The Elephant and the Dragon: Of Republicans and Tea Parties

by Benjamin Domenech on 1:37 pm May 17, 2010

Red Tea Kettle

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If you’ve been feeling good about the Tea Parties and crave the view of a sourpuss to bring you down a bit, Ross Douthat’s your huckleberry this morning, sharing his bitter views about the movement and righty populism in general. He frames the current circumstance as a last gasp, that the American people have woken up too late to do anything about the massive size and scope of government — that in the end, this last surge will all be for naught.

This strikes me as just the sort of thing you might be thinking if you’re a center-right person living in a big city these days, where raging against big government might seem like raging against the existence of skyscrapers (it also seems to conflict with ideas Douthat once espoused). But Douthat’s city mouse provides a nice pessimistic contrast to country mouse Erick Erickson’s optimistic explanatory post last weekend in response to Bob Bennett’s defeat in Utah. I think Erickson has a view that’s a good bit more accurate than Douthat. We’re in the midst of a political moment almost without precedent.

Since it takes a bit of visualization to get where things stand — speaking broadly, of course — let’s wheel out the green blackboards.

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First, let’s assume for the sake of argument that the always astute Tim Cavanaugh’s General Theory of 33.3 holds true when applied to currently elected politicians (by my own simplified measures it does, but then we get into the nitty gritty arguments about which Democrats and Republicans are establishment/moderates and which aren’t, and that’s a topic for another day). In other words, generally speaking, a chunk of elected politicians are generally ideologically conservative; another chunk are moderates and maintainers of the status quo, less ideological, triangulating between the two sides and swaying in response to public opinion; and another chunk is generally ideologically liberal or progressive.

In terms of polling data, more people identify as moderate or conservative, but that’s because “liberal” still carries a pretty hefty stigma, and many liberals like to think of themselves as moderate — mostly, I think, because it makes them sound less elitist.

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These politicians depend on a base of support which roughly corresponds to their positioning. Each side attempts to peel folks off that middle group — which is mostly in the middle not because of ideology, but because of apathy about most arenas and topics within politics.

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This proves problematic. These apathetic/pragmatic voters only care about what effects them directly, generally, and they tend to be vulnerable to rising tides which dissipate quickly. They may describe themselves as independent, but in reality they’re just more disengaged, and have a generally pessimistic view of politicians. They were mostly content to stay uninvolved, and were pretty quiet about what went on in Washington — until recently.

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Now things get interesting. The Tea Party movement is in some ways parallel to the old Perot movement, though it doesn’t necessarily involve the same people (that was 18 years ago after all). As Francis wrote last week, the true focus of Tea Party anger is primarily government corruption, more than anything else. It is less a revolt about the bigness of government than it is about the wrongness of government. People don’t subscribe to some sophisticated libertarian view of government’s purpose, they are merely fed up with a government they believe is working for public sector unions, entrenched bureaucrats, and fatcats on Wall Street instead of for them.

Accusations of astroturf from the left, while occasionally accurate depending on the group in question, ignore the obvious truth: the Tea Partiers aren’t controlled or controllable by anyone within the Grand Old Party, even Sarah Palin. They are a dragon of a political movement, Trogdor the Burninator, stomping through the countryside and setting things aflame.

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Grover Norquist branded the right as a “leave us alone” coalition in the Nineties, but in truth, that’s not how the right has behaved when it’s held power over the past decade. The Tea Partiers therefore reject that view as much as they reject the pro-union, pro-bureaucrat, pro-bailout approach of the left. They think the government is a childish bully — that it doesn’t work, thinks it knows what’s best, and that it’s stealing from them to boss them around more. And they don’t like it. So they reject nanny state politicians in both parties, which leaves some Republicans on the outside.

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Anecdote isn’t data, but a personal note here: I live in the swing county in Virginia, the wealthiest per capita, overwhelmingly white tech workers and government contractors. It was Red in 2000, 2002, 2004, Blue in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008. In 2009 in swung hard Red again. On one side, I have a grumpy lefty Boomer neighbor whose house was decked with Obama paraphernalia in 08 but was devoid of any Democrat signage in 09. On the other, I have a very nice, polite guy in his early 40s (so a Gen Xer) who I have lived next to for 4+ years without ever talking politics, who has never put up a sign or a bumper sticker of any kind. A few months ago, I heard him listening to Rush Limbaugh outside as he worked on his carefully manicured lawn with his wife. About few weeks later, he told me he was driving downtown to protest the health care bill, something he told me he’d never done before in his life.

These are normal people, pragmatic voters polarized by Obama’s domestic policies, and fed up with what’s happening in Washington. They’ve stayed out of politics for the most part, except for presidential elections. But now they’re engaged to an unprecedented degree. And there will be consequences.

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The larger question is whether this new political reality will change after 2010. Will these people remain engaged or tire of their newfound activism? They’re likelier to get burned out after the 2010 elections than people who are used to spending time on political activity, particularly those who get elected. An election like this one always produces a few folks who aren’t ready for prime time — people who will make gaffes and become depressed when their pet idea gets squelched by leadership or in a committee hearing. But that comes with the territory — you’ll still see a host of newly elected stars coming from this populist viewpoint, and a national Tenth Amendment movement led by a few prominent figures. The pro-life movement faced far longer odds in the early 1990s, but over a decade and a half, changed a shocking number of views about their issue without significant standard bearers, and while their issue has to be decided by the Supreme Court, they’ve made a massive amount of progress around the country with other approaches. The National Rifle Association took about a decade and a half to curb-stomp their opposition, and now holds a dominant role in both parties. I think you’ll see this happen with groups like FreedomWorks on the Tea Party front — guiding frustration into sustained activism — and they don’t have the barrier of having their major decisions rest with unelected judges.

In any case, even if the new populism doesn’t sustain itself beyond the next few years, Douthat’s doom and gloom is old and busted. Could anyone have imagined after the 2008 elections that people would be taking to the streets in droves any time soon, not to protest for more government but less, not for more entitlements but cutbacks, not for a larger nanny state system but liberty and freedom? And that this same movement would not just be impotent yelling and shouting, but would proceed to drive back the dominant forces of the right/left establishment in elections in Florida, in Pennsylvania, in Texas, in Utah, in New Jersey, in Virginia, in Massachusetts, driving out candidates once thought of as unbeatable — not just from the race but, in two cases, from their party of choice.

Pitching doom and gloom in terms of the long term American economic picture, particularly the media’s apparent willingness to accept high unemployment for the foreseeable future as a given and crow about a market-only recovery — but while I’m less optimistic about the marketplace than I am about free market politics, in both cases I think many longstanding illusions are failing. The best thing for the populist right in a generation was the election of Barack Obama, who reminded a whole host of pragmatic and apathetic voters what socialism looks like. Suggesting that thousands of people standing up for the first time won’t make a difference displays a real ignorance of how many American political movements came from nothing and became a significant political force.

Everything in politics is impossible until it isn’t.

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