Friday, February 24, 2012

Drawing lines and setting narratives

Sam Tanenhaus reviews three recent books on the Tea Party in Will the Tea Get Cold? 02/09/2012, including The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism by Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson. The material he cites from their book give credence to the notion that "cultural" issues like race far outweigh economic issues for those who identify with the Tea Party. Which is another name for the Republican base, which is also largely the same as white conservative Christians or the Christian Right.

Those who identify with the Tea Party are the least likely to be potential Obama or Democratic voters. But the data he cites makes me wonder how many of them pay any attention at all to actual policy issues directly affecting their lives.

... fully 83% of South Dakota Tea Party supporters said they would prefer to "leave alone" or "increase" Social Security benefits, while 78% opposed cuts to Medicare prescription drug coverage, and 79% opposed cuts in Medicare payments to physicians and hospitals.... 56% of the Tea Party supporters surveyed did express support for "raising income taxes by 5% for everyone whose income is over a million dollars a year."
And he reports their more anecdotal observation:

With one exception, Skocpol and Williamson write, "not a single grassroots Tea Party supporter we encountered argued for privatization of Social Security or Medicare," pet projects of a conservative legislator like Paul Ryan and of organizations like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity. The Republican aspirants have adapted to these internal contradictions. They attack Obama for increasing government spending and at the same time for trimming $500 billion from Medicare.
Tanenhaus makes the argument that culture war issues override such concerns.

But if those numbers are true on their face, it suggests that a clear Democratic message of defending Social Security and Medicare and exploiting Republican proposals to reduce benefits could be effective in disrupting the Tea Party message and isolating them from actual independents.

But it's been true for decades that voters in general have strongly agreed with Democrats more than Republicans on a wide range of major issues. And yet Democrats seem to be constantly cringing in fear of Republicans' appeal.

I suspect there is something wrong with those poll numbers. We know from other polling that those identifying with the Tea Party in polls tend to be older and more affluent than average. I suspect that if a poll drills into these issues in more depth, the support of Tea Party supporters for Social Security, for example, would look a lot more squishy. There would probably be more of an attitude of "I've got mine and I want to keep getting it" involved. And along with a statement of support for Social Security, you would also probably get a lot of endorsement of the claims and ideological assumptions that the anti-Social Security activists and lobbyists use.

Tanenhaus' piece is the first of two, so we'll see later what his further conclusions are. And I guess this is Groan About Conventional Wisdom Day for me here. But this first part really seems to draw heavily on the very conventional assumption that the Republican Presidential contest is being fought between moderates and conservatives. He professes to find a continuity back to Wendell Willkie's nomination in 1940.

The reality of today's Republican Party is it no longer has a moderate faction in any meaningful sense of the word. Governor's Willard Romney in Massachusetts and Arnold Schwarzenegger in California could be seen as a last gasp of moderate Republicanism. But even that is misleading. Ten and fifteen years ago, the national Republican Party could swallow having someone run for Governor in blue states on a seemingly "moderate" basis on pragmatic grounds that it gave the Democrats a big pain. But Willard and Arnie as governors were outliers in a Party that had become "movement conservative". George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" was little more than a marketing slogan.

Tanenhaus is also painfully (in my mind) conventional in citing, yes, Richard Hofstadter. At least he also draws on a piece of his from the 1950s rather than just "The Paranoid Style in American Politics". I'm convinced that for some large portion of the American commentariat, that "Paranoid Style" piece by Hofstadter is the only analytic work longer than three pages they've ever read about the Radical Right. It's still relevant. I used to cite it myself until I saw how our Pod Pundits ran to it to try to understand the Tea Party. Just in the last ten years, there has been a flourishing scholarly and journalistic studies of the Radical Right.

Martin Marty and Scott Appleby edited a multi-volume series on religious fundamentalism in the 1990s. The first volume includes an essay by William Dinges, "Roman Catholic Traditionalism and Activist Conservatism in the United States". Given the role that Catholic conservative activists Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are playing right now in the Republican Party, I'm guessing even a star pundit might learn something useful from that. But it would mean reading over 50 pages not counting footnotes, so don't expect to hear Sleepy Mark Shields to be citing it when he wrings his hands over the wounded religious sentiments of the 2% or whatever portion of American Catholics give a flying flip about what the bishops say about birth control. Mark would have to have 10 or 15 siestas to get through it.

But this is an important observation, one that escaped most of the mainstream reporters who covered the Tea Party hoo-hah:

The early accounts of the Tea Party phenomenon often depicted its adherents as apolitical citizens disturbed by the recession and mounting debt and roused from their apathy to do something about it. This may be true of some, but others are seasoned activists long involved in politics. This is certainly the case with organizers like Dick Armey, the former House majority leader who heads FreedomWorks, a 2004 offshoot of an organization set up in 1984 by the billionaire Koch brothers. Jenny Beth Martin affects a pose of naiveté in her book: "If someone had told me [in 2009] that I would soon be writing a book about American politics, I would have laughed," she writes. But only a few pages later, when recounting her expert use of "Facebook, Twitter, and other social media," Martin explains that "I already had a political network, having been involved at the local and state level for many years"—and since the early 2000s she was "a full-time blogger and Republican activist." So too with the lower-profile Tea Partiers interviewed by Skocpol and Williamson: "An extraordinary number dated their first political experiences to the 1964 Goldwater campaign."
And since you would have to have been probably 15 or so to have a real political experience in the 1964 Presidential campaign, it implies that an "extraordinary number" of the Tea Parties they found would have be qualified for senior citizen discounts. Old Republican white people, in other words.

Rick Perlman commented in a speech or post I heard from him that in his research on far-right groups during the early 60s - those 1964 Goldwater campaign folks - he found that it was common for participants in their meetings to claim to the press that they were getting involved in politics for the first time. It's just kind of stuff they say.

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