Free Markets, Free People
Jonathan Rauch, writing in National Journal, seems to have done what no one else in the media has yet done – get a fairly decent handle on the phenomenon known as the Tea Party movement.
"From Washington’s who’s-in-charge-here perspective, the tea party model seems, to use Wildman’s word, bizarre. Perplexed journalists keep looking for the movement’s leaders, which is like asking to meet the boss of the Internet. Baffled politicians and lobbyists can’t find anyone to negotiate with.
The "boss of the internet" makes a great point. This is an unknown beast in politicoworld. And since the politicians can’t find the leaders (and there by attempt to "negotiate" or buy-off that leadership) and it is something journalists don’t understand, they’re afraid of it. And they keep trying to pigeon hole it, but the movement doesn’t really allow that. It is what it is for a reason:
"[R]adical decentralization embodies and expresses tea partiers’ mistrust of overcentralized authority, which is the very problem they set out to solve. They worry that external co-option, internal corruption, and gradual calcification — the viruses they believe ruined Washington — might in time infect them. Decentralization, they say, is inherently resistant to all three diseases.
And that’s a another great point. But keep in mind, that wasn’t a design feature, that’s a feature of the spontaneous coming together of those who’ve signed on with the movement.
Sell-outs occur when leaders are co-opted by enticements and promises. No leaders, no co-option. If you want examples of the other two – corruption and gradual calcification – look no further than your Democratic and Republican parties, or the governments they run. There is no TP "president", no "treasurer", no "communications director". In fact, the movement is a collection of hundreds, if not thousands of local TPs which identify with the movement as a whole. Negotiate with that.
"’The reason the tea party isn’t yet there is they don’t yet make a distinction between friends and foes and persuadables,’ says [Ralph Benko, a Washington-based public affair consultant]. ‘They don’t yet make a distinction on who they can focus on to change a vote, or how they can change the fortunes of their preferred candidates. As long as they’re in ‘We hate you all’ mode, I don’t know if they’ll manifest as a powerful national force.’
They’re clear in what they’re interested in – fiscal sanity on the whole meaning smaller, less intrusive government, less spending, less taxation. That the type candidate they’ve been backing in the various primaries. And, at least in the primaries, they’ve had some success.
But those in the movement are at once national and local. They’re a spontaneous reaction to the frustration the general population has felt by being ignored completely between election cycles while the politicians proceed to break every promise they made, spend us into oblivion and generally treat us like chattel.
The "We hate you all" mode that is referred too isn’t quite as global as Benko would like you to believe. Obviously some politicians haven’t had to face TP backed candidates or have been backed by the TP as incumbents. That’s because they reflect the general political goals of the TP – both the local one in their area and the national movement.
As for becoming a “powerful national force”, if Benko doesn’t consider knocking off establishment party candidates in a number of Senate primaries the makings of a powerful national force, I’m not sure what would impress him. He seems to be looking for that traditional political model with which to bestow that power. What the TP movement is doing is finding its legs.
It’s power is in its decentralization as Rauch points out above. How to wield that power effectively is what the movement is just now exploring. If it uses its template of governing principles and applies them consistently and persistently it will indeed be a ”powerful national force.” But I think it is a mistake to claim the TP is in a “we hate you all” mode. In fact, it’s just a target rich environment right now. In a few years with a few successes and other politicians figuring out which way the wind blows politically, the TP may be much more selective in its application of that power.
Which brings us to this:
"But, tea partiers say, if you think moving votes and passing bills are what they are really all about, you have not taken the full measure of their ambition. No, the real point is to change the country’s political culture, bending it back toward the self-reliant, liberty-guarding instincts of the Founders’ era."
Why do you suppose the TP is such a incredible mix of types of people? Because the dissatisfaction with the country’s political culture is an across the board phenomenon. It is this the two parties just seem not to be able to grasp. It isn’t about a preference for one or the other, it’s about not liking either of them or the culture they’ve spawned. The TP’s main message is “change that culture or we’ll find and back someone who will, and if they fail, we’ll kick them out and find others”. The fact is that in principle, it is the Republican party which should be the greatest beneficiary of this sort of a movement. But over the years, speaking of co-option, corruption and calcification, the GOP has lost its way. Dumping the Murkowskis and Bennett’s and rejecting the Crists and Castles of the party is the movement’s way of pointing out what the Republicans have to do to win their support. Naturally the establishment party is resisting the guidance.
Democrats, of course, are scared witless of the movement because they – on the whole – represent everything the TP isn’t for. Consequently that party has spent all its time denigrating, demonizing and falsely accusing the movement of being everything from a reincarnation of the KKK to the Nazi brownshirts. But they’ve been unsuccessful in pinning any of those tags on the movement. Time and again, TP rallies have formed in large numbers and done so peacefully and without incident. And, the one time there were supposed “incidents” it ended up blowing back on the Democrats when not one shred of proof of their charges could be found.
Obviously, it is still too early to say if the TP will actually have any staying power or whether or not if it does it will become a “potent national force”. However, it is clear that the media and politicians don’t know what to do with it, what it really is or means or how to take it down. And that’s the core of its power right now. Its spontaneity and decentralized “structure” enabled by today’s technology have them running scared. And personally, I’d like to see politicians kept in a perpetual state of fright – it seems to me that’s when they’re most responsive to the will of the people.
UPDATE: Ralph Benko responds.
Charlie Cook, one of the more respected political analysts, has a piece in the National Journal that patiently explains what the left and Democrats still don’t seem to understand – they won, but they didn’t win what they think they won.
In fact, they won much less than that. “Change”, as defined by many independents who put Barack Obama and the Democrats in office, had little to do with expanding government. And within a span of a few months, the entire political dynamic changed, but apparently the left missed it:
Independent voters — fired up by the war in Iraq and Republican scandals — gave Democrats control of both chambers of Congress in 2006. Two years later, independents upset with President Bush and eager to give his party another kick expanded the Democratic majorities on the Hill. Late in the campaign, the economic downturn, together with an influx of young people and minorities enthusiastic about Obama, created a wave that left the GOP in ruins.
That was then; this is now. For the seven weeks from mid-April through the first week of June, Obama’s weekly Gallup Poll approval rating among independents ran in the 60-to-70 percent range. But in four of the past five weeks, it has been only in the mid-to-high 40s. Meanwhile, Democrats and liberals seem lethargic even though Republicans and conservatives are spitting nails and can’t wait to vote.
Why? Cook explains the basics of what has happened:
While political analysts were fixated on last fall’s campaign and on Obama’s victory, inauguration, and first 100 days in office, two other dynamics were developing. First, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression scared many voters, making them worry about their future and that of their children and grandchildren. And the federal government’s failure to prevent that calamity fundamentally undermined the public’s already low confidence in government’s ability to solve problems. Washington’s unprecedented levels of intervention — at the end of Bush’s presidency and the start of Obama’s — into the private sector further unnerved the skittish public. People didn’t mind that the head of General Motors got fired. What frightened folks was that it was the federal government doing the firing.
Many conservatives predictably fear — and some downright oppose — any expansion of government. But late last year many moderates and independents who were already frightened about the economy began to fret that Washington was taking irreversible actions that would drive mountainous deficits higher. They worried that government was taking on far more than it could competently handle and far more than the country could afford. Against this backdrop, Obama’s agenda fanned fears that government was expanding too far, too fast. Before long, his strategy of letting Congress take the lead in formulating legislative proposals and thus prodding lawmakers to take ownership in their outcome caused his poll numbers on “strength” and “leadership” to plummet.
These fears haven’t been allayed one bit. In fact, they’ve been ignored completely as Democrats continue their approach to the issue of health care. Americans are telling them, in every poll and every townhall meeting, to back off the direction they seem to be insisting on taking. One of the implications in Cook’s assessment of why Republicans were kicked out in 2006 and again in 2008 was a growing frustration with the deafness of the Repubicans. They weren’t listening. They moved ahead with their agenda and never seemed to consider what their constituents were saying.
The Democrats are in exactly the same sort of loop. They’ve finally got the power, they’ve either misinterpreted their mandate or are simply ignoring the people for the chance to pass what they’ve long wanted to pass and are very close to paying a huge political price for doing so. Cook addresses that point:
With 14 months to go before the 2010 midterm election, something could happen to improve the outlook for Democrats. However, wave elections, more often than not, start just like this: The president’s ratings plummet; his party loses its advantage on the generic congressional ballot test; the intensity of opposition-party voters skyrockets; his own party’s voters become complacent or even depressed; and independent voters move lopsidedly away. These were the early-warning signs of past wave elections. Seeing them now should terrify Democrats.
If you take an objective look at the situation under which the Republicans lost their power, Cook’s formula was precisely how it played out. If you take an equally objective look at how this situation is forming up, you can indeed see what Cook is talking about repeating itself for Democrats.
And that brings us to the Obama health care speech on Wednesday – many are calling it a “make or break” speech. I’m of the opinion that it is more likely to be too little too late. Popular support for any bill is trending down. Popular support for the Democrat’s version(s) has been trending down. Obama’s approval ratings concerning health care have been falling.
Unless Obama has some startling new ideas, never before discussed which will be introduced and promise to be pleasing to both sides, he’s stuck with attempting to repackage and spin the same old tired arguments which have, to this point, been pretty well rejected.
Wednesday’s speech could indeed still be a “make or break” speech, but not for health care. Instead it may make or break Democratic support (depending on the President’s stance on the public option) and sound the death knell for Democratic Congressional control and, possibly, the presidency. It is indeed an important speech – but not for the reasons Democrats think.