Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Right Throws a Tea Party: Everyone Else Sees Mad Hatters

What a difference forty years makes. In 1969, it was the summer of love, and left-wing radicals were taking the street to protest corporate government, the military-industrial complex, and the stultifying effects of stolid capitalism. Behind them was a philosophy of radical deconstruction: that truth was an ideology propped up by the powerful, a collusion of government and business designed to exploit racial disparities, the middle-class and the working man. They were taking to the streets to get the middle class to wake up to the tragedies of war, capitalism run amok, and the moral hazards of materialism.

Fast-forward to 2009. Now, a black man runs America, Democrats control all facets of government, and it’s the conservatives who have taken to the street in protest. Our President pursues progressive policies with the carefulness and “conservativeness” of an establishment CEO, working with the existing system to salvage the economy, create reform, and build business-friendly yet socially and economically aware infrastructure. Meanwhile, it’s the right-wing thinkers who have embraced the radicalism of the Sixties, including its disbelief in truth, its use of street theater, and its sense of moral outrage and demand for urgent change. Their goal: to stop the government from trampling on the greed that in their mind, makes this country great.

Hence today’s “tea parties,” with their echo of America’s revolution and sense of organized demonstration and protest.

What do these right-wing protestors want? These tea parties are not so much about taxation without representation as they are about protesting the swing away from the policies of George W. Bush. Newt Gingrich has put forward an agenda that is broad, diffuse, and unclear, but the gist of it seems to be that they want a right-wing government that would take President Bush’s economics (and foreign policy) as but a starting point for an even more extreme version of trickle-up economics (based on what possibly surviving economy is anyone’s guess – the rich and well connected have already pretty much drained America of most of its resources). Never mind that they didn’t achieve that goal at the ballot box.

In discussing the concept of the tea parties with Michael Leahy, the editor of the tcotreport, Leahy suggests that this sort of street theater and protest is inspired by Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” – a post-Sixties handbook in which Alinksy lays out the principals followed by the left for a generation: make fun of the “oppressor,” reposition the truth, undercut the prevailing corporate PR. Such methods, presumably, are what the tcoters have in mind in regards to their version of the reigning elite (you know, the East Coast liberal media and all those other nabobs) when they make reference of Alinsky. But Alinsky subtitles his book “A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals.” The tcoters have the radicalism down pat, but what they seem to be missing is Alinksy’s pragmatism and realism. It’s perhaps because of this post-election explicit embrace of the radical strategy that the recent DHS report on right-wing radical groups has struck such a nerve.

Sure, peaceful protest, a long time strategy of the left, shouldn’t be mistaken for radical violence. But as Alinsky says, radicalism, if it’s to have an actually political effect, needs to be embedded in pragmatic realism. So let’s talk realism. What Obama’s budget has proposed is in fact a tax cut for a great majority of Americans. The “rollback” of top tax rates to 1990’s levels – once the economy recovers – would indeed amount to a tax increase on the wealthiest Americans. But they would still be rates well below what the rich paid for decades before, and considering that we’ve never financed a war before without some kind of tax increase, this piper has to be paid at some point. Yet at the same time the Republicans would let the financial system implode and march in the street for further tax cuts, they demand Obama balance the budget. Such logic is what brought us to the precipice to begin with: the Bush economics of borrow, lower taxes on the rich, and spend on favored businesses has already done its destruction to our economic health; its doubtful many Americans believe that lowering the tax rate does much good when our debt is skyrocketing and even trickle down economists admit that no economic growth, when no one can find a job, will hardly reduce the deficit – and that the government is the only buyer large enough to stimulate our economy back out of this mess.

But the Republican party, as it’s been conflated with the radical right, hasn’t been too keen on realism, these days. In fact, if an expert says it – whether the expert belongs to one party or another – they pretty much believe the opposite must be true. Whether it’s evolution, global warming, or economic theory, right-wing Republicans have bought into the same kind of postmodernism that their Sixties leftist counterparts once embraced: that there is no “objective” shared truth, no such thing as science (only “ideology” or as they would call it, “belief”), and so any posited principal can be easily disproved by simply believing it isn’t so. While the leftists used this postmodern approach to undercut the prevailing culture with an alternative “counterculture” that claimed equal validity, the right use the same techniques against the progressives now in power, in the hopes, it seems, of bullying the truth into a kind of numbing defeat, defeat brought to bear through control of the media and the sheer volume and stubbornness of their angry believers. Meanwhile, the rest of us have no option but to learn how to tune them out.

Then there’s pragmatism, which the Republican party seems to have left in a ditch as they’ve gone on their vision quest. The Right may be in love with Alinsky but they certainly haven’t read him carefully (if at all). For Alinsky’s primary point is that radicalism isn’t about creating destruction for the sake of protest, it’s about persuading the dissatisfied great middle. To have any effect, the radical must understand that the silent middle is ready to embrace their ideas, if only they are giving the proper push to demonstrate how the system is skewed against them. Simply whining about principals without understanding the real concerns of the vast populous only alienates the majority further.

The problem is, the middle is clearly not with the Republicans on the idea of a further redistribution of wealth to the wealthy. The number of people who think the country is going “in the right direction” has doubled since Obama took office; sixty-six percent of the country approves of Obama generally and 64% specifically approve of his economic plan. There is no general fear that increasing the top tax rate by three percent is going to ruin the country, generally, or a middle-class tax payer, particularly. However, confront a tcoter with these facts and their most likely reply will be that “they don’t trust polls,” which is another way of saying, “people will believe anything and aren’t to be trusted.” But Alinsky’s radicalism depends upon the trust of the people – that the people may be silent, but that they are with you; lose that, and you lose the war. And unlike, say, the gay marriage issue, there is no generational demographic shift that might suggest the public is warming to this conservative message over time; to the contrary, younger voters are if anything MORE supportive of Obama and his economic policies than older voters. So instead of offering arguments – against all expert evidence to the contrary, by the way – that their policies would have a better effect on the economy, they create a publicity stunt in the street and confuse the issue with scare words like “socialism.” But their radical politics seems to have abandoned not only reason and science, but the art of persuasion as well.

So not only are the Republican radicals tilting at windmills, they are doing so against a headwind blowing steadily against them.

As to what Republicans can do about this problem, I have little to suggest, other than this: no political party has succeeded without addressing the legitimate concerns of the majority. Right now, those concerns are what got Obama elected, and the majority seems pretty happy with him. The more radical the conservatives look, the smaller a party they will become.

As for the rest of us, there are several reactions that Independents and Democrats can have to this. The first is an equally strong reactive anger. After all, the strategy of blaming Obama for the mess the country is in is like the brother who breaks the TV and blames his sibling who goes to turn it on. It’s easy to get mad a people who are attempting to deflect blame from themselves, especially when they do so with what can appear to be a manufactured sense of outrage. This reaction, however, leads to little more than name-calling and in a way, falls into the trap that right-wing strategist would like to set.

The second is a kind of self-satisfied bemusement. I think of Krugman’s comment, “it’s not nice to make fun of crazy people.” The smart Democrat looks at the radical right targeting moderates like Arlen Specter for primary defeats and thinks, “hey, let’s just get out of the way and let them self destruct further.” In this case, it’s a little like watching a Risk player double-down on a losing strategy of attacking everyone in sight in order to go out in a blaze of glory. Fun and entertaining as you sit back and let them take themselves out of the game.

I think we want to take the third reaction. Which is hope that by educating the Right on the foibles of their strategy, we can help them become saner, more challenging players. When the only ideas radicals have is to blow things up, good luck trying to have any sort of conversation. Sure, Obama has demonstrated he’s perfectly up to tackling and solving these problems on his own. But it’d sure be nice to also take advantage of some pragmatic, realistic ideas based on conservative principals – if only the Right would have some.

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