February 1, 2010


Filed under: Civil Disobedience — Tags: — Russ @ 10:48 am


Anybody who follows politics, and especially who’s interested in breaking up the Washington stranglehold, probably wonders about the Teabaggers.
The basics seem clear enough. At the outset Dick Armey and others formed an Astroturf group, and the right wing power structure propagated a general top-down meme, of Tea Parties raging against the government. Lots of people, most of whom never seemed to have a problem with big government, Wall Street, and obscene deficit spending while Bush was in office, suddenly discovered that they were enraged by all these things.
But since then the movement has perhaps gotten beyond the control of its original handlers, while the more relatively disreputable elements of the Republican party like Palin and Bachmann try to co-opt it.
The general theme seems to have played a significant role in the Republican establishment candidate’s upset victory in Massachusetts. He successfully pretended to be an outsider. Meanwhile a “real” teabagger supported by Palin lost a Congressional race in upstate New York. But if that election were held today he might’ve won.
The first real test of the movement’s effect on electoral politics will come in November. How many establishment Reps will they primary? Will they run any 3rd party candidates? To what extent will the Reps have to pretend to be populists to appease them?
Of course, since the Democrats have incomprehensibly defined themselves as the ultimate party of the big business sell-out, it was already a no-brainer for Reps to run as populists in 2010. This should play well with the ever-gullible “independent” swing voter.
But the question is to what extent these teabaggers, someone’s potential base, will actually hold office-holders to populist promises. If they really are all just Astroturfed goons, then the answer is “not much”.
That, like all the other questions, goes back to the original question. Is this a real movement or just an Astroturf which is organizing a lot of inchoate frustration, letting them blow off steam while shepherding them to the polls to vote for corporate Republicans?
Today the NYT has a forum on the issue. I’ll summarize the takes of the commentators and then conclude with a few impressions.
They start with data. Pollster Neil Newhouse summarizes an NBC/WSJ poll his firm ran. He reports that 14% of the overall electorate had a “very positive” view of the Tea Party. Of these, 74% are Republicans, 78% identify themselves as ideological conservatives, 87% are white, 60% are over 50 years old, 46% have a college degree, 64% have faith in Fox News, and 77% consider the upcoming election to be very important (rating it 9 or 10 on a scale of 1 to 10; this is vs. 40% overall who rate it so highly).
That sounds grim. The typical teabagger is an angry old right-wing white guy who worships Glenn Beck.
On the other hand Andrew Kohut of the Pew Center looks at the same poll and emphasizes how only 49% of respondents have an opinion on the teabaggers at all. The results were 28% positive, 21% negative, 20% neutral, and 31% unsure or never heard of them. He emphasizes how independent voters are generally centrists who aren’t attracted to extremism, though in the same breath he concedes that independents are getting angrier about Wall Street and government spending, the things most likely to drive them in the Teabagger direction.
Journalist Bob Moser thinks he has seen a change in the movement. In 2009 he was at a rally where Texas governor (establishment Rep) Rick Perry led the crowd in chanting for “states’ rights”. But this month, he reports, a Perry skipped a similar Texas rally, where the congregants loudly condemned both parties. Gone were the “Obama is Hitler” signs. This time round the signs read things like “Law Makers/Law Breakers/No Difference” and “He Works For the Man”. He calls them “a collective voice simply hollering Hell No!” vs. the establishment across the board.
History professor Rick Schenkman reminds readers that in spite of some high-profile examples of stupidity (“Keep your government hands off my Medicare!”; “Nice job, morans”), on the whole Teabaggers are no dumber than any other group of voters. (Which is true.) He emphasizes how “they hold no monopoly on what may be thought of as their distinguishing characteristics – fearfulness, anger, and a lack of knowledge.” Then he goes on to offer advice to the Republican party on how to exploit them.
Finally, Micah Sifry, author of a book on 3rd parties in the US, compares the Tea Party to the Perot movement. The demographics are similar – rural and suburb, downwardly mobile, little appeal to the big cities. The big differences are the Perot movement’s “left wing” vs. globalization and the demand for political reform (the Teabaggers seem to have no will toward that), that Perot was never about hate while many Teabaggers are clearly racists, and the movement as a whole looks tolerant of racism, and that it doesn’t have a Leader.
He thinks that without a strong leader they’ll probably fail to form a viable 3rd party, but will factionalize and perhaps split the anti-Democrat vote. The real challenge is to the Republicans. The last time they faced such a nativist surge, with the Birchers, Buckley and others led the party past and against such parochialism. But can anyone do that for them now? Sifry doesn’t name names, but I think of the likes of Brooks, Frum, Noonan and others who have gingerly expressed some skepticism regarding Palin and the Teabaggers.
Kohut also harped on the criticality of the Leader. I agree that there being one pivotal leader can be a boon to a movement, but it’s not always necessary. But the main deficiency in his (and many others’) view on this is how he rushes right to celebrity culture. That’s typical American thinking. He says he can’t imagine a movement being viable without hiring an already famous person to be its celebrity leader. He cites Perot as an example.
But that’s really a counterexample. That’s why the Reform Party accomplished nothing in the long run. It never built itself up from the grass roots, never let itself evolve organically. The measure of a real movement is when you see its own indigenous people rise from obscurity to become leaders and then stay independent. (Of course, the establishment goal is always to find the guy shouting “Hell No!” the most articulately and buy him off. It’s worked so far for both Reps and Dems.)
As for independent voters being centrists who are repelled by “extremism” (never mind that “the center” of our politics and economy is at a neoliberal corporatist extreme), that may be true in general, but the decades of the system’s lies about a “great moderation” are over. We’re entering upon extreme times, and these extreme times, the extreme suffering they’ll inflict upon ever greater numbers of people, will render what the system calls “extreme” politics more and more attractive to the masses.
(Kohut also cites reports of divisions among the Teabaggers as “not a good sign”. Not a good sign for what? This movement’s not even a year old. If the division is between Astroturf and some real movement force, such a division would be the best sign (for them). We already know the Tea Party started as an Astroturf; the only question is whether it remains that way, just a goon roundup for the Republicans.)
I don’t like the looks of the Teabaggers so far. At least some of them are fascists aching for murder. But if the real groundswell among them is a sincere will to overthrow the entire corporate tyranny, and not just gut government to let the rackets run wild (the goal toward which the Republicans are trying to co-opt them), that would be a great human resource. At least they want to fight.
God knows there’s almost zero will to fight among “progressives”.
What are we here to do? To organize all the anti-system fear and rage. Fear and rage are the right feelings to have. The more penetrating your fear, and the more passionate your rage, the more accurate an assessment you have, and the more righteous your moral and spiritual position is.
To shout, Hell No!, is to be on the right side of things. The question is whether people are going to shout the whole No, vs. corporations and government, or let their passion and action be derailed.
We’ll certainly be seeing a lot more of this alleged populism of the Right.
Now if we could only find the true populism which transcends all zombie political categories….    


  1. Excellent piece providing an overview of the Tea baggers. I recently got into something of an online fracas with some folks who took objection to my characterization of the tea bagger movement. I know for a fact that every one of them fit the profile of “an angry old right-wing white guy who worships Glenn Beck.”

    Well, maybe one of them wasn’t angry.

    Comment by Edwardo — February 1, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

    • I’ve had a couple of online encounters. Each was the same: the tea partier said they were all about “freedom”, so I said “In that case you must be all about smashing corporate tyranny, since that’s the worst assailant of our freedom. What’s your plan for that?”

      They never responded to that.

      Comment by Russ — February 1, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

      • That is exactly why the “teabaggers” will go nowhere, they refuse to acknowledge that corporate tyranny is destroying the American middle class. The ultra right wing conservatives and religious fanatics long ago took over the Republican party and the move is on to do the same thing to the Teabag Movement(if there ever was a movement that wasn’t controlled by Republican operatives).Check out Dick Aremy Freedom Works. There is no direction to this movement except that which comes from the operative side of the GOP. Our tea bag partys had very few very people show up, organized by right wing conservative AM radio shock jocks.They showed no tea bag ideology, but Obama hate signs.This was not a cross section of the public that it takes to create a movement or third party. Example: The Palin episode, $600/ticket entrance fee, approximately attendance 600 for the Nashville flop. She comes off like a spokesman for the GOP, the same as Fox. Sorry folks, there is no movement if you can’t break away from the GOP and bring us Independents in. The GOP needs to run Palin and Perry 2012 and see how far that goes!

        Comment by Packeryman — February 7, 2010 @ 9:18 pm

      • Hi Packeryman,

        My favorite part is how they organized it as a for-profit corporation. Sounds like idealism we can believe in.

        And then they decreed from on high that their group will not support 3rd party candidates and won’t support anyone who doesn’t endorse the Republican party platform.

        That proves it right there – this “Tea Party Nation” is just a Republican astroturf front.

        Really, anybody who wants a new politics will have to organize it from the bottom up. Waiting for celebrity “leaders” to do it from the top down only ensures that you become a tool of the establishment.

        Comment by Russ — February 8, 2010 @ 3:41 am

  2. I am happy to see that you have a blog. I really enjoy your comments at Naked Capitalism.

    This is an important issue about the tea baggers. I too share your ambivalence towards them and I was happy to see that DownSouth brought the subject up. The key point is, as you say, that they are willing to fight. I read some progressive blogs to check for signs of rebellion against Obama and it is so pathetic sometimes how weak progressives generally are.

    One interesting alignment would be if the Tea Baggers and the Progressives each ran candidates next time. That would split the vote four ways and things could get interesting.

    Comment by Kevin de Bruxelles — February 1, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

    • Thanks. I like your comments too.

      The econoblogs really do have better threads than the prog blogs, where I barely go anymore. It’s too depressing.

      The 4-way scenario you describe would be the best, since that way real progressives could split off from the Dems without automatically handing victory to the Reps.

      That would be the kind of shakeup which would really open up some new political space.

      Comment by Russ — February 1, 2010 @ 4:22 pm

  3. The ‘Tea Parties’ were started by Ron Paul supporters during the 2008 election. It was a genuine grass-roots movement of Libertarians. It only became astroturf after the election when the Republican leadership wanted to piggy-back on this movement and began to co-opt it.

    As for fear and rage… well, Frank Herbert said it best: Fear is the mind-killer. To be enraged is to be out of control. I’ll stick with calm determination myself.

    Comment by Karl — February 2, 2010 @ 3:33 am

    • Fear and rage can and should be harnessed. But denying them, repressing them, is never helpful.

      To give a personal example, by now I feel anger, but it’s a cold anger which only infrequently flares into heat. I’d say calm determination is my normal state, and I agree with you in recommending it to others.

      Maybe it’s just disputing semantics.

      Comment by Russ — February 2, 2010 @ 4:21 am

  4. You are so fixated on maneuvering of the centrist party factions struggling for control of the levers of power in Rome-on-the-Potomac that the possibility these levers are losing their efficacy is transparent to you, even as Rome-on-the-Potomac drifts towards a closer resemblance to Caracas, or Buenos Aires, than the capital of a global sea-faring empire.

    This is not surprising since “progressive” outlooks have been at the heart of growing this empire, from the consolidation of Federal power that began with the Civil War, through the centralizing efforts of “progressive” banksters and robber barons and their ‘trust-busting’ counterparts of the late 19th century, through “progressive” involvement of the US in Europe’s Great War under Wilson, to the vast expansion of the warfare/welfare state made possible by the prolongation of the Depression and US involvement in “act II” of the Great War at mid-century.

    Now, after the completion of Act III, and the accumulation of several annual GDPs worth of unfunded entitlement promises and security-state costs (Social Security, Medicare, DoD budget), dwarfing the “official national debt” by a factor of 4 or 5, the centrist factions try to keep the game rolling along by bickering over the false choices of “tax and spend” vs “borrow and spend”, moving the US further towards the fiscal cliffs over which Argentina, Brazil, Japan, and others have already drifted in the past.

    Serious “teabag” sympathizers laugh at the co-opting efforts of Republicans, who are going the way of the Whigs, and Democrats, who have institutionalized crony capitalism to a degree that their factional opponents could only dream. Welcome back, Tammany and “The Chicago Way”! To both these competing gangs of Pharaohs, and their corporate enablers, we say, “let our people go”.

    Monitor http://www.pensiontsunami.com for reports on the crumbling of the unsustainable promises of these intergenerational ponzi scheme runners, and plan accordingly. The shelf-life of their IOU’s has had a slow annnual attrition rate of slightly over 3% since 1913, peaking at a roughly 7% average in the 1970’s, but the current crowd appears poised to make the 1970’s look like a time of fiscal sobriety. Look at the Brazilian and Argentinian hyper-inflation for a preview of what we’re in for.

    Comment by Ridge Runner — February 3, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

    • Well, I certainly hope there are serious people out there.

      The more people recognize the complete worthlessness and criminality of the system, the better.

      Comment by Russ — February 3, 2010 @ 4:08 pm

  5. This is my opinion of the Tea Party exactly. I’m glad to see others voicing it.

    While the movement clearly has overtones of racism, which must be steadfastly resisted, many of them are voicing the real concerns of rural, working class Americans.

    It has been a real failure of the radical left to not intervene in any of this, but instead to allow our cultural prejudices to prevent us from forming new alliances.

    Comment by John Jacobsen — February 13, 2010 @ 5:11 am

  6. Hi John, I agree that there’s been an absolute catastrophic failure leaving open a gaping vacuum where left populism should’ve been.

    In part that’s because alot of people got swindled by Obama, although a year in there’s no longer any excuse for that.

    From here on if the wide open populist front is left to the Astroturf movement, that’ll prove there really was no “left” at all in America beyond a few scattered individuals.

    Comment by Russ — February 13, 2010 @ 7:25 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: