28 February 2010

The tea parties -- a two-edged sword

Where is the American right wing going these days? In 2008 I hoped that defeat would chasten the right and help it shift back toward the sensible political center -- especially if McCain won the Presidency, showing that a moderate could succeed in a year otherwise disastrous for Republicans. As we all know, the right's trajectory since then has been just the opposite of this. Yet the reality is much more complex than most on the left seem to grasp.

While many of us have focused on the infuriating obstructionism of Senate Republicans or the gratuitous nastiness of fossils like Jim "tough shit" Bunning, the real action has been at the grass roots. To start, read this column by Frank Rich (found via Frank Schaeffer, whom I've recommended before as the most useful guide to the secular left in understanding the Christian Right) on the tea party movement and the terrorist attack in Austin ten days ago. As I've noted before, whether or not Stack self-identified as part of the far right is less important than the fact that a segment of that far right has adopted him as a hero. Like jihadist Islam, this is a movement which explicitly endorses terrorist violence as legitimate.

Rich's column contains so many links that I haven't yet checked out many of them, but the most important is to this article by David Barstow (written before the Austin attack) analyzing what groups make up the tea partiers. As others have discussed, it's an extremely diffuse and diverse movement -- if anything, its main significance may lie in having brought together so many different strains of radicalism. Remnants of the "militia" movement of the Clinton era, white supremacists, radical libertarians who favor dismantling most of the government, conspiracy-mongers who believe that shadowy evil forces behind the scenes control our government and economy (especially alarming, since this kind of thinking has a strong tendency to degenerate into anti-Jewish paranoia), and even secessionists. Christian fundamentalism is part of it, but not (at least now) the dominant element. Many teabaggers claim to be defending the Constitution, though they obviously have only a vague sense of what it says, since some of their own ideas clash with it. This is not an ideologically-coherent movement. It boils down to an inchoate xenophobia -- fear of the other, the different, by which they feel threatened in some not-very-clearly-defined way.

What may be most important, though, is that teabaggerdom is not part of the Republican party or even particularly aligned with it. Frank Rich:

.....most Tea Party groups have no affiliation with the G.O.P. despite the party’s ham-handed efforts to co-opt them. The more we learn about the Tea Partiers, the more we can see why. They loathe John McCain and the free-spending, TARP-tainted presidency of George W. Bush. They really do hate all of Washington, and if they hate Obama more than the Republican establishment, it’s only by a hair or two.....The distinction between the Tea Party movement and the official G.O.P. is real, and we ignore it at our peril.....The leaders embraced by the new grass roots right are a different slate entirely: Glenn Beck, Ron Paul and Sarah Palin.....

Rich emphasizes that such a movement and such a leadership, if it took over the Republican party (as Palin now openly advocates), would doom the party's chances with the broader electorate. But that isn't the real problem. Rational rank-and-file conservatives, and the business-oriented Republican establishment, will not allow the party to be taken over by paranoid crackpots.

The real problem is that, if Rich and Barstow are right about the ideas driving the tea partiers and about their determination and energy, the Republican party is not going to be able to co-opt them either. They won't be reachable by normal political logic. They are following their own trajectory, and it is leading them away from the mainstream Republican party. Well before this year's election, the split should be irrevocable, and it could remain so for years. Whether the tea partiers form a third party (or several) or rally around a hodgepodge of third candidates, they will be a separate force, dividing the right-wing vote. And as I discussed here, that will work to the benefit of the Democrats -- provided the left remains reasonably united at the ballot box.

I've dismissed the polls that predict massive Democratic losses in the House and Senate this year, on the grounds that they largely reflect discontent with the party in power fueled by ongoing high unemployment, and that the Democrats' fortunes will improve as jobs return. But the bizarre fragmentation now afflicting the right could be an even more important factor. If my expectations about this prove accurate, it could mean a succession of comfortable Democratic electoral victories.

But this period of stable Democratic political control may come at a high price. Frustration will further exacerbate the teabaggers' radicalism, paranoia, and violence. The new wave of right-wing terrorism which has already begun with the Tiller murder and the Austin attack may be worse than anyone now expects.

It's going to be an interesting next few years.

16 Comments:

Blogger Holte Ender said...

I read Frank Rich's column and I have a lot of respect anything Frank Schaeffer says, and neither of them make pleasant reading right now. It's amazing how Schaeffer is where he is, considering from where he came. Didn't he say in Crazy For God, when referring to the religious right, ". . . that we must blow past these people . . ." I wonder if he still thinks that, their offspring teabaggers are going to be difficult to blow past.

That interesting next few years you spoke of, could be somewhat of an understatement.

28 February, 2010 20:20  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

HE: I've heard him say that -- i think he meant that there's no point in trying to collaborate with the Christian Right in hopes of drawing them into compromises, so one needs to work around them. He's said that that's what Obama should do, but I'm thinking it's the Republicans who may have an even bigger problem.

I do expect to see some terrible things from these crazies in the next few years, but the country has survived much worse, and it's the progress we make that will last.

28 February, 2010 21:00  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Good Morning Mr.Infidel!

I just wanted to point out that the Stack Attack happened in the City of Austin .... which is actually a little over 200 miles south of Dallas, but is not even within the Metroplex area, it's more closer to San Antonio, about 80 mile's north of San Antone. Just wanted to mention it.

Thanx.....

01 March, 2010 05:57  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

RC: You're right, of course. I've corrected the posting.

01 March, 2010 07:23  
Anonymous rita said...

I was made aware of the local Tea Party group when we didn't run their PSA about some meeting they were having. One of the members, a local small business man came in ranting & raving that we were a left wing socialist rag & canceled his subscription. He now has a huge sign decorating the front of his business. An American flag with the motto "American Made" proudly written in big bold letters. The other teabagger businesses in the group also decorate their shops with flags, Copies of the Constitution, etc...
Unfortunately, because of the present dismal & frustrating state of the economy(at least here)our small businesses are taking a big hit. These people really are casting around for someone to blame their woes on. They feel like they are the true American patriots & their ideology is reinforced by the local churches, groups like the NRA, & even some of the local Fraternal orders. I don't expect to see the movement go away anytime soon.
My biggest concern with this group is the lack of critical thinking skills.
They sure can work themselves into a paraniod froth rather quickly.

01 March, 2010 08:00  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

For a relatively small town, your place certainly is well-stocked with nutters both political and (based on your earlier comment) religious! Are you sure it's safe for an atheist down there?

Maybe the paper should run an article explaining the real reasons for the recession and why the government is doing what it's doing? It's true that those issues are nationwide in nature, but if the local economy is suffering, it's locally relevant.

01 March, 2010 08:34  
Blogger Silverfiddle said...

Conservatives and libertarians are not collective by nature, so I think the whole "fractured, splintered right" narrative is just a trope liberals propagate to make themselves feel better.

the "Tea baggers" as you call them are ordinary Americans who are registered and who vote, and they sure as hell won't be voting Democrat.

01 March, 2010 16:59  
Blogger magpie said...

Fascinating piece of op-ed. Worrying.
Especially in the context of the country - in spite of its many challenges - not truly even being in a state of acute calamity....

Throw in a devastating natural disaster, like a mega-Katrina, and its aftermath of mass social dislocation and... what depths of lunacy would these people latch onto?

02 March, 2010 02:31  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

SF: The "fracturing" and "splintering" of which I speak have to do with likely voting patterns and ability to form coalitions, not with whether their ideology is collectivist or not. In the American political system, inability to unify behind a single party or candidate on election day means tipping the election to the opposition, regardless of whether the ideology on either side is "collectivist" or not.

It is perfectly possible for "ordinary Americans who are registered and who vote" to be ignorant and paranoid. It was people in the movement who were the first to describe it as "teabagging" (due to ignorance of the other meaning of the term), and if they want to paint a big fat bull's-eye like that on themselves, who am I to pass it up?

I certainly don't expect many teabaggers to vote for Democrats. All that's needed for Democrats to win elections is for large numbers of teabaggers to vote for third candidates because the Republicans don't seem nutty enough for them.

Oh, and a lot of liberals (real ones, as opposed to the caricature conservatives carry around in their heads) aren't particularly "collectivist" either, but I don't expect you to get that.

02 March, 2010 03:49  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Magpie: This is very true. People who think the United States right now is in some sort of existentially dangerous situation (including some people on the left) are showing a total lack of historical perspective.

I think those "depths of lunacy", for the existing teabaggers, are about as deep as they can go. The big danger is terrorist violence, something which only a tiny number of them are capable of -- but yes, that tiny number includes an unknowable number of people right at the tipping point, and one or two individuals can cause a lot of damage, as Oklahoma City showed.

More than a natural disaster, I would be more worried about them going over the edge because of some legislative accomplishment, like if health reform is finally passed. Remember, these people have been conditioned for years to interpret various ordinary and innocuous things as evidence of an imminent Communist take-over, or the Mark of the Beast, or whatever.

02 March, 2010 04:02  
Blogger B.J. said...

Thanks for your analysis. I have copied the Barstow and Rich articles to Microsoft Word to read this afternoon.

As you know, I have been very interested in the possibility of the Tea Party movement spinning off to a third party. I believe its leaders are too cagey and would realize this would only weaken their “cause.”

I am worried about the next few months. Over the last couple of days I have read and done some numbers-crunching on a wrap-up of state polls on President Obama’s job approval ratings. The results scare me as they indicate great grassroots dissatisfaction with his administration, often in states he carried in 2008. The polls – Daily Kos, Quinnipiac, Rasmussen, Marist – are those generally cited by the left.

Looks like there’s going to be a “throw the bums out” wave in November unless Congress and the administration answer the peoples’ concerns in the next few months - and the media actually reports the answers.

BJ

02 March, 2010 08:57  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

BJ: Thanks. I think "leaders" may not be a very meaningful concept in this context. Palin has urged teabaggers to support the Republican party (or take it over), but I think the rank and file may not be so easy for anyone to direct. And remember, not all of them have to waste their votes -- just some of them. A relatively small number of people voting for Nader instead of Gore in 2000 was enough to give Bush the White House.

I know the polls look bad now, but what happens in November will largely depend on how the employment picture looks then (and whether the Democrats haev passed health-insurance reform).

02 March, 2010 10:06  
Blogger MadMike said...

I read Rich's column several times. He makes great sense and I don't always agree with him. I definitely agree that there is no working with the Jesus Jumpers.

02 March, 2010 16:47  
Blogger magpie said...

I was 'arguing' for a while with someone on the net, in Michigan, who thought Obama was literally the anti-Christ. This was back at the time of the election.

It's very hard to laugh in someone's face over the net.

Like I said... "worrying".

03 March, 2010 03:51  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

MadMike & Magpie: The hand of Satan is seen in the present administration by many on the far fringes. American politics must be hard to understand for people in countries where this kind of religious delusion hardly exists. And, no, I can't imagine any sane way of working with such people. Not all teabaggers are that far gone, however.

03 March, 2010 04:56  
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20 October, 2011 04:07  

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