04 October 2013

Stop demonizing the Tea Party

 To all those who are rightly dismayed at the government shutdown and those responsible for it: please stop demonizing the Tea Party. I say this not in their defense! To the contrary, I think the danger posed by the Tea Party is boundless. Their increasing influence threatens to trigger a violent, catastrophic collapse in the global economy, which would then lead to suffering and death across the planet on a scale I don’t much care to contemplate in any detail. (Something to keep you up at night: the last time a highly integrated global economy collapsed, we got WWII.) So we absolutely must stop the Tea Party.

while arguably accurate, this is not helpful

But as paradoxical as it might seem, direct attacks on the Tea Party will do nothing to defuse the enormous threat they pose to us. Rather, the solution is to have some sympathy for these devils. Let us do to establishment Democrats what the Tea Party has done to establishment Republicans. But where the Tea Party movement is animated by a slash-and-burn small government vision, let our movement be animated by a contrary, progressive vision. In order to stop the Tea Party, we need to build an anti-austerity, anti-establishment political movement within the Democratic Party. But to see why this is the solution, we need a deeper analysis of the underlying forces that have led to the rise of the Tea Party. We have provided much of this analysis in various posts on this blog, and I have tried to compile them into a relatively brief overview in this post.

Neoliberalism is in crisis and has ceased to function

The neoliberal global economy is stagnant and constantly threatening to collapse into renewed crisis. Meanwhile, neoliberal political and economic thought is incapable of even understanding the crisis, let alone resolving it. Popular consent is steadily eroding. And yet:

A neoliberal establishment remains in power

In the US this neoliberal establishment is found in the leadership of both parties (Boehner, McConnell, McCain, Durbin, Reid, Pelosi, Obama), as well as the corporate lobbies (the US Chamber of Commerce, Wall Street, Fix the Debt) who work closely with them. It is true that leading Republicans and Democrats have significant disagreements on many issues, especially social issues, but on the strategically key questions of political economy their disagreements are very minor. As a whole, the establishment is in agreement that the answer to the crisis is to be found in long-term austerity measures, namely a bipartisan "Grand Bargain" to reduce the deficit which would include cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. As with other neoliberal ideas, the Grand Bargain (and the ideology of austerity in general) is incapable of resolving the crisis; in fact it would make things worse by further suppressing income and thus effective demand. So, reasonably enough:

The neoliberal status quo is highly unpopular

When it was still functioning, the neoliberal economy was bad enough: it suppressed wages, destroyed job security, and transformed the middle class into an aspirational illusion. But now, following the crash and the ongoing stagnation of the economy, people across the political spectrum are truly miserable. People know that the economy needs to change, and they also know that something has to change politically at a fairly fundamental level. The preoccupations of the bipartisan establishment seem to have nothing to do with their most pressing concerns (above all, unemployment and underemployment); at best they make a mockery of those concerns. Economically and politically, almost everyone rejects the neoliberal status quo.

The only significant opposition to neoliberalism in America is The Tea Party

Nearly everyone rejects the neoliberal status quo, and for about a quarter of the population, the Tea Party is the answer. The Tea Party is a well-organized, powerful movement, highly motivated by intense hatred of the neoliberal elites. This hatred is directed not only at the Democrats, but at leading Republicans as well. (Note well: the Tea Party is a real grassroots movement. The idea that they are astroturf is an unhelpful myth.) Now, they are right that the neoliberal elites need to go. The problem is that, in replacing them, the Tea Party would not overcome neoliberalism, but rather burn everything to the ground. Unfortunately, they are the only movement against neoliberalism in America today.

Where this leaves us

We are left with a war between the neoliberal establishment and the Tea Party; between "Grand Bargain" spending cuts and small government extremism; between moderate austerity and gonzo slash and burn austerity.

The government shutdown is a product of one battle in this war. No matter how it is resolved, the Tea Party, the gonzo faction, is gaining the upper hand against the establishment:
The Tea Party is winning this war, and of course that is disastrous. But even if we could do something to make the Tea Party lose (and I don't see how we could do that, given the forces sketched above), where would that leave us? With the neoliberal status quo and its destructive (but moderately destructive) austerity measures! This would also be disastrous, albeit at a slower, gentler pace. As long as the war in our political system is between these two factions, we will lose no matter which of them wins. There is only one possible solution: a new faction needs to enter the war, from the progressive end of the spectrum, committed to rejecting austerity in any form.

We need a progressive anti-austerity movement

The bad news is that this movement does not exist. The good news is that, while the Tea Party has the support of (at best) a quarter of the population, progressive anti-austerity proposals have the support of the majority of the population. The only thing lacking is the organizing necessary to transform this silent majority into a political movement with real power.

In order to gain control of government policy, our anti-austerity movement must take over the Democratic Party, mirroring the Tea Party takeover of the GOP. The Democratic Party already contains a number of genuine anti-austerity progressives willing to break from neoliberal orthodoxy, including the leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (see e.g. their "People's Budget"), and of course Elizabeth Warren. True, these progressives do not currently have much power within the Democratic Party as a whole. But when an anti-austerity movement starts taking out pro-austerity Democrats and threatening others in the Democratic establishment, progressive politicians will find themselves catapulted into positions of dominant influence in the party as a whole, as we have seen with the rise of the Tea Party in the GOP.

Under this scenario, progressives would then have the power to start pulling the political system back from the cliff of small government extremism. This movement would also transform the dominant political conflict from one between moderate austerity and gonzo austerity, to a clear fight between gonzo austerity and the thorough rejection of austerity. And since the majority of Americans support progressive anti-austerity policies, those would win out in the populist arena. This is how we can and should end the threat of the Tea Party.

Genuine movements transcend organizations, but strong organizations must provide the backbone of any movement. So in our case the first step is to build real grassroots (not merely "netroots") political organizations willing to take on establishment Democrats for the sake of a solid anti-austerity agenda. Personally, I would recommend The People's Lobby (join here) in the Chicago area; for others the National People's Action Campaign is an option. I am (as you might think) involved in these organizations, but the recommendation is based on a record of boldly confronting establishment Democrats with anti-austerity demands. Of course you should judge for yourself where precisely your time and money is best invested, but if the argument in this post is right, then we need to begin with organizations like these.

[thanks to numerous comrades for help with this post]

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