Friday, September 18, 2009

The Tea Party Movement: A Populist Potential?

It is very easy to dismiss the Tea Party protesters as a bunch of racist, xenophobic, gun nuts with paranoid mindsets who have a deep, irrational hatred of liberals and President Barack Obama because he is African-American. Judging from the hateful signs, open display of guns in healthcare town halls, and blatant use of racist and offensive imagery and symbols, calling them a bunch of yahoos and dismissing their perspectives as irrelevant is very easy.

That’s not what I am going to do here. I am actually going to try and take their perspectives seriously for a moment and think about what they potentially mean for American politics and how it is currently practiced as a contest between the two major political parties.

If you wade through all the racist and offensive garbage that is being spewed, you will find that much of the Tea Party anger has a familiar, populist ring to it. They are mad about the state of the economy, about the deteriorating state of American institutions and the country’s diminishing standing on the world stage. They are anxious about bread and butter issues, and they see the Washington DC establishment as corrupt, overrun by special interests and as a place where the interests of ordinary, working Americans are ignored. They see American democracy as broken, therefore, and in need of serious fixing. These perspectives are not that different from what I — an immigrant, minority, and a self-professed Progressive liberal — have been blogging about for some time now.

Thus, these Tea Party folks marched in Washington on September 12 — many of them people who have never participated in a political march before — to show that they are mad as hell, won’t take it anymore, and are ready to do what it takes to take America back. It is very easy to see and hear the shrillest and most militant among them, who hold the most extreme views, and see the kooks as representative of what the Tea Party movement is all about.

Let me know if you think I am totally off-base. But I actually think the Tea Party movement, because it is successfully tapping into a vein of populist discontent and anxiety about the state of American society, has the potential to develop into a legitimate, populist political entity that can present a real challenge to the dominance of the two major parties.

The societal anger and anxiety the Tea Party movement is tapping into is real
. Many people are feeling very insecure about the state of America in 2009 and are feeling powerless to do anything about it and are finding in the Tea Party movement the vehicle for expressing this populist discontent.

I have written a lot about third parties and political movements outside of the two major parties. I see the Tea Party movement as an entity with the potential — I stress that point, the POTENTIAL — to mount a legitimate, populist challenge to the dominance of the two major parties. They aren’t there yet and much of the blatant bigotry and hate-mongering turns me off but something about their populist anger rings true and familiar to me.

As a Progressive, do I see myself working with or being sympathetic to Tea Party folks if they do develop into a legitimate political organization? What about the hatefulness, bigotry and blatant anti-social messages? What about the displayed contempt they have for liberals, Progressives, minorities and immigrants like me?

My answer to those questions:

1. If Tea Party folks forego racism, gun fetish and virulent hatefulness so they can work with their fellow political outsiders on serious and real reform (for example, the types of reforms I talk about in this post) I would work with them.

2. Political outsiders who disagree on specific policy issues have one big thing in common. They are political outsiders. Therefore, it benefits them to lay aside their differences in favor of working together on issues that have the potential to open up the political playing field for ALL political outsiders.

3. Greens, Libertarians, Socialists and independents have all experienced the same types of structural obstacles in the American political system. Yet these different groups have banded together on occasion to pool their resources and fight together in court for more equal treatment for minority political parties. Just because you disagree politically doesn’t mean you can’t find common cause with other political outsiders on issues that impact all who are outside the duopoly.

4. Third parties like the Greens, Libertarians, Socialists, etc., have been in the front lines of electoral and court battles for opening up the political system for years. The Tea Party folks, if they ever develop into a legitimate political entity, cannot afford to ignore the collective experience of these groups.

The Republican Party is already trying to hijack the momentum of the Tea Party anger for its own gains. I am making a bet that there are enough politically astute folks in the Tea Party movement whose anti-establishment anger are real and will see co-optation by the Republican Party of their efforts as a betrayal. There is, after all, nothing anti-establishment about supporting either of the two establishment political parties.

I am also making the bet that the anti-establishment populist anger driving the Tea Party movement — if you separate out the hate and bigotry and gun fetish — is the same anti-establishment populist anger that drives people like me to reject the two major parties and make the conscious choice to be independents or join a third party. And I am making the bet that sooner or later, many Tea Party folks will be making a similar connection in their minds. What happens after that? Well, that is something I would very much like to see.

My hope: that it lead to the formation of a true populist challenge to the two major parties. My fear: that hate and racism become its driving force and it evolve into a militant, virulent, blatantly racist, xenophobic organization — but one with resources and with a big megaphone in the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs of the world. As a populist I would rather the see a Tea Party movement that develops into the former rather than the latter.


d.eris said...

Hey LAD, good post. There is definitely potential for the tea party movement "to mount a legitimate, populist challenge to the dominance of the two major parties," as you say.

In terms of strategy, imo, they have to be careful to avoid the fate of the anti-war movement, i.e. being hijacked by one of the major parties and turned into a tool for the reproduction of the political status quo.

Like the tea party folks, the anti-war movement was and is also a hodge podge of heterogeneous groups, and issue advocates, that came together under a common banner, complete with their own kooks and loons.

I would actually very much like to see an alliance between the tea party folks and the anti-war crowd (who are regrouping after having been defeated by the Democratic Party). Tea party activists are fed up with government overreach and excess spending, as are anti-war activists, though perhaps with a different emphasis (ex. second amendment vs. fourth amendment, domestic spending vs. foreign policy oriented spending, respectively).

The notion of a Green-Libertarian alliance is not far fetched in any way, shape or form. The question is finding common ground and a common language for the articulation of common grievances. There is already a common opponent: the Democratic-Republican Party and a political establishment which exists first and foremost to perpetuate and reproduce the status quo. One thing is certain, so long as people continue to fall prey to the trappings of duopoly ideology and continue supporting and voting for Republicans and Democrats nothing will change in this country.

J.R. LeMar said...

Okay, you wanted me to let you know, so, yes, I think you are totally off-base.

Simply put, #1 on your suggestion list is not going to happen. So the rest of your suggestions are moot.

Robert M said...

Let's assume you are right and can peel off the extremists. What are the issues you have in common besides trying to organize to gain power?

redante said...

Thanks all for your feedback. To answer Robert M's question on what shared goals might I and right wing Tea Party folks might have I invite you to read this post from my other blog. It is quite lengthy but it lays out what I think is a practical approach that people with very different views on specific issues can agree with. What all political outsiders have in common -- right, left, center and what have you -- is that they are powerless, marginalized and are not players in the political process.

The main issue in common is that the political playing field is heavily tilted to the major parties. The common goal, therefore, is to open up the field so outsiders can participate more evenly against the majors. These can include working on ballot access issues, inclusion of third parties and independents in televised debates, making sure that the institutions and organizations which oversee elections are non-partisan (instead of bipartisan), etc.

Re power -- the goal is to change the rules of the political game so that groups other than the Republicans and Democrats are able have a fighting chance to become players in the sandbox instead of being shut out entirely.

Here's another good article that lays it out very well

Brian said...


Sorry for not getting to this earlier... I am so busy that I barely have time to breathe, lol.

You make some interesting points.... good piece by the always.

I agree that if it were to become a political movement that this may be a good thing...although we may think it's positive for different reasons. As a separate party....they would basically weaken the GOP.

But there are a few problems with your analysis/assumptions.

#1. You talk about this "movement" as if it is a genuine grassroots effort. It may be grassroots now....but it didn't initially start as such. You mention that you hope that they don't turn to Beck and Limbaugh.... well who do you think helped to start these bogus protests in the first place? It was Beck, Limbaugh and the rest of the Right wing talk show pundits. These folks are already taking their instructions from Limbaugh & Co.

You are giving these folks too much legitimacy... These are people who are whipped into a frenzy by talk show hosts feeding them misinformation. Not exactly a legitimate grassroots movement.

#2. You assume that they have some sort of genuine political aim outside of aiding Republican obstruction of Democrats and especially Obama. I hate to break it to you....but it doesn't go much further than that for these folks. Most aren't really concerned with forming a political party....or presenting their own candidates for office or anything of the sort. I have seen no indication of that whatsoever. Some are so anti-government or anti-big government...that creating a new political entity could be seen by many as going against that. A new political party = more bureaucracy for them.

The Tea Partiers are made up of too many disparate groups...It would take an unbelievable amount of cooperation for them to seriously morph into a political movement. And as I mentioned... I don't think that is their motive.

#3. Your argument starts to break through the thin ice you were on right as we get to #1 on your list. I don't think you can get past #1. As a realist, I don't see that happening.

While it's true that these people are motivated by more than race.... I do think race plays a key role for many of them. They are being pushed and pulled by dual motivations... their racial hangups and by more legitimate political questions (of late...but it started mostly with animosity).

You have good ideas about the bigger political picture... they mirror my own. We have some of the same thoughts about the unfairness of the two party system.

In a perfect a logical world.... the GOP would split into 2 or 3 parties...the Dems would split into 2 and there could be an independent party as well.... That would be great.

But that's not what's happening... the Tea Partiers aren't going to abandon the GOP.

In fact...the GOP establishment is bring these folks more into the fold. So you are actually seeing the opposite of what you are suggesting IMO.

And one last point... if it's not really about race... if it's all about policy (first of all.... in most cases it's not really about policy...because when an informed person tries to debate these people... you will often find that the Tea Partiers just aren't very informed about what is actually going on in terms of legislation, policy, current events, and history.)....

But back to the point.... if it's all about policy.... then why is there such a spike in negative, race driven, anti-Obama attitudes in the South as opposed to the rest of the Country? MSNBC and NPR talked about the disparities in the polling that came during the election.... I would have to dig around for the link...but Chris Matthews mentioned this last week.

It's not all about policy....and it's not all about race either... but race has more to do with people's negative attitudes toward Obama and Progressive initiatives than some people choose to admit.

Brian said...

Robert makes a good point.

I just don't see the synergy there at all...

What would be in it for them if they cooperated with a bunch of socialist radicals (tongue in cheek.... but this is what many of them think of independents and Dems/progressives & especially far left leaning Liberals).

Sorry LAD, but in order to get to the situation you envision, one would have to assume that these folks are rational thinkers and they are well informed on facts, etc. But too often this is not the case.

redante said...

Hi Ai

Many thanks for your honest feedback. Yes, you are correct in your observation that I am giving a bit of a benefit of the doubt on the Tea Party folks as it concerns (a) being rational, thinking people and (b) their potential to break with the GOP, Beck and Limbaugh. In many online conversations I have seen Tea Party folks participate, they make the argument that they really aren't all a bunch of unthinking, racist, xenophobic yahoos -- that they have legitimate grievances against BOTH major political parties. This post is my way of meeting them halfway on that point and to follow the point to its logical conclusion.

The Tea Party folks still have to have an answer to the question of: "if I am so dissatisfied with the status quo, what am I supposed to DO about it?" Otherwise all they are doing is venting emotion and not channeling it to any practical ends. If the best answer they can give to that question is "elect more Republicans into office" then they lose all credibility as an anti-Establishment movement -- because isn't taking down the Establishment, both Republican and Democrat -- the whole point of this Tea party movement? Aren't Republicans part of the Establishment?

Also, my post is my way of testing out this idea of a Left-Right-Center alliance of political outsiders. Is it feasible? How does it sound like to others if I say it out loud? I have been thinking about this for quite some time now and I wanted to test this idea out and see what reactions I get.