A tea party tidal wave?

March 2, 2010

If Barack Obama and the Democrats want to find the explanation for the comeback of the right wing over the past year, they can start by looking in the mirror.

AFTER TWO straight national elections in which the Republicans took a beating, the largest Democratic majority since the 1970s looked set to shift American mainstream politics away from three decades of conservative domination. The American right looked small, irrelevant to the concerns of most Americans, and likely to spend years in the political "wilderness."

That was a year ago. Today's situation couldn't be more different.

While President Barack Obama remains more popular than unpopular, there is a widespread--and accurate--perception that his administration has lost momentum and authority.

The liberal pundit E.J. Dionne put it in stark terms in a February 18 Washington Post commentary: "If you want to be honest, face these facts: At this moment, President Obama is losing, Democrats are losing and liberals are losing. Who's winning? Republicans, conservatives, the practitioners of obstruction and the Tea Party."

Opinion polls predict a Republican comeback in the 2010 midterm elections this November. It's no longer a conservative fantasy to think that the GOP, largely discredited and rejected only a short time ago, could retake Congress in 2010. Political momentum lies with the right.

The media and the political establishment's characterize the national political mood as a "populist" backlash against the elites and the banks. But incredibly, the political right--e.g., the tea party "movement"--appears to have a corner on that mood, at least according to the media.

What happened? The "centrist," pro-business Obama administration failed to meet the expectations of millions of people, but it succeeded in neutering most opposition to its left. This created a political vacuum that the formerly discredited right wing has rushed to fill.

In Congress, the Republicans are banking on the two-party system's in-built tendency to make every election a negative referendum on the party in power--in essence, to give the electorate a chance to "throw the bums out," rather than make a positive endorsement of the party out of power.

So far, this has proven to be an effective strategy for the GOP. Republicans assumed--so far correctly--that if they could obstruct government action, this would contribute to a sense among the population that "Washington"--and, by extension, the Democrats who run Washington--is ineffectual and unconcerned with solving ordinary people's problems. The resulting discontent and cynicism--replacing November 2008's sense of hope and expectation--can only rebound to the Republicans' benefit.

Tea Party protesters marching in Washington as part of Glenn Beck's 9-12 initiative
Tea Party protesters marching in Washington as part of Glenn Beck's 9-12 initiative (Andrew Aliferis)

The results of the January special Senate election in Massachusetts illustrate this. One in five people who voted for Republican Scott Brown had voted for Obama in 2008, according to surveys--and post-election polling by the AFL-CIO found that Brown voters supported him because they felt Washington wasn't doing enough (rather than doing "too much") to help them.

If this sense that the Democrats in power have been incompetent takes hold through the rest of the year, the Republicans will win big in November. This wouldn't be an endorsement of the Republicans' free-market platform or opposition to Obama's "socialist policies" so much as an expression of frustration at Democratic failure.

NO ONE can deny that there is a political shift rightward among some parts of the population. The ruination of a part of the middle class and a real underemployment rate of almost 17 percent has pushed a section of people to embrace right-wing ideas. Note David Barstow's New York Times account of how a long-time far-right activist described his newfound audience:

He said he has found audiences everywhere struggling to make sense of why they were wiped out last year. These audiences, he said, are far more receptive to critiques once dismissed as paranoia. It is no longer considered all that radical, he said, to portray the Federal Reserve as a plaything of the big banks--a point the Birch Society, among others, has argued for decades.

People are more willing, he said, to imagine a government that would lock up political opponents, or ration health care with "death panels," or fake global warming. And if global warming is a fraud, is it so crazy to wonder about a president's birth certificate?

It's worth noting that these right-wingers can build support on the basis of a true statement that the left would agree with--the Federal Reserve is a "plaything" of the big banks--but spin this into the bizarro world of "birtherism."

These anecdotes aside, the size and spontaneity of the tea party movement are much exaggerated--and purposely so, by its supporters. As SocialistWorker.org's Nicole Colson recently showed, the majority of active tea party members are conservatives who mostly vote Republican and who have been mobilized by a group of long-time Washington lobbyists, right-wing media outlets like Fox News and conservative activists.

Still, it's important to remember that the tea partiers, like the Christian Right, represent a vocal minority in the country. A February CNN poll estimated that 11 percent of the population reported some level of active support for the tea party movement. But polling expert Mark Blumenthal, reviewing the CNN survey, noted that most people overestimate their political participation when talking to pollsters, so "a literal interpretation of these statistics is not recommended."

A February 11 Washington Post/ABC News poll found 35 percent of people approving of the tea party movement, with 40 percent disapproving. Even more noteworthy is the fact that 71 percent of Americans in the same poll viewed the tea partiers' favored Republican candidate, Sarah Palin, as unqualified to be president. Even 51 percent of Republicans think Palin is unqualified.

Nevertheless, the views of the tea party minority are magnified for a couple of reasons. First, they, unlike major liberal organizations tied to the White House, have staged protests that allowed some of the "populist rage" in the country to express itself. Second, they have the backing of major conservative institutions like the Republican Party and Fox News. Contrast that to the liberal organizations the White House has pressured to "get in line."

As November approaches, the media and much of the left will be filled with commentary--some of it likely to be hysterical--about how U.S. politics has turned to the right. We'll hear all the old crap about how America remains a "center-right nation," how Americans can't overcome racism to support a Black president, and the like.

While this will cause disorientation among the broad left and force much of it back into the camp of Obama and the Democrats for the election, we shouldn't lose sight of the bigger picture.

Republican officials have no intention of allowing tea party activists to take over their party. But they are happy to fan the flames of the "tea party rebellion" if it provides them with a battering ram against the Democrats and some votes in November.

If Democrats wonder how the promise that began in 2009 turned into a possible debacle in 2010, they shouldn't ask "what's the matter with Kansas?" If they want to find the explanation for the right's comeback, they should start by looking in the mirror.

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