Blaming the Tea Party

It’s easy to blame “the Tea Party” for the ever more insane rightward drift of American politics and policy that is on such ugly display in the current budget and debt ceiling drama in Washington. That’s what the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks did two weeks ago in his reflections on why the Republicans would fail to sign on with the conservative Democratic President Barack Obama’s offer to the G.O.P. of a $4 trillion reduction in the deficit over ten years ? a slashing that would have relied primarily on draconian social spending cut including regressive assaults on Social Security and Medicare.  “If the Republican Party were a normal party,” Brooks argued “it would?seize the opportunity to put a long-term limit on the growth of government. It would seize the opportunity to put the country on a sound fiscal footing.” But “over the past few years,” Brooks argued, the Republican Party “has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.  The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms.” Though he did not say so, the “protest movement” Brooks referenced was “the Tea Party,” formally unveiled in February of 2009.

“Starve the Beast”

It has become standard fare in media commentary to refer to extremism in Washington as being driven by the Tea Party “insurgency,” which is thought to be pulling the more “establishment” and “moderately” oriented Republican Party (and Democrats) to the right, in what represents a veritable “revolution” in American politics. But the Republican Party couldn’t care less about “putting the country on a sound fiscal footing.” The Republican Party’s official goal of “deficit reduction” is cover for its deeper, ideologically driven, and arch-plutocratic agenda. The modern Republicans want nothing less than complete destruction of the last remnants of the liberal state. They are driven not by serious concerns for fiscal health but rather by the desire to wage hard-right ideological warfare, demolish social welfare programs, smash workers’ organizations, concentrate political power, and advance the interests of their big money backers. Observing last week that Obama had actually  been pressing for greater deficit reduction than the Republicans, New York Times correspondent Jackie Calmes noted that the Republicans “dynamic in the debt talks reflects the culmination of a 30-year evolution in Republican thinking, dating to the start of President Ronald Reagan’s administration. The change is from emphasizing balanced budgets ? or at least lower deficits ? to what tax-cutting conservatives have called ‘starve the beast,’ ’that is, cut taxes and force government to shrink.” Calmes forgot to mention that the Republicans only want to shrink what the left sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called the left hand of the state ? the parts of the public sector that serve the social and democratic needs of the non-affluent majority. Under the corporate, imperial and neoliberal wisdom that reigns in both parties, the right hand of the state ? the portions that serve the opulent minority and dole out punishment for the poor at home and abroad ? remains well fed. This is no small part of what former Vice President Dick Cheney’s meant when he said that “deficits don’t matter,” in response to Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill’s warning about the fiscal impact of massive tax cuts for the rich combined with giant increases in military spending.

The Tea Party is the GOP

Brooks is yet further off base when he says that the Republican Party has been taken over by the Tea Party “protest movement.” As Anthony DiMaggio and I show in our new book Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, May 2011), the conventional mainstream description of the Tea Party phenomenon as a popular protest movement is highly misleading. “The Tea Party” is a loose, elite-directed conglomeration of partisan interest groups set on returning the Republican Party to power. Despite protestations to the contrary, it is partisan Republican to the core, its leading activists and main supporters accurately described by one mainstream reporter as “super-Republicans.”  It is not an uprising or protest against the existing political system. Rather, it is a reactionary, top-down manifestation of that system, dressed up and sold as an outsider rebellion set on changing the rules in Washington and across the country. Consistent with the long-term rightward trajectory of the Republican Party and U.S. politics since the 1970s (see below), its basic function, deeply enabled by a corporate media that eagerly spread Tea Party “movement” mythology, was to help the deeply unpopular (because so transparently plutocratic) Republican Party re-brand itself in deceptive grassroots and populist clothing to take political advantage of the widespread economic insecurity imposed by the epic recession of 2008-2009 during the mid-term congressional and state elections of November 2010. As DiMaggio and I show in our aforementioned volume, Matt Taibbi got it right last year: “The Tea Party today is being pitched in the media as this great threat to the Republican Party; in reality, the Tea Party is the GOP.”  Consistent with Taibbi’s observation, recent empirical studies of Congressional voting records find that there are literally no differences in the voting records of “Tea Party Republicans” and “establishment” Republicans when it comes to political-economic issues. Tea Party Republicans’ average ideological scores, as reflected in an analysis of all their past votes, are not substantively different from non-Tea Party Republicans.

The Long Right Tilt

Tea Party “super Republican” positions (which we might half-humorously call “Teapublican” positions) are consistent with the deeper and longer-term rightward drift of the Republican Party and American politics more broadly in the neoliberal era. According to a common narrative in media and academia, the contemporary bipartisan political system is terribly polarized along a left-right continuum, with Democrats moving dramatically to the left and Republicans moving somewhat less dramatically to the right. This is a great illusion. Republican politicians have become far more reactionary than the Democrats have been “liberal” over the last half century and the rightward shift of the Republican Party is the main cause of such polarization as exists. Democratic Party liberalism rose in the 1960s and 1970s ? a reflection largely of the defeat and subsequent exodus of center-right southern Democrats from the party. From the Carter administration onward, however, Democrats have grown increasingly conservative in their embrace of neoliberalism and in their declining support for worker protections and entitlement programs.

Since the 1970s, by contrast, Republicans became nearly twice as conservative, never moving back to the center. This long rightward tilt of both parties is the result of a number of factors, none more significant than the ever-rising significance of big money in U.S. politics and policy at the same time that the U.S. has grown more savagely unequal.

“Cra-a-a-zy Tea Partiers” and Dismal Demobilizing Democrats

It isn’t only or even mainly Republicans like Brooks who like to cite the Tea Party dragon to divert attention from the ever more plutocratic drift of their favorite mainstream business party. Democrats have consistently pointed to the Tea Party specter to rally voters to agree to cower under the umbrella of a lesser evil Democratic Party that has itself moved well to the plutocratic right. “Sure,” the Democrats’ message to their liberal and progressive voting “base” runs: “we may not have lived up to our progressive campaign promises of democratic change, but look at who we have to deal with and who stands to win if we are voted out: the swamp-fed Tea Party monster!”

Times columnist Ross Douthat recently puts his finger on a key point in his reflections on why Obama has consistently “caved” (as “disappointed” liberals say again and again) in the face of Teapublican demands since the significantly Tea Party-fueled Republican triumph in the congressional mid-term elections last November. “The not-so secret secret is that the White House has given ground on purpose,” Douthat noted. “Just as Republicans want to use the debt ceiling to make the president live with bigger spending cuts  than he would otherwise support, Obama’s political team wants to use those cra-a-a-zy Tea Partiers to make Democrats live with bigger cuts than they normally would support.” Douthat thinks the administration wants a “right-leaning deficit deal” in its effort to woo those all-powerful (in a winner-take-all two party elections system with a closely divided electorate) and supposedly ideology-averse Independent voters for the 2012 election, who have been told again and again (falsely) that Obama is a left leaning big government liberal. There may be some truth in that formulation, but the bigger story is that the center-right Obama wants to reward his big money backers and is more than willing to disrespect the nation’s popular majority.

He is willing to alienate much of his liberal base ? even going to the point of screwing with Medicare and Social Security (in by now standard defiance of his campaign pledges) ? in order to serve his elite business class masters. He knows very well that massive and deepening inequality ? which will only be furthered by the regressive budget/debt ‘deal’ that party elites end up carving out before the ceiling date (August 2nd) hits ? has shifted U.S. politics and policy well to the capitalist right of public opinion in the U.S.
Of course, “those cra-a-a-zy” Teapublicans owe no small part of their current powerful position in Washington to the Democratic Party’s savage demobilization of its own progressive base as it acted in accord with its own longstanding identity as “history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party.”

The left-liberal political scientist Sheldon Wolin easily foretold this pathetic Democratic performance in his chilling 2008 book, Democracy Incorporated: “The timidity of a Democratic Party mesmerized by centrist precepts points to the crucial fact that, for the poor, minorities, the working-class, anticorporatists, pro-environmentalists, and anti-imperialists, there is no opposition party working actively on their behalf.”

For what it’s worth (not much under America’s corporate-managed fake-democracy), most Americans believe that job creation should be a bigger government priority than deficit reduction, that social protections should be expanded (not contracted), that the rich are under-taxed, that wealth inequality and poverty are the  nation’s leading moral issues, that big business and the wealthy exercise far too much influence over government, that government dollars should be significantly transferred from military to social programs, that Social Security and Medicare benefits should be protected and expanded, and that public sector workers deserve and require full  collective bargaining rights ? the very rights that have come under attack in numerous Republican-controlled state legislatures this year. A recent Washington Post/ABC News survey found that 78 percent of Americans are opposed to cuts in Medicare, while 72 percent favor taxing the rich.

But none of this seems to matter much in the U.S., where, as the American philosopher John Dewey noted more than a century ago, “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” Welcome to America’s gaping “democratic deficit,” a significantly greater problem than the nation’s much bemoaned financial deficit. Politicians and pundits allied with both wings of the American one-and-a-half party system can blame the poorly understood Tea Party “movement” all they want but the real and deeper culprits are that narrow system and the unelected dictatorship of money it serves and protects. A recent reminder of that power comes from the increasingly militant demands of Standards & Poor and Moody’s, who now officially want roughly $4 trillion in cuts over ten years in order for the U.S. government to maintain its longstanding AAA rating. That’s a nice little demand from those who represent the deeper root of the madness behind the scenes in Washington and numerous state capitals across the country.

Paul Street is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004) and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010.

Anthony DiMaggio is the co-author with Paul Street of the newly released Crashing the Tea Party (Paradigm Publishers, 2011). He is also the author of When Media Goes to War (2010) and Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008).   He has taught U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University, and can be reached at:


Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.