The tea parties -- a two-edged sword
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.