The Grand Old Tea Party
First, a conceptual distinction. there is in-deed little new under the wingnut sun; if studying the right full time for sixteen years has taught me anything, it is that. But the structural context for their attempts to get what they want is different from what it was in previous decades.
The reactionary percentage of the electorate in these United States has been relatively constant since McCarthy’s day; I’d estimate it as hovering around 30 percent. A minority, but one never all that enamored of the niceties of democracy—they see themselves as fighting for the survival of civilization, after all. So, generation after generation, they’ve ruthlessly exploited the many points of structural vulnerability in the not-very-democratic American political system to get their way. For McCarthy, that meant using the rules of Senate investigations—in which the accused enjoy few of the procedural protections of the courtroom—to shape the direction of the government through the sheer power of intimidation. For the Goldwaterites, that meant flooding low-turnout party caucuses at the precinct and county level to win control of the Republican nomination process. In the past, such minoritarian ploys were stymied in the end by bottlenecks. For McCarthy, it was the canons of senatorial courtesy. For the Goldwaterites, it was the necessity of actually winning general elections. Now, however, the bottlenecks against right-wing minoritarian power are weaker than ever; America’s structural democracy deficit has never been greater. And that’s the biggest difference of all.
For example, the Citizens United decision opened the floodgates for reactionary political money, and as a result, billionaires have become increasingly brazen in their exploitation of campaign finance loopholes. In September, The New York Times discovered that the Koch brothers and their allies gave $236 million more than had been previously known to conservative groups during the 2012 election, simply by registering a new organization as a “business league” instead of a “social welfare” group. This enabled its 200 “members” to make contributions of $100,000 or more as “dues,” which not only hid the donations but potentially qualified them as deductible business expenses.
Then there’s been the steadily increasing sophistication of the independent conservative infrastructure funded by such donations. Since the 1970s, these groups have followed a similar trajectory: ideological entrepreneurs like Viguerie or Howard Phillips of the Conservative Caucus (in the ’70s) or Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks (these days) spy some localized outrage attributable to liberal perfidy on the horizon. They then leverage the outrage for the greater conservative movement. “We organize discontent,” Phillips once explained, by which he meant he turns it into money, movement and political results. These operatives then retroactively label the outcome of their organizing as a “spontaneous” uprising, a story line that gullible reporters eagerly lap up.
I watched the process happen a decade ago during the 2003 California gubernatorial recall campaign. Talking to citizens on the ground, I discovered that their anger centered on two grievances: the possibility that undocumented immigrants might be issued driver’s licenses, and a new car tax. These grievances were then leveraged by hustlers into the successful crusade that overthrew Democratic governor Gray Davis. I interviewed one of those hustlers, Sal Russo, in his luxuriously appointed Sacramento office plastered with portraits of Ronald Reagan. He told me he considers right-wing talk radio hosts his “ward bosses.” Another consultant named Phil Paule explained to me, “We found an opponent with a really weak hand; we just kept raising and raising the stakes.”
In 2009, the weak hand held by Barack Obama was the bank bailout inaugurated by George W. Bush, which Obama was left to administer. The entrepreneurs got to work. As Thomas Frank points out in Pity the Billionaire, most participants at the sparsely populated (but overly covered) early “Tea Party” rallies were either staffers from conservative groups or congressional offices. The grassroots came later, at which point the entrepreneurs raised the stakes by launching congressional campaigns. Russo trademarked the phrase “Tea Party Express” and organized the Senate campaigns of Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware. Americans for Prosperity funneled some $40 million to rallies, phone banks and canvassing for the 2010 campaigns, including for five of the six newly elected Republicans who found their way onto the House Energy and Commerce Committee. And in 2012, AFP piloted charter buses around Wisconsin for “educational” rallies in support of Tea Party Governor Scott Walker. While reporting from there, I collected a flier with the following revealing typo: “We are gathering citizens together from across Michigan…. Join forces with Americans for Prosperity to defend the Wisconsin Way and fight back against the failed policies of Barack Obama.” This year, the strategy to shut down the government was driven by Heritage Action, the political wing of the Heritage Foundation think tank, which has been playing this game since 1973.
The engineers of the shutdown were aided by the final structural component that makes the current conservative push different from right-wing crusades of the past: the aggressive gerrymandering of Congress by conservative state legislatures. To take one infamous example, Pennsylvania has thirteen Republican and only five Democratic members of Congress, even though 52 percent of the state’s voters chose Barack Obama in 2012. That had been the plan all along: as a Texas Republican operative close to Tom DeLay said about their redistricting work following the 2000 Census, “This has a real national impact that should assure that Republicans keep the House no matter the national mood.” It has also meant that Republican seats have become so safe that the remorseless far-right ideological entrepreneurs have been able to run further- and further-right candidates in primaries against establishment Republicans. It’s a win-win strategy: even if their candidates lose, they manage to drive incumbents far to the right to save their seats; and if they win, Tea Party representatives can rest secure in the knowledge that their re-election is safe no matter how recklessly they “govern.”
Presto: after decades of trying, the reactionary tail finally wags the establishment dog. The recklessness of the goals, however, have always been the same.
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