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Return of the Tea Party?
Two years ago, optimists had something to be optimistic about. Today there is nothing: the Occupy movements have gone dormant, and the historic struggles that preceded them — the massive and prolonged demonstrations in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and other states in support of unionized public workers – are finished. Nothing remotely comparable has taken their place.
Political elites from the White House down found it expeditious to wait the Occupy movements out and then, when conditions were right, to clear them out altogether.
Meanwhile, the malign neglect of the national Democratic Party and the Obama Administration helped quash those broadly popular efforts to fight back against the union-busting machinations of Republican Governors.
Because these expressions of popular resistance were attuned to circumstances that have subsequently evolved, they will not come back – at least not in the form they assumed in 2011.
The reelection of Barack Obama in 2012 doesn’t help either. Counter-factual history is a risky business, but it is fair to speculate that functional equivalents of those spontaneous eruptions of indignation and discontent would have emerged by now had Obama lost.
No doubt, he genuinely was the lesser evil in many, consequential respects; the bar was that low. But his victory was worse for the Left, and therefore for the reemergence of reasons for “hope” and “change.”
This is why it is far from clear that, all things considered, it was a good thing that he won.
Throughout his first term, Obama did more or less what George Bush would have done, were he still “the decider.” The difference was that he did it without Bush’s dumb bravado and monumental ignorance. Another difference is that he did it with liberals cutting him endless slack.
He and his coterie were less embarrassing than their predecessors were, and less enthusiastic about doing the wrong thing. But the differences were more cosmetic than substantive. The fundamental politics was the same.
This is why being a lesser evil isn’t all that it is cracked up to be.
Since Obama was unwilling or unable to strike out boldly in new directions, neither he nor his appointees were in any position to affect public policies for the better except around the margins.
Indeed, in crucial respects, the political scene has deteriorated markedly since Obama took office. The reason why, in short, is that he, along with other leading Democrats, let Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats set the agenda and call the shots.
Republicans lost the 2008 election, but they effectively took power anyway, not because they outmaneuvered Democrats but because they had a highly motivated base behind them, dragging the entire scene to the right.
Within weeks of Obama’s inauguration, that base gave itself a name. They called themselves the Tea Party, a reference to the Boston Tea Party of 1773.
It was an odd choice. Evidently, Tea Partiers are oblivious to the historical context of the “patriotic” event they identify with, and therefore to the anti-imperialist implications of the name they chose.
However that may be, for a while it seemed that there was no stopping the Tea Party.
And then they were gone. Indeed, just a few weeks ago, the Tea Party seemed as defunct as Occupy Wall Street.
It peaked in the 2010 election, and it was all down hill from there. Finally, the Romney campaign and then the Obama victory in 2012 did them in.
But times change. Media chatter now has it is they are on their way back. It is an unlikely prospect. But should the plutocrats who funded them come back on board, it could happen.
If it does, it will show that in America today it doesn’t take much to stir up the nest. All that is needed is to get them to focus on what they most despise: the federal income tax, and that other bugbear of America’s far right, government “bureaucrats.”
This is why the Internal Revenue Service, the IRS, the government agency that collects federal taxes, is a perfect target.
If, in the process, the Obama Administration can be tarnished by scandal, so much the better; right-wingers hate all things Obama even more than they hate the IRS.
And so, the proximate cause of the Tea Party revival that now threatens is a scandal involving the Obama
Administration – or rather that is how the right-wing propaganda mill is spinning the tale. The “liberal” media sees it that way too.
No matter that all that happened was that some overworked, mid-level bureaucrats in the IRS’s understaffed Cincinnati office did their best to do what they are supposed to do as efficiently as they could.
In particular, they “targeted” applications for tax exempt status from groups with Tea Party or Patriot (Tea Party) names and mission statements that might as well have been written by Michele Bachmann’s ghost writers or Rick Santorum’s.
How could that not prompt bipartisan outrage!
Republicans are up in arms. No surprise there. No surprise either that Barack Obama is appalled or that leading Democrats are shocked, shocked.
The purported scandal is not that the Tea Party groups didn’t get what they wanted. Nor is it that they were subjected to burdensome and costly audits or to the usual harassments the IRS visits on the government’s usual enemies.
The problem was just that their applications for tax exemptions under laws that give cultural or “social welfare” organizations, including those with a political bent, a free ride, were targeted for more than cursory scrutiny.
By law, groups are eligible for tax exemptions so long as their primary purpose is not political. “Political,” it seems, is understood narrowly to refer just to partisan electoral politics, and “primary” means more than fifty percent.
Well, duh. Does anyone seriously doubt that the Tea Party is “primarily” about getting gun toting, God fearing Republican whack jobs elected?
For that matter, does anyone believe that the Tea Party has anything to do with culture or social welfare, or that their purpose is educational?
Combining words like “cultural” or “educational” with “Tea Party” is oxymoronic, and calling the Tea Party a social welfare organization is absurd. But let that pass. Anyone familiar with the political scene in the United States is accustomed to even more glaring absurdities than these.
Nevertheless, it must be conceded that the Tea Partiers have a point. There is, after all, ample precedent for letting almost anything slip through the filter.
Even so, letting Tea Party groups through might just strike some self-respecting bureaucrat, one who aspires to being more than a rubber stamp, as a step too far.
If there was indeed any special targeting, this is the most plausible explanation for why it occurred.
An explanation that appeals instead to partisan politics is extremely implausible, if only because the idea that Obama or anyone associated with him would go after domestic political enemies, Nixon-style, is as bizarre as claims that Tea Party groups serve loftier purposes than helping the rich get richer while pandering to the obsessions of retrograde, anxiety-ridden geezers.
More even than the proverbial liberal of Robert Frost’s quip, Obama is constitutionally incapable of taking his own side in an argument. He is the quintessential Bipartisan Man. No matter how shamelessly Republicans provoke him, his “reasonableness” is unshakeable.
To be sure, there is a disturbingly schizophrenic aspect to Obama’s determination to get along no matter what.
Let any of the empire’s victims in the Middle East or Africa or anywhere else outside the sainted West resist American predations and Obama will be there with his drones and assassins in the blink of an eye.
But discommode a Republican? That would be unthinkable.
Indeed, his reflexive bipartisanship is what got us the Tea Party in the first place. When Obama took office, he established two points from Day One: that all his talk of “hope” and “change” was just that, talk; and that, no matter how much power he wields, he has feet of clay.
To future Tea Partiers, his weakness was palpable, and its consequences were just what one would expect. He might as well have thrown chunks of raw meat to a wolf pack and presented himself for a mauling.
Congressional Republicans share the instincts of their most ardent supporters, and they are a vindictive and mean spirited lot. Appeals to the public interest or to accepted political norms mean nothing to them. In their minds, doing Obama in is not just the main thing; it is, as winning was for Vince Lombardi, the only thing.
All that mattered to them, therefore, as Obama took office in 2009, was that the Democratic Party would receive a “shellacking” in the next year’s midterm elections, and that a Republican would regain the presidency in 2012.
This was a deplorable scheme on many levels, but it was not a far-fetched strategy.
With a hard-core reactionary base behind them, and with racist attitudes still in play, Republicans would indeed have had a decent chance of retaking power, even had Obama been a more formidable opponent.
And so they went after him with a single-mindedness that was unprecedented in modern times.
That might not have been a bad thing, had the Party of No not abandoned obstructionism at the water’s edge.
But the modern Republican Party has a reputation for bellicosity that serves it well. It was not about to give that up.
This is why, despite Obama’s efforts to win over the pillars of the military-industrial-national security state complex, the GOP is still, for the most part, their party of choice.
Republicans know too that their base is so inherently jingoistic that most of them will support even the hated Obama when he spreads murder and mayhem abroad.
Republicans therefore could not squarely oppose Obama’s continuations of the wars the Bush-Cheney Administration launched, or his violations of civil liberties and transgressions of the rule of law. All they could do is fault him, implausibly, for not going far enough.
John McCain’s pathetic grumbling, and Lindsey Graham’s, over Obama’s reluctance to get America bogged down in yet more Middle Eastern wars – in Iran and now in Syria — are examples of what has been the Republican position all along.
For much the same reason, Republicans could hardly object to the clueless diplomacy of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy elite. Inasmuch as they hate Hillary Clinton too, again for all the wrong reasons, this must have been especially galling throughout the entirety of Obama’s first term.
Being the more neo-con of the two parties, Republicans are well equipped to outdo the Administration’s outrageousness overseas – especially now that they are out of power and all they can do is talk. Talk is cheap. Even so, they are finding that when it comes to war making and trashing the Bill of Rights, Obama is not easily outdone.
But when Republican leaders see no percentage in cooperating with the President, the Party of No comes into its own. At crucial moments in recent years, their dedication to obduracy was so severe that it became difficult even to keep a functional government operating.
The so-called sequester, now in effect and likely to remain so for a while, is emblematic of this state of affairs.
The consequences can be too much even for Republican plutocrats. No matter how “libertarian” they think they are, they too benefit from and therefore appreciate a functioning government.
This is why, as the Tea Party sputtered out of control during the primary season last year, the grandees got their minions to stand down. Mitt Romney was one of their own and he seemed to be the only adult in the room. They therefore did all they could to make him the nominee.
They succeeded, of course. But it was touch and go. The plutocrats kept the lunatics from taking over the asylum, but they lost the election in the process.
That experience gave even the most nefarious of them cause for concern. This was probably why the money boys backed off a little. As their level of support subsided, the Tea Party’s fortunes waned correspondingly.
For the plutocrats, it came down to getting the most bang for the buck.
Even before the five most reactionary of the nine Supreme Court Justices decided the Citizens’ United case in 2010, there were plenty of capitalists funding causes Tea Party groups would later champion.
But when Citizens’ United enshrined the idea that corporations are persons, and that political corruption is Constitutionally protected free speech, there was no holding back their efforts to buy the outcomes they wanted.
To that end, for a while at least, getting Tea Partiers riled up seemed like a good move.
How much of the Tea Party, then, was genuinely “grass roots” and how much “astroturf”? For now, we can only speculate.
It is a vexing question because it is not a matter of either/or. However it is fair to say, even without the benefit of hindsight, that without substantial plutocratic backing, the ressentiment-ridden souls who made the Tea Party consequential would have continued to act out their desperation in politically inconsequential ways.
But that isn’t what happened. Instead, money flowed in and Tea Party organizations sprang forth.
It was not unreasonable for those organizations to apply for tax exemptions; they are promiscuously conferred.
Nevertheless, it was also reasonable that their applications were scrutinized with special care.
Lately, The New York Times and other sources have reported that some of the organizations that applied for tax exemptions were blatantly political in the relevant sense. They made little effort to conceal the fact.
Reports have surfaced, for example, of applicant groups that admitted to spending a substantial portion of their reported income for radio ads backing Republican candidates or for training individuals to work in get-out-the-vote campaigns dedicated to defeating Obama and other Democrats.
If these groups meet the standard for tax exemptions under provision 501(c)4 of the tax code, then just about anything this side of the Republican or Democratic National Committees would.
Qualifying for 501(c)4 status is a bipartisan obsession, in part because it enables contributors to deduct contributions from their income taxes – a powerful incentive for all kinds of “philanthropic” endeavors.
For the Right, it is especially appealing not just because tax aversion is a rampant character trait in the Tea Party demographic, but also because, in conjunction with the Citizens’ United ruling, it shields donors, corporations especially, from acknowledging where their monies go.
That makes business sense. Since many people, a majority one hopes, find Tea Party causes repugnant, being identified with them can be a liability. Winning 501(c)4 status enables corporate “persons” to corrupt the political process to their heart’s content without the public knowing about it and holding them to account.
But the 2012 election proved that Tea Party support is not enough to win national elections, even with all limits on campaign spending (candidate buying) removed. It proved, in other words, that, by 2012, the Tea Party had become a bad investment.
Is it different now? That seems unlikely.
If the rich were also smart, they’d let Obama be their man. He may not be the one they love, but he is surely the one they need. He has already proven, many times over, that he can do what no Republican can: keep the Left down.
Enlightened plutocrats should realize that that benefits them more than the extra booty a Republican president might help them squeeze out of the ninety-nine percent.
But enlightened self-interest may be too much to expect from Tea Party paymasters. And we should remember that in the world of the super-rich greed often trumps good sense.
This is why it is not impossible, only unlikely, that the fuss now being made over the IRS’s “improper” (actually, very proper) targeting of Tea Party groups will be enough to get the Tea Party going again.
We will know soon enough. If it doesn’t happen in time for the 2014-midterm elections, there would be no point.
In any case, it hardly matters – not if the idea is to build something to be optimistic about again.
The Tea Party is only the most ridiculous component of the bipartisan political consensus that made the Occupy movements and the struggles to retain collective bargaining necessary.
Is it the most deleterious component? No doubt, it sometimes is; it was in 2010, for example. It depends on circumstances.
But whether it is or not also hardly matters — because the problem is the consensus itself. It is leading the country and the world to ruin. We can’t rid ourselves of it fast enough.
Although large numbers of people have yet to take consciousness of the idea, it has become as clear as can be, over the past five years, that getting sidetracked by efforts to keep the worst of the worst at bay are not the way to bring this about.
How much better it would have been had all the effort that went into defeating greater evils gone instead into building real alternatives to the bipartisan consensus that has hijacked our democracy and turned the country over to banksters, moguls, and merchants of death.
Whether or not the Tea Party rises again, we must not repeat that mistake.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).