Tuesday, October 22. 2013
I ran across a couple cartoons that neatly sum up the last few weeks. This one is by Kevin Siers, The Charlotte Observer (Oct. 2, 2013):
The suicide vest is a little over-the-top. The GOP actually only intended to hurt everyone but itself, but that fine line was hard to maintain. But the relative levels of delusion and madness, and the eagerness of the GOP to inflict damage on the country and its people, are approximated fairly enough.
The second cartoon, from Jim Morin, Miami Herald (October 2, 2013), is more literally correct, although labeling the character with the gun pointed at Uncle Sam's head the "Tea Party" instead of the GOP cuts the latter too much slack:
After the Republicans' disastrous loss in the 2008 elections, the professional political strategists of the Republican Party were widely discredited, and as they backed off "talk radio" blowhards like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck with their scorched earth anti-Obama rhetoric picked the GOP up off the mat and gave them a renewed sense of purpose. The first signs of "grass roots" actively were quickly cultivated by Fox and fertilized by billionaire activists like the Koch brothers. That energy and faux-populism led to the Republican wins -- the House and a lot of key governorships and state houses -- in 2010, although the failure of Obama to inspire the Democratic base either by advancing popular policies or by showing any backbone in fighting obstructionism from Republicans, had at least as much to do with the results.
Since 2010 the "Tea Party" has increasingly been seen as more of a liability for Republicans -- often personally as they have targeted more mainstream conservatives like Richard Lugar whose ability to seem reasonable did so much to advance Republican aspirations after the 1970s -- but with their frequent challenges from the far right they've often managed to hold the GOP hostage. Indeed, the same is true of other fringe interests in the GOP's patchwork of malcontents, such as the gun nuts and the anti-abortion fanatics: it's hard to find a single Republican anywhere who'll challenge either, even when it comes to defending the rights of rapists to force their victims to bear their children, or training elementary school teachers to use assault weapons to deal with their disciplinary problems. The "Tea Party" isn't as narrowly focused -- it's harder to pin them down on issues, but they've taken anti-government nostrums (ranging from Grover Norquist to Ayn Rand to Friedrich Hayek to Ronald Reagan) to heart, they feel they're morally superior to many or most of their fellow citizens, they don't care who gets hurt as long as they get their way, and they are quick to attribute their own worst instincts to their supposed enemies. I can't tell you how many times I've seen them describe Obama as a dictator or tyrant, often claiming as his motto "my way or the highway" (one of those popped up in the Eagle this morning).
Of course, from my vantage point Obama is no such thing. He is a man with vaguely liberal ideals, impeccably conservative tastes, and a pathetic and almost pathological instinct to compromise his ideals to appease anyone he recognizes as high and mighty -- his corporate sponsors, of course, especially bankers and media moguls; the Republican leadership, the military brass, the spy agencies, Benyamin Netanyahu. I suppose you can credit the "Tea Party" with finally forcing him to stand firm for once, but only by making such outrageous demands and threats that they forced a split very ranks that Obama is so obsequious to: the GOP leadership, of course, fell under the "Tea Party" thumb, while everyone else recognized that the government is even more needed by the rich than by the poor, and that to function the government has to be able to borrow money (otherwise, like, it might be tempted to tax the rich).
David Frum had a pat explanation for all this, and it still bears fruit: "Repub pols fear the GOP base; Dem pols hate the Dem base." The asymmetries here run deep. Both parties seek money from the rich, who support both parties for favors and cultural reinforcement. And both parties seek votes from everyone else, but the Republicans have chosen to appeal to fears and prejudices whereas the Democrats, while often giving ground to legitimize their opponents, still offer a few tidbits to self-interest. The different approaches result in distinct forms of mental illness. The Democrats are schizophrenic, intending to favor both the rich and the poor at the same time but sometimes finding their commitments in conflict, in which case they almost invariably side with the rich -- the poor, after all, have nowhere else to go (except home, as in 2010), and if they object the party's enforcers are ever ready to lash out. The Dems hate their base because the base is in the way of them making their deals with the rich and powerful, and more viscerally because they themselves want to be rich, powerful, and not at all like their base.
The Republicans have less trouble reconciling their allegiance to the rich with their commitments to the prejudices of their base, except that much of what their base insists on is fucking insane. That didn't matter so much back in the Reagan era when Republicans said stupid things but rarely acted on them and the welfare state still had enough padding it could absorb the occasional cut. But as more Republicans seized power, their ability to inflict damage grew and the wear and tear accumulated. And when Thomas Frank explained to the Republican masses that their leaders were sandbagging them -- "vote against abortion and get tax cuts for the rich" -- they rose up in revolt, creating the "Tea Party" monstrosity. And what that did was to make the GOP manic-depressive. The Democrats could get away with loathing their base because the base didn't have anywhere else to go -- not even the beleaguered poor are so masochistic to vote for a party dedicated to stripping away the last shreds of a social safelty net. But the Republicans had to fear their base, not least because most of those people would be better off economically with the Democrats, and without prejudice and fury clouding their minds, with the middle class melting into the poor and the superrich becoming ever more rarefied, the Republicans had no other possible source of votes. So they feared their base, and the temperamental bullies in the base recognized that fear and took advantage of it.
Lots of Republican bigwigs had no problem with catering to their base instincts. Wave the flag and thump the bible all you want -- hard to see how that affects the profit margin on pork bellies or gasoline or depleted-uranium shells. Nor do the bigwigs have any problem with shrinking the government, as long as it isn't the parts of government that support their businesses and protect their money. Immigration is an issue that famously divides the bigwigs and the base: the former want anything that weakens the labor market, but the latter can't stand all those foreigners, even if and when they become Americans. The government shutdown and credit default are other issues where the base got out of hand, and we'll see more of this in the future. That may be why the "Tea Party" is getting such bad press these days: the media hope is that responsible Republicans will regain control, but there's no reason to expect that to happen. For one thing, just as the "Tea Party" found its faith in Obama's 2008 election, their takeaway from this defeat is that they have to double down and take over the rest of the Republican Party, so that next time the party will finally have the will to fight for its base's true principles. And if they lose a few elections to Democrats, they'll just recall how Barry Goldwater's historic loss led to Ronald Reagan and those "seven fat years" (while conveniently forgetting that it all led to George W. Bush).
The Democratic left has no symmetrical option, because no one there is going to sabotage the party and let the "Tea Party" destroy the country just to make conditions so bad that the only out will be revolution. It's not so much that it hasn't worked or wouldn't work as that it involves making unacceptable ethical choices. So we're stuck with establishment wannabes like Obama and Clinton itching to sell us out. But with the "Tea Party" ascendant in the Republican orb, the demands may be so crazy they don't get the chance. As long as you care about reality some ideas are safely out of bounds.
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