Years of American politics don’t usually boil down to one story, but to a large extent 2011 does. The main character is the Tea Party and the story is a tragedy.
Like any populist movement that catches on, the Tea Party started out embodying some simple and compelling ideas:
- When the government plans to go another $1 trillion in debt every year, as far as the eye can see, something is seriously wrong.
- The will of the people doesn’t seem to make much difference any more.
- On many issues, the two parties don’t offer much of a choice.
What really brought these points home was TARP. It was proposed by a Republican administration in the middle of an election campaign. Polls said it was unpopular, but it passed anyway. Then after the Democrats had a landslide victory, the new administration carried out TARP as if the people had said nothing at all.
If those initial ideas had been all the Tea Party was about, they might have sparked a long-needed public conversation about what the government does and the way governance happens. We could have talked about
- the cost of an aggressive foreign policy and the wars it gets us into,
- what kind of safety net we want or can reasonably expect,
- what a fair tax structure looks like,
- how big a role should government take in trying to manage the business cycle,
- what dangers we need the government to protect us from and what we can handle ourselves,
- how to reduce the influence of special-interest money,
and many other subjects. My answers would probably have comflicted with many Tea Partiers’ answers, but at least they are the right questions.
For a variety of reasons, that conversation never happened. Nonetheless, the Tea Party dominated the elections of 2010 and entered 2011 triumphant. It had provided the energy for a stunning Republican comeback that retook the House, significantly cut down the Democrats’ advantage in the Senate, and took complete control of many state governments. Tea Partiers looked to be in a position to dictate the 2012 Republican nominee.
And then things started to go wrong.
In any tragedy the hero has a flaw, some collection of character traits that were visible even in his triumph, but which eventually bring him down. From the beginning, the Tea Party had a number of tragic flaws.
- Anti-intellectualism. The Tea Party drew the wrong conclusion from TARP, blaming economists and bureaucrats more than bankers. In general, the Tea Party became suspicious of expertise, not of power. What developed was not a set of policies, but a few slogans like “stop the spending” and a belief that we just need to elect good people willing to “stand up for common sense solutions“. In 2011, Herman Cain could appeal to Tea Partiers by claiming not to know things like “the president of Uz-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan.”
- Hidden motives. Simplistic slogans can mask unsavory agendas. And so a legitimate desire to see institutional power return to the people got conflated with the belief that white, English-speaking, fundamentalist Christians built this country and need to take it back. So although the Tea Party pitched itself as nonpartisan and not concerned with social issues, in practice “good people with common sense” came to mean right-wing Republican Christians.
- A Faustian bargain. The “nonpartisan” Tea Party got much of its leadership training from FreedomWorks (run by Republican lobbyist Dick Armey), much of its funding from billionaires like the Koch brothers and their associated organizations, and much of its publicity from Fox News. (A Breitbart attempt to “debunk” these claims actually ends up supporting it if you read all the way through.) The danger of being co-opted by corporatists and billionaires was there from the beginning.
As a result, the Republicans who took power in January, 2011 had little in the way of a public agenda. In Congress, that mostly meant opposing whatever Obama wanted to do. But in the states, new governors like Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio had enough support in the legislature to do more-or-less whatever they wanted.
On Day 1, the governors started implementing a detailed and aggressive agenda that hadn’t been part of their campaigns — the same agenda in one state after another: break the public employee unions, make it harder to vote and harder to sue corporations, cut funds for education and medical care, privatize public schools, cut taxes for the wealthy and for corporations, and slash any regulations that protect workers or the environment.
This agenda did not bubble up from the people; it came from the American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC) — a group funded and controlled by corporations, in which corporate lobbyists and conservative legislators work together to write model bills that serve corporate needs.
That agenda proved to be wildly unpopular, and energized a liberal populist backlash. In Wisconsin, two Republican senators were recalled and Governor Walker will face a recall election later this year. In Ohio, Kasich’s S.B. 5 was repealed by a wide margin in a November referendum. In states that did not allow such direct voter action, the governors’ approval ratings have plumented. (Friday Rachel Maddow reviewed how this played out during 2011.)
In addition, both in the states and in Washington, the right-wing Christians that the Tea Party had elected on economic issues turned out a series of new laws restricting abortion. (Maddow has kept track of this in her series on Really, Really Big Government.)
In Congress, the new Tea Party Republicans have identified little in the way of wasteful spending (such spending cuts as they have gotten are of the across-the-board variety), but instead have gone after the EPA and Planned Parenthood. They have carried water for Wall Street by watering down the Dodd-Frank bill (which they now want to repeal entirely, returning to the pre-crisis status quo) and for the oil companies by pushing the Keystone XL pipeline. They have opposed cutting the deficit by raising taxes on incomes over $1 million a year, even risking a tax increase on working people in order to protect the rich.
In short, a movement that billed itself as returning power to ordinary people instead has implemented a pro-corporate, pro-billionaire agenda. Vague slogans co-opted well meaning Americans at the grass roots into working to benefit the 1%. (I urged them to reconsider this summer by comparing them to football players who run the wrong way.)
By the end of 2011, the Occupy movement had seized the anti-Wall-Street pro-ordinary-people energy that used to power the Tea Party, exposing the Tea Party as a stalwart defender of the 1%. The Republican establishment is pulling its hair out over the extreme positions presidential candidates are taking to woo Tea Partiers. And in the House they’ve been embarrassed into retreating on the payroll tax bill.
In any general election, the Tea Party has become poison. By fall, no one — literally no one — will claim to be a Tea Party candidate.
How the mighty have fallen.