Tea Party America and How to Fight It
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN, Editor
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
If there was any doubt before the debt-ceiling debacle in Washington, D.C. throughout July that the radical Right in general and the Tea Party in particular has achieved dominance over American politics, there’s no room for doubt anymore. Thanks to the Tea Party — and to its high-powered propagandists on talk radio and Fox News — the U.S., which remains mired in an economic crisis that is putting (and keeping) millions out of work, has committed to a policy of massive budget cutbacks at all levels of government that will suck so much demand out of the economy, it will convert the nagging recession into a full-blown depression. And the Tea Party will massively benefit from that depression, because it’s sold the American people on the idea that the remedy for what ails the U.S. economy is more of the same: more cutbacks, more austerity, less money in ordinary people’s pockets and more in the hands of wealthy individuals and corporations, who judging from what they’re doing with it now are likely either to squirrel it away in their bank accounts as cash reserves or invest it in other countries.
The triumph of the Tea Party is just the culmination of a long campaign on the part of the radical Right that has, with occasional interruptions, moved steadily from success to success. The modern-day U.S. Right began in the 1930’s as a counter-movement to the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt and a well-organized American Left that pushed FDR and the Democrats of his time much farther than they were initially prepared to go. It survived the disgrace of its initial leaders, most of whom either tried to keep the U.S. out of World War II or openly sided with America’s enemies, Nazi Germany and Japan. It achieved its first triumph when it got enough people scared about alleged “Communist infiltration” of U.S. government, business and entertainment to spark a huge purge of the Left from American public life — the second of three massive attacks on the Left (in the late teens/early 1920’s, the late 1940’s/early 1950’s, and the late 1960’s/early 1970’s) that have relegated the U.S. Left to a tiny, uninfluential sliver of the American body politic.
What became the Tea Party survived the disgrace of its first major elected official, U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), in 1954. It survived the overwhelming defeat of its first Presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater (R-Arizona), in 1964. It had its first nationwide electoral triumph when, in 1968, it exploited the anxieties of many members of the white working class over race and culture to swing America’s classic proletariat more or less decisively from the Democratic to the Republican party. It also used the Democrats’ support of the landmark civil-rights legislation of 1964 and 1965 to “break” the so-called “solid South” at long last and turn it over time from almost totally Democratic in national elections to reliably Republican. The result was that in the 1968 Presidential election, Republican Richard Nixon and Right-wing independent George Wallace got 57 percent of the vote between them, to Democrat Hubert Humphrey’s 43 percent: the birth of the Right-wing majority that has dominated American politics ever since.
Since 1968, the Republicans have taken the presidency seven out of 11 times. But even when they’ve elected Democrats to the presidency and Congress, the American people have got Republican policies. It was Jimmy Carter and the Democratic Congresses of his four years in the White House that first started the deregulatory frenzy that led to the collapse of the financial system in 2008 and the economic crisis that plagues us still. It was Bill Clinton who destroyed the government guarantee of support for families with dependent children and signed into law such attacks on the Queer community as the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and the “Defense of Marriage Act.” And it was Barack Obama who began the evisceration of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid by offering his so-called “grand deal” to the Republicans to slash those programs in exchange for minimal tax increases — which the Republicans promptly threw back in his face, knowing that by holding strong they could get the destruction of the social safety net without having to give in on taxes.
This does not mean, as a lot of U.S. Leftists assume, that we should give up on electoral politics in general or the Democratic Party in particular. Quite the contrary: we need to emulate the success of the Tea Party and organize in the electoral and non-electoral realms simultaneously. It also means we should forget about so-called “third parties,” which in a winner-take-all system like ours are a meaningless and counterproductive distraction. We should have no hesitation about “primary-ing” Democrats who fall short of progressive ideals, but at the same time we should vote for any Democrat over any Republican because in this historical era, the Democrats represent what Noam Chomsky has called “the reality-based wing of the ruling class” and it is a short-term necessity to keep them in power and the Tea Party crazies at bay.
At the same time, we need not only to “organize” — the all-purpose word thrown about by Leftists who see the predicament we’re in but have only the barest of hints as to what we ought to do about it — but to reach out to the growing number of victims of Tea Party politics and economics and do what we can to help them directly. At the last Activist San Diego meeting Congressmember Bob Filner talked about organizing a demonstration to stop one woman from losing her house to a legally dubious foreclosure — and at the end, when at least for that day she got to stay in her home, the 200 people he’d brought out asked, “When are we going to do this again?” We have to keep doing it again … and again … and again, until there are enough people out there we’ve helped that there’s a critical mass ready to listen to what we have to say.
What’s left of the U.S. Left needs to realize, first of all, that we’ve “hit bottom.” That’s where recovery from alcoholism or drug abuse starts, and it’s where our recovery from our political meaninglessness and obsolescence needs to start. We need to realize that our ideas have been so thoroughly rejected by the majority of Americans that, when Texas Governor Rick Perry announced his candidacy for President, he actually said that it is “an injustice” that nearly half of all Americans pay no federal income tax, and that a progressive tax system “punishes success while setting America on a course for greater dependency on government.” It’s one thing for a Republican politician to believe that, and to govern that way; but Perry is so convinced a majority of the American people agree with him that he said it out loud and used it as a selling point for his campaign.
We also need to break ourselves of a lot of bad habits we’ve acquired during our years of powerlessness. First, we need to stop hating America. I remember an argument I had with an activist from the International Action Center who defended his group’s railing against the U.S. for having built its civilization on the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of African-Americans. I tried to convince him — futilely — that this was defensible analysis but rotten politics. Given a choice between a Right that tells the American people that their history as a nation should be a source of pride and a Left that tells them it should be a source of shame, it’s no wonder millions of Americans have chosen the Right. Ironically, the first modern use of the phrase “Tea Party” was by the Left — by an organization that formed in 1970 to encourage tax resistance as a protest against the Viet Nam war — but we’ve let the Right co-opt it, and virtually all of American history besides.
We also need to purge the words “consensus decision-making” from our vocabulary and put them on the scrap heap of dead language where they belong. Our compulsion for “internal democracy” — for delaying and delaying and delaying every decision until we’ve anticipated every conceivable objection, rational or otherwise, and trying to reach agreement among everybody at the table — has rendered us totally paralyzed, unable to realize opportunities even when we’ve worked hard to open the door for them. As much as I hate Vladimir Lenin for founding the Soviet Union and thereby inexorably and permanently associating the very concept of “socialism” with dictatorship and brutality, there’s no getting around that he was a master tactician, probably the best the Left has ever produced.
The Right understands Lenin’s tactical genius — Rupert Murdoch had a picture of him on his dorm-room wall in college — and we need to re-learn it ourselves. In particular we need to revive his concept of “democratic centralism,” which imposed order, structure and discipline on Leftist organizing. There’s a reason the only socialist revolutions that ever succeeded were organized on Lenin’s principles; without them — and especially without “democratic centralism,” which means that once the majority makes a decision, everybody carries it out without question or further debate, and our internal disagreements are kept behind closed doors while we present a unified phalanx of thought, word and deed to the public — there’s no way a Leftist movement can overcome the overwhelming advantages of money, power and media available to the Right.