity’s experimentation with authoritarian government has time and again shown, government is a dish best served in moderation. But so is this narrative; Republicans have utilized the Big Government narrative as sort of a dark, foreboding cloud that stifles all debate and casts a shadow on any measure or bill, no matter how necessary.

Like watching the masterful trickery of the adept svengali, a ask myself in awe and admiration; “how has it been possible for the Republicans to suffer no discernible loss of support after blocking unemployment benefits for a month, while the Democrats are literally hemorrhaging poll points after passing TARP and the stimulus package?”

The Republicans seem to have a set of weighted dice; blocking unemployment benefits in the aftermath of an economic recession and during a time of 9.6% unemployment is just about the least popular thing I can imagine, next to stealing lollipops out of the mouths of babies.

But the Democrats’ main flaw has been a singular failure to construct a convincing narrative of necessity behind the massive bailout, and an equal failure to recoup any points with the “it could have been a lot worse” narrative behind the lukewarm success of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. Meanwhile the Right miraculously managed to suffer no love loss in perpetrating an act that would have ended with buckets of tar and bags of feathers given any other circumstance—but what is more, actually gained political points by criticizing the stimulus package as not sufficiently effective, which they didn’t support in the first place!

In less exasperated tones, Perry Bacon Jr. of the Washington Post writes along the same lines,

“Emboldened by sagging approval ratings of the Democratic-controlled Congress, Republicans almost unanimously opposed a bill to overhaul the financial regulatory system that President Obama signed into law; they are against a measure to increase the disclosure of campaign spending by corporations; and they’ve largely eliminated the chance of passing a series of measures Democrats say could help the economy…Republicans say polls suggest that they can oppose all of these initiatives by casting them into a broader critique of Democrats increasing the size of government and the budget deficit, even if their bills are individually popular with the public. “

The  genius of Right’s narrative lies in how its ideological rigidity effectively ensures its self-perpetuity; with the “Big Government” trump card, Republicans are able to construct a favorable foundation upon which to support this narrative:

“The opposition has left Democrats fuming. They say Republicans complain that Congress should focus more on the economy but oppose every measure Democrats take up to create jobs. In the Democratic view, the GOP is cynically blocking measures to reduce unemployment so they ensure an angry electorate this fall who will want to vote out incumbents, most of whom are Democrats.”

Thus, ladies and gentleman, we find ourselves deeply and inextricably entwined in an absurd political discourse; the West has undergone worst financial crisis since the great depression and Congress can’t manage to pass anything but token financial reform. The worst environmental disaster in the nation’s history is still mucking up the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and we can’t even get energy reform onto the floor of the Senate. The Democrats have the largest majority in Congress in decades, but the Right is somehow still writing the script of the national debate.

How has the Right managed, with seeming ideological consistency, to criticize TARP while advocating for the Bush Tax cuts? Don’t these two distributive schemes benefit the same economic class? And aren’t the Republicans wedded to the idea that those who pay the most taxes and produce the greatest wealth in society deserve the greatest portion of the social fruit? How has the Right been able to denounce TARP as bailing out Wall Street at the cost of Main Street while at the same time opposing broad reforms such as the creation of a consumer protection bureau, minimum capital restrictions on banks and regulations on proprietary trading, thus shifting the consequences of reckless mistakes of the financial industry onto the biggest players on Wall Street? How have the Republicans rallied so vociferously against the evils of pork-barrel spending while at the same time lauding the Supreme Court‘s decision in Citizens United vs. FEC, making direct corporate political campaign contributions? Aren’t the two begotten from the same mother of money and corruption in politics?

This is the current American political discourse; one over which the seemingly infallible narrative of the Right holds power—the power to set its own premises for its predestined conclusions, the power to reject certain proposed measures that are in ideological concord with the Right’s political philosophy and finally, the power to conceal the massive cracks in its ideological foundation.

In the trial of Socrates, the gadfly of Athens was charged with making the weaker argument appear the stronger. Perhaps its time Socrates’ accusers had their day in court.

The Curse of Gorgias

I have found myself thinking admiringly about Ancient Greece of late. Perhaps it’s due to the perennial disgust that creeps through my stomach every time I hear this absurd talking head or that sensational sound bite on the news. But not Ancient Greece! they had the public assembly! A designated space in which citizens actually debated political issues in a mature fashion! a place in which the greatest allies of sophisticated thought–patience and deliberation–were given their due weight.

Of course, once I’m finished waxing romantically, I’m reminded of all the less than perfect aspects of this beloved polis–yeah, hmm…not everyone got to participate did they? Shit, that’s right, there were monolithic figures notable for swaying public debate with their impassioned rhetoric. And finally, given the repeated ascendance of tyrants, there’s always the sobering question of how well and for how long the much-elated Athenian democracy worked at all.

Nevertheless, even if such a thing existed only in theory and never in perfect flesh-form, I cannot help but look at the state of our modern political discourse and begin longing for a fictitious past. There exist such great deficiencies in the mechanisms of our political conversation, such a monumental lack of checks and balances to ensure maturity of content and method in our discourse, that every serious-thinking person, sharing in  common lament cannot help their befuddlement as to how this sewer got so shitty.

I must admit, I’m no expert when it comes to telecommunications, so I won’t pretend to claim an understanding of how our political discourse got swallowed up in the cavernous mouths of for-profit corporations. I also want to avoid the curmudgeon factor…you know, the guy who rattles off about how inane the 24-hour news cycle is and how the newfangled youth today, with reality TV, ultra-fast internet and hippity-hop, want their news like their entertainment. But in my observations of the way Americans talk to each other politically, I would like illustrate one very clear problem.

In theory of course, the way a healthy public discourse should  work is that those who are in a position to form and influence public opinion should be given a generous stage for the expression of their views, afterwards we–the assembly, the citizenry–through our own collective discussion, debate and consciousness affirm or reject that view. No one should be denied an opportunity to express themselves, and all should try to be as generous as possible to myriad forms and content of expression. But how much accommodation can the public discourse afford? Herein lies the problem as I see it.

The sheer number of opinion makers in our political conversation is immense, and a boon to democratic deliberation. However, we Americans have a peculiar habit of continually giving audience to some of our most demonstratedly ignoble and hypocritical political figures. In a working public discourse, we should give different ideologies and political agendas a chance, but what if time and again, these agendas fail to garner a popular mandate? What if a public figure time and again demonstrates bad judgement, or inconsistencies between what he practices and what he preaches? Finally, what if this figure espouses views that are simply unacceptable, based on their prejudiced nature, to wider society? Must we tolerate these views? Must our public discourse be capacious enough to include such voices?

Clearly we should learn from the errors of the Ancient Greeks and avoid putting our social and intellectual gadflies to death, but we as a collective should be better able to firmly reject the speech and the influence of such figures. These considerations are why I simply cannot understand why our media and we as a collective still give audience to opinion-makers spanning from Dick Morris, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan and Dick Cheney, to name a few.

To illustrate my point, Dick Morris now writes a weekly column for the New York Post and frequently appears on Fox News a political commentator, and as such, occupies a respectable place in the opinion making class. But are we to forget history? Do we fail to remember the family values campaign he championed under the Clinton administration in 1996, to be followed several months later by the revelation of his penchant for prostitutes? We shouldn’t crucify Dick Morris, nor should his personal life be judged in the public forum, but why the hell do we still listen to this guy? Dick Morris is a demonstrated hypocrite, yet we still seem to want to hear what he has to say; “they”–the nebulous mass of media, society and the powers that be, still seem to value his opinion.  In a healthy public discourse, such an ignominious figure, who already had his time to prove his merit and caliber, should be relegated to the political trash bin–a place he has earned.

It’s not even a challenge to list the reasons why the public should stop giving credence to windbags like Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan. Both men are not merely hypocrites but bigots to boot–from Buchanan’s xenophobia (interestingly, he has a South American house cleaner) and Holocaust revisionism to Limbaugh’s stereotyping of African-Americans as drug and addicts (Limbaugh himself was a prescription drug addict). Even if these men were not outrageously hypocritical, their opinions are so blatantly bigoted and ignorant that it remains one of the great travesties of our age that both men occupy such a lofty position in America’s political conversation. For God sakes, every time a politician or commentator mentions Marx, he’s chased out town like a village drunkard, but such men, with their inflammatory views are repeatedly allowed to infect the public discourse with their salty bile. I say “allowed” because that’s what I mean–we the people, we the collective are responsible for the figures we give credence and audience to. It is our job to discern reasonable views from those which are simply unacceptable given basic ethical standards.

The same, and even more can be said about Dick Cheney. Cheney occupied the one of the highest possible positions in our political system (some say the highest), so it would be absurd to claim that his views and agenda have not been allowed an audience. In fact, the last eight years have been molded almost entirely according to his design. But if abysmal poll numbers are any indication and the recent election of Barack Obama any consideration, then we can safely say that America  as a collective has rejected the neoconservative mandate and the merits of its ideology. Therefore, I am more than baffled when I hear Dick Cheney on the news defending torture, fascist security measures, eating babies, boiling jews in oil and other depravities. In some ways, our public discourse has demonstrated its healthy side, with reports about Iraq war fraud, illegal wiretaps now commonly covered–and commonly decried. Thus, I simply cannot understand why Cheney is still granted a prominent place in the opinion making table. Shouldn’t we tell him, when he tries to defend his unconscionable policies of torture and human rights abuses, “listen, Dick, you had your chance, and granted there are still people who support you, by and large, this country is ashamed of itself after you were at the mantle, so step down, shut up and enjoy your twilight years in your sulfurous cavern.”  Once again, this is not a denial of the basic freedom of speech, but simply the necessary function of a public discourse which must reject some of its cancerous pathogens to maintain its health and dignity.

Some people may read this and say, “hey, you’re just trying to stifle the opinions of those with whom you disagree.” In some ways this may be true. All the decision makers I have mentoned are of the republican, conservative, neocon or simply batshit persuasion, but I don’t think I’m making an argument on partisan lines. Case in point: I. Fucking. Hate. Glenn. Beck. I think this man is perhaps the most twisted and ideologically rigid  person to ever occupy a place of import in our political discourese. I truly think Glenn Beck jerks off to the thought of Barack Obama being hung from a tree by a gang of teabaggers while Sarah Palin sucks him off and Dick Cheney fingers his asshole. Needless to say, I don’t think he deserves to be rejected from the public forum like the above mentioned. While Beck often comes close to racist and bigoted remarks, his opinions are mostly just extreme, inflammatory and provocative. Yes his show is one of the greatest examples of bias, oversimplification, irrationality and general stupidity, but a a healthy public forum must make room for this too–fot the opposite would simply be too dangerous. In other words, until Beck reveals himself as an outright bigot, or his jawdropping hypocrisy is exposed, or time and again his opinions turn out to be false, the public forum must put up with him.

In sum, I think it is helpful to think of one of J.S. Mill’s fundamental ideas–that society has to be as open as possible to all debate and all controversial opinions all of the time, for otherwise, what we take to be socially accepted truts and norms become mere “dead dogma.” However, an enduring problem of Mill’s thought is this: how long do we have to listen to these controversial opinions? How long should the public discourse se forestalled by such opinions? Mill’s political theory is in essence suicidal if it doesn’t put reasonable limits on how capacious and how patient the public forum must be to those pesky gadflies. For after all, governance and democracy are the belong in the realm of praxis as well as of ideas. Societies must make decisions. Polities must choose. Of all the ailments such bigots, hippocrites and demagogues inflict upon the body politic, perhaps the worst is an auto immune disease; their constant presence, and our consistent audience ensures that wel as a collective will never progress beyond such bucolic and inane ideas. Society must choose. I only wish society was better equipped to chose something better.