Saturday, December 11, 2010

The "Tea Party" and the Republican Party and the November 2010 elections

Just after the 2010 elections, the New York Review of Books published The Historic Election: Four Views: Ronald Dworkin, Mark Lilla, David Bromwich, and Jonathan Raban (12/09/2010 issue). Each writer did a piece on their analysis of the election outcome. Raban's is focused on analyzing the politics of Washington State.

The other three look at the implications for national politics. And all of them have some surprisingly questionable observations. Dworkin writes, for instance:

The people who voted against his policies—or simply stayed away from the polls—many of whom voted for him two years ago, must have had a reason for not listening to him now.

We must take seriously what so many of them actually say: that they feel they are losing their country, that they are desperate to take it back. What could they mean? There are two plausible answers, both of them frightening. They might mean, first, that their new government is not theirs because it is not remotely of their kind or culture; it is not representative of them. Most who think that would have in mind, of course, their president; they think him not one of them because he is so different. It seems likely that the most evident difference, for them, is his race—a race a great many Americans continue to think alien. They feel, viscerally, that a black man cannot speak for them.
This is the kind of broad generalization that is a plague of so much of our political commentary in the US. Yes, there is considerable experience these last two years showing that hardcore Republican voters displaying white racism. But hardcore Republicans are not going to be voting for Obama or Democrats anyway. Other than the fact that they didn't vote for Democrats, it doesn't really tell us much to lump in independents open to voting for Democrats with hardline Republicans. How many independents have told pollsters they share the Glenn Beck/Tea Party complaint "that they feel they are losing their country, that they are desperate to take it back"?

I also question whether his description of the declining relative power of the US in foreign affairs is so widely perceived in the way he describes it:

They read every day of our declining power and influence. Our dollar is weak, our deficit frightening, our trade balance alarming. The Chinese own more and more of our currency and our debt; they, not we, have built the world’s fastest computer; and they show no inclination whatever to heed our demands about revaluing their currency or helping to protect human rights in Africa or prevent nuclear weapons in Iran. Our requests and demands are more and more ignored in foreign capitals: in Jerusalem, for example, and in congresses on climate change. Our vaunted military power suddenly seems inept: we are unable to win any war anywhere. Iraq was a multiple disaster: we could not win peace in spite of a vast expenditure of blood and treasure. Afghanistan seems even worse: we are unable to win and morally unable to quit. The democracies of the world, who once thought us the model of the rule of law, now point to Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib and call us human rights criminals.
Mark Lilla is stuck on the Richard Hofstadter model of the Radical Right crashing the Republican Party in the 1964 Presidential election. A lot has changed since 1964. And in this silly passage, he echoes the Republican standard complaint that Democrats are snooty elitists:

Republicans take seriously the Tea Party and the quarter or more of the electorate that is sympathetic to it because they see it as a fundamentally right-wing phenomenon. They are wrong. Democrats don’t take it seriously — by which I mean, don’t try to understand and engage the passions behind it — for the very same reason. They, too, are wrong. The Democratic doxa for the past few years has been a mix of contempt (look at the misspelled signs Glenn Beck's puppets are holding!) and economic determinism (these sorts of things happen when people lose their jobs and homes).

President Obama is no snob but he is susceptible to the latter delusion ...
To complete the stock whine about alleged Democratic elitism, he writes at the end of his piece, "As for progressive pundits and Democratic Party leaders, they need to get out of their limousines and talk to some of those people with the misspelled signs. They'll discover some potential allies among them."

Lilla also careless lumps in independent voters with Tea Partiers, who are conservative Republicans. He even claims, with no evidence to base it on as far as I know, that "vast numbers of independents" sympathize with the Tea Party "and have loated back to the Republican Party because of it."

David Bromwich says something I think is accurate: "Obama's long-drawn-out attempt to settle himself in a place above politics has injured his party and found no takers on the other side." But the immediate continuation suggests that the problem on which he is focusing is Obama's devotion to the neoliberal/globalization/Washington Consensus view on economic policies:

Only in the last three months did he begin to blame his predecessor for anything. Yet to blame George W. Bush for the economic collapse was a half-truth. The fault goes back at least to Lawrence Summers’s deregulation policies under President Clinton; and it was Obama himself who brought Summers back into government. Such improbable shifts of tactics are one reason why many people who voted for Obama in 2008 no longer think he is someone on whom they can rely.
He also offers us a modified version of the Hofstadter (neo-Hofstadter?) model, in which Tea Partiers are part of annoying Radical Right that bubbles up to the top in the Republican Party now and then:

The Tea Party movement stands as the latest embodiment of a far-right strain in our politics that has passed episodically from partial control to a dominant grip on the Republican Party. It ascended in 1964, in 1980, in 1994, and has returned with a vengeance in 2010. The continuity has been concealed by the legend of Ronald Reagan as a moderate conservative. Reagan gave the nominating speech for Barry Goldwater in 1964, and his central issues in 1980 were Jimmy Carter's want of manly resolve in failing to attack Iran and his lack of patriotism in letting Panama take charge of the Canal.
That description is fine so far as it goes. But the story is more the increasing radicalization of the Republican Party, not necessarily from 1964 on but certainly from 1968 on with the dawn of Nixon's Southern Strategy.

This comment of his is also true so far as it goes: "Capitalist utopianism and unqualified loathing for all that remains of the welfare state are the dispositions that now unite the Republican Party from the bottom up." I would add that while the billionaires with their hands out for tax cuts aren't all Christian Right sort, the Christian dominionism identified with the Christian Right is at least as an important ideological unifier for today's Republican Party.

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