Will the right rise again?

February 9, 2010

If the right is able to come back from its drubbing in 2008, it will be in large part because of the failure of the Democrats to deliver real change.

IT'S NOT every day the sort of speeches that usually only appear on C-SPAN end up live on major cable news networks. But that's what happened February 6 when former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republicans' vice presidential candidate in 2008, spoke to the National Tea Party convention held in Nashville, Tenn.

In a rambling 40-minute speech crafted to appeal to every Fox News devotee in the room, Palin said that the U.S. was "ready for another revolution" and lobbed rhetorical bombs at the Obama administration.

Make no mistake: Palin is planning a run for the White House in 2012. Despite her "anti-establishment" and "plain folks" persona, she's already pulling together a machine staffed with Washington insiders to help her to that point.

Palin has caused a buzz. Leading journalists who thought she was a political corpse after her terrible performance in 2008 now think she's the heir apparent to an ascending conservative movement. Palin's appearance at the Tea Party convention lent a certain credibility to the proceedings, which had up to that point featured knuckle-draggers like racist former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo).

The moderate conservative and Obama-supporting blogger Andrew Sullivan didn't like what he saw, referring alternately to U.S. fascists in the 1930s, military-connected populism in Argentina and one of Adolph Hitler's rhetorical devices with this assessment:

So we have here a truly Coughlinite movement, headed by an Eva Peron figure, eager to use the Dolchstoss card to bring out the kind of voters Rove always believed could eventually crush even the most mobilized democratic GOTV operation.

Is this nightmare scenario likely to come to pass?

It's been clear for months that the Democrats are in for a world of hurt in the 2010 congressional elections. Being the party in government during the worst recession in more than half a century, they will face a backlash from voters who are tired of waiting for help from Washington. What's more, they have spent most of their time in the majority disappointing their most loyal supporters.

But whether Democratic losses will signal an enduring comeback for the right is another matter.

The tea party "movement" has been largely a way for the existing Republican "base" to reorganize itself, with some help from pro-corporate Washington lobbyists. So while the squabbling "tea party" factions managed to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people in various actions, it's unlikely that they have reached too far beyond the ranks of already committed conservatives.

The true believers may think they're trying to spark a "revolution," as Palin exhorted them to do, but the people behind the movement are trying to pour the old wine of discredited conservatism into new bottles.

Max Pappas, vice president for policy at Dick Armey's FreedomWorks operation, produced a memo on fiscal policy obtained by the Washington Independent Web site. In it, he wrote:

Bush's "Wall Street Bailout" was the spark that lit the Tea Party grassfire...and the Obama administration has so far been successful in continuing to increase the ties between Wall Street and Washington, while at the same time demonizing bankers for political gain. This presents a big opportunity for the right to throw off the image of being owned by business interests when what we really support are free markets.

These are the words of a professional Washington lobbyist who earns a salary from money donated by big business. If nothing else, it should give the lie to the idea that the tea partiers represent some "new force" in politics.

NEVERTHELESS, THE more emboldened right wing is not a negligible force. While it doesn't come anywhere close to a majority in the country, the solid 25 to 30 percent of the electorate that does support it can exert an influence in at least preventing government action it doesn't want.

It's important to realize, however, that this 25 to 30 percent isn't a monolithic bloc, as Sara Robinson, writing for the liberal Campaign for America's Future Web site put it. According to Robinson and Chip Berlet, an expert on the American right, only about 10 percent of the population holds to extreme right-wing views (though that's still 30 million people!).

Another 10 to 15 percent are more mainstream GOP voters whose views have shifted rightward under the pressure of economic devastation. In the political polarization that follows from the economic polarization caused by the recession, they are being pushed into an alliance with more extreme elements.

But according to Robinson, this alliance is receiving a boost from:

the Democrats' continued fecklessness in clearly communicating the coherent moral values at the heart of the progressive world view; and their extreme reluctance to support any kind of progressive populist agenda. Everybody knows now that there's a rising populist tide in America. Average Americans, left and right, are uniting behind an implacable fury at the big banks--and at Congress and Obama, who seem determined to enable criminal behavior rather than make any serious attempt to control it.

You don't need me to tell you that the tide is rising. We're seeing the signs of political climate change all around us. But most of the [Washington establishment] still regards any kind of populism as a dangerous (and avoidable) impulse. "Responsible" consultants are cautioning Democrats not to get out front of that wave and ride it.

In 20 years, historians will record this as a mistake on the same magnitude as the one they made in 1972 when they started backing away from the unions. It's going to be the biggest missed opportunity since...oh, damn, it's hard to say, since the Democrats have already missed so many big ones that it's hard to keep track. But this one could, in the end, trump them all.

The constant in the analyses of the conservative Pappas and the liberal Robinson is the Democrats' continued association with bailed-out Wall Street. If the right is able to recover from its debacle in 2008, it will be in no small measure due to the failures of the party that received the majority of contributions from big business and Wall Street in 2008: the Democrats.

Robinson advises Democrats to adopt a more aggressive, pro-populist, pro-working-class stance as a way to put a wedge between the two groups of conservatives now unifying around anti-incumbent "populist" sentiment.

This is good advice as far as it goes, but it's directed at the wrong audience. If the current Democratic Party supermajority is unwilling to advocate for widely popular measures like publicly supported health insurance, they aren't likely to adopt populist measures in self-defense.

The people who could make a difference, though, are unionists and other ordinary people who take the opportunity of the current economic situation to organize in defense of working people's rights and demands.

The same political polarization that is driving millions to the right is also driving millions to the left. If those leftward-moving millions aren't organized to present some sort of alternative to the Democratic-dominated status quo, then the rise of the right will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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