Tea Party Smarts

Last year, Jeffrey Toobin, The New Yorker’s legal affairs writer, famously called Edward Snowden “a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison.”  This is far from the only reason not to take Toobin seriously.

Sometimes, though, he does have a point: for instance, when he argues, as he did in The New Yorker’s June 30 edition, that Texas Senator Ted Cruz should not be underestimated.

Ted Cruz?  Really?  Even John McCain called him a “wacko bird.”  This from the man who offered the Vice Presidential nomination to Sarah Palin!  If McCain knows anything, it’s his wacko birds.

Paradoxically, Toobin’s case appeals to the prejudices of the “liberal elites” Cruz derides.   It comes down to this: that but for an aberration in the light of reason, brought on by childhood indoctrination, he could have become a high-flying liberal – a Cuban-American Barack Obama.  He had the right stuff.

Cruz is a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law.  Had he been a little older, he might have run into Michelle Robinson (later, Obama) on both campuses.  In college he was a champion debater; in Law School he graduated magna cum laude.

He clerked for a federal Appellate Judge and later for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (William Rehnquist); he is well-connected in elite legal circles, not just conservative ones; he taught at the University of Texas Law School, much as Obama taught at the University of Chicago; and, though still very young, he has had a successful career arguing cases before various state and federal appellate courts and before the United States Supreme Court.

And did I mention that his wife is a Goldman-Sachs Vice President?

Liberals can’t just dismiss a man like that out of hand.  The cream rises to the top, after all; even if, in this instance, the cream looks more like scum.

Scum is what Cruz peddles – to such an extent that even John McCain can’t abide him.  He is the GOP establishment’s worst nightmare, the consummate Tea Party politician.    No one in Washington is more Tea Partyish than he.

Tea Partiers love him, and the Republican leadership fears him.  But, to the rest of the world, the man is a joke.

This is why New Yorker readers wouldn’t be expected to take him seriously, and why Toobin thinks it important to set them straight.  He wants them to understand that they have reason to fear him too.

The gist of his argument comes down to this: Cruz did well in schools right thinking liberals would kill to get their children into.  Therefore, he can’t be as much of a dunce as he seems.

Despite the messenger, it is hard to disagree with the message.   Cruz really is a walking joke; and since he is also smart, he could become a clear and present danger – a George W. Bush with brains and without a “compassionate conservative” bone in his body.

That joke of a man could make the Tea Party a joke to be reckoned with.

If that happens, it isn’t only right-thinking liberals who should take heed.  Everybody should.  He could catapult the Tea Party into the White House.

But what exactly would that mean?  Nobody really knows because the Tea Party only exists in the minds of those who identify with it or who vilify it from outside.

Despite its name, it is not really a party.   It is not even an organized faction.  At most, it is a way of being a Republican; an uneasy way.

Tea Party politicians run in Republican primaries, never in Democratic ones; and when they win, they caucus with Republicans, not Democrats.  But it is a marriage of necessity.  It is the Tea Party’s way of fitting into America’s duopoly party structure.

Thanks to the decades long rightward drift of our politics – a process that has proceeded apace in the Age of Obama — there is not much light, at the policy level, between Tea Partiers and mainstream Republicans.  Neither is there much light between mainstream Republicans and Democrats.

It is only at an ideological level that differences become apparent.  In practice, though, this hardly matters.   To the extent that our politics is ideologically driven, it is Tea Party ideology, such as it is, that sets the agenda – for Democrats and Republicans alike.

It is therefore remarkable that our political scene is as polarized as it has become.  Principled political disagreements do not explain the phenomenon.  The reasons are more psychological and sociological than political.

Irrational feelings of hostility on the part of persons who unjustifiably feel aggrieved, Nietzsche’s name for this was ressentiment, and anxieties arising out of social dislocation in a world where white-Anglo supremacy seems threatened and where gender norms are in flux, give rise to intensely felt animosities.

The Tea Party demographic is particularly afflicted.

Their peculiar animosities energize the Tea Party, but they don’t define it.  The Tea Party defines itself – through a process of self-identification.

In Congress, there is a Tea Party caucus that Republican legislators join if they wish.  Throughout the country, there are grass roots and astro turf organizations that similarly self-identify.  And there are unaffiliated individuals.

They don’t exactly share a common ideology; that would require a degree of thoughtfulness that Tea Party anti-intellectualism excludes.  But there are identifiable ideological motifs around which self-identified Tea Partiers gravitate.

The dominant inflection is libertarian.  But Tea Party libertarianism is more visceral than philosophical.  Tea Partiers talk an earful about freedom, but what they really want is freedom from government interference in areas that matter to them.

Gun ownership matters to them; many of them evidently feel that their identity is somehow bound up with guns.  They also care about freedom from government regulations that impede the ability of the rich to enrich themselves further.

On the other hand, they care very little about the public good, and even less about equality.  Neither do they care about well-established scientific findings that conflict with their fervently held, unjustified, false beliefs.

Thus many, maybe most, Tea Partiers do not believe that human beings are the principal cause of global warming, notwithstanding overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Since they run for office in general elections, and since they understand that outright denial is too preposterous for public consumption, Tea Party leaders often claim only that the evidence is inconclusive – intimating that science-based government programs are ploys that “liberal elites” use to keep true Americans down.

Tea Party libertarianism is so ungrounded that it is easy for reactionaries with deep pockets to turn Tea Partiers into “useful idiots.”

Authentic, principled libertarians defend what the philosopher Robert Nozick called “capitalist acts between consenting adults.”  Tea Party libertarians are not much interested in that: their political consciousness is so warped that they care more about the well being of capitalists themselves.

The richer they are, the more Tea Partiers look out for their pecuniary interests — notwithstanding the cultural contradictions that keep plutocrats and rank-and-file Tea Partiers socially apart.   “False consciousness” is rife in Tea Party circles.

The arbitrary and selective nature of Tea Party libertarianism is nowhere more evident than when Tea Partiers inveigh against “Big Government.”

It isn’t all arbitrary because there are a few genuine libertarians within the Tea Party fold who are consistent enough not to be on board with America’s overseas predations – on the grounds that states given over to war and preparations for war inevitably interfere with the workings of beneficent market mechanisms.

This is hardly an anti-imperialist reason, but the conclusion they draw from it has much the same effect.  In this, they are nearly alone among politicians at the national level.  These Tea Partiers put the neocons and liberal interventionists of both major parties to shame.

However, most Tea Partiers are fine with imperialism, and with a big military and an ever-expanding national security state.  They only take umbrage when they feel that their privacy rights or their economic machinations or their obsessions (for example, with guns) are in jeopardy.

Their view of gun rights is particularly revealing. They fetishize the Second Amendment — or rather the bizarre, absolutist interpretation of it advanced by right-wing jurists – that leads them to conclude that laws regulating gun ownership are abominations unto Heaven.

But their faith in Constitutional inerrancy and in the sanctity of the original meaning of the Constitution’s words — as if that were something that can actually be ascertained except in trivial cases — falters when it comes to such Constitutionally mandated matters as, say, requiring a declaration of war before taking military action or, for that matter, keeping the postal system afloat.

Tea Partiers are also averse to state programs that advance the well being of the least well off, especially when they are not white.   In this respect, the Tea Party is like many other right-wing political movements throughout the world.  It has a xenophobic, nationalistic and, more or less explicitly, racist tinge.

This is why government programs that ameliorate the hardships undocumented immigrants and racial minorities face draw their special ire.  And because they think, incorrectly, that they mainly benefit persons of color, they target welfare state programs too and even labor unions.

When pressed, they will say that institutions concocted to make less well-off people better off are counter-productive; that instead of improving the lot of their intended beneficiaries, they make their situation worse.  Toobin quotes Cruz making precisely this claim.  In the end, though, it comes down to this: most Tea Partiers really really don’t like people who are different from them.

This attitude is not inherently anti-libertarian.  But neither is it libertarian in spirit.  Public policies that give expression to Tea Party animosities can – and often do — defy the demands of economic rationality.

Most Tea Partiers probably do believe that well-intended state interventions that contravene “market logic” typically backfire.  But this is not why they want, for example, to militarize the Mexican border. The reason for that is obvious: they want to keep Mexicans and Central Americans out.

Tea Partiers call themselves “conservative,” and liberals generally agree.  The conventional wisdom has it that there is no force more conservative in American politics.

But “free market” libertarianism and conservatism pull in different directions: the one promotes unrelenting change; the other favors stability and order.

Moreover, genuine conservatisms have a hierarchical flavor.  In the conservative vision, underlings are deferential to their superiors, and persons at the top exercise a kind of natural authority.     

Libertarianism, on the other hand, assumes a social order in which nearly everything is for sale and in which everyone has or ought to have an equal right to engage in market transactions.  Deference and noblesse oblige are out; property rights in everything that can be privatized, along with exchange relations governed by contract or functionally equivalent norms, are in.

The Tea Party also has a theocratic streak.  It is not clear how well it coheres with Tea Party libertarianism or with the ressentiments Tea Party rank-and-filers evince, but, at least superficially, it does connect with conservative theory and practice to a degree that the Tea Party’s other ideological motifs do not.

Even this connection is attenuated, however, because Tea Party religiosity derives mainly from radically individualistic religious movements.  Max Weber famously argued that aspects of Protestant theology gave rise, centuries ago, to “the spirit of capitalism” — and therefore aided in the flourishing of the most destabilizing social and economic order in the history of the world.  The Pentecostal and non-mainstream Protestant faiths of many Tea Partiers have a similar cast.

In Europe and Latin America, and wherever else the Roman Catholic Church or High Church equivalents in other denominations succeeded in implanting themselves, religion became a major force for social order.  This is why conservatives traditionally uphold  their institutional structures and styles of religious expression.

And it is why the Church (whatever church it may be), along with the patriarchal family and the authoritarian state, has served as a bulwark against the untrammeled – and potentially devastating – free expression of human nature.

In modern times, these same institutions also help counter the socially destabilizing consequences of the capitalist mode of production and the form of civilization it sustains.

To be sure, there are plenty of right-wing Catholics in the Tea Party, but, in the main, Tea Party enthusiasms are low Church — hardly subversive, but not particularly stabilizing either.

Therefore, even in this respect, there is hardly anything conservative about the Tea Party.   If Tea Partiers call themselves “conservatives,” it may just be because they haven’t a clue what conservatism is or what their own political convictions are about.

Surely, this must have dawned on Ted Cruz of Princeton and Harvard Law.

This is why it is tempting to say that he doesn’t really believe what he preaches, and that he is opportunistically tapping into the base sentiments of benighted voters – in order to advance his own political career.

But if there is evidence of this, there is no sign of it is so far in the public domain; certainly, Toobin offered none.

It is likely, therefore, that Cruz is what he claims to be – a true believer.  This wouldn’t be the first time that a clever mind undertook in all sincerity to defend ludicrous positions.  The history of theology offers countless examples.

But we should not abandon the opportunism hypothesis just yet.

It wasn’t hard for plutocrats to realize what the Tea Party could do for them.  Why wouldn’t careerist politicians draw similar conclusions?

Maybe a lot of them do.  There is Michele Bachmann, of course, and plenty more where she came from; but they can’t all be as dumb as the politics they promote.  If there is a percentage in seeming idiotic, count on schemers to figure out how to make the most of it.

Very little is known, for example, about David Brat, the economics professor at Randolph-Macon College who defeated Eric Cantor, one of the most powerful – and noxious – pillars of the Republican establishment.

Cantor’s defeat got a lot of media attention; Brat himself got hardly any at all.  But, from what is known, there is reason to think that he might indeed be cut from the same cloth as Cruz.

He has a theology degree from the Princeton Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in economics from American University.  Getting to the Tea Party from these places is as unlikely as by Cruz’s route.

The former is a stronghold of the (theologically and politically liberal) Presbyterian Church, the largest Protestant denomination so far to divest from corporations involved in the Israeli occupation of Palestine.  The AU economics department is among the most left leaning in the United States.

One would think that, like Cruz, he would know better than to follow the path of least enlightenment.  Maybe he does.

Brat is too much an unknown quantity to say where he stands compared to Cruz.  However, he could hardly be more rightwing because there is no room to Cruz’s right.  It may be relevant too that, in addition to campaigning against immigration, he also took aim at Wall Street and at Washington’s fondness for crony capitalism.

But this hardly matters inasmuch as the two of them seem to be brothers under the skin — two smarties, at least by prevailing Congressional standards, who uphold positions that no one with any smarts at all would ever seriously consider.

It would be surprising if there aren’t more like them under the broad Tea Party tent.

But even if they are the only ones, and even if they are not rank dissimulatorsin other words, if they honestly believe what they say they believe — Toobin is right, though for the wrong reason – they should not be underestimated.

There is nothing smart about the positions they favor.  And it hardly matters how clever they are or how good they were at school.  They are smart in a different way.  They know how to prevail, even when they lose; they know how to get their way.

Anyone paying attention to how Republicans, not just Tea Partiers, have been operating since Barack Obama took office – or to how they operated, less blatantly, when Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were in their crosshairs – would see that there is a method to their madness.

They have been acting on the maxim that unflinching obduracy works.

This is awful for governance — except in matters pertaining to the military and the national security state, Republicans have made the American government dysfunctional.  Their obduracy doesn’t even help them win elections — except in jurisdictions where there is a preponderance of retrograde voters.

Obduracy therefore still works in Texas; that will only change when that state’s Hispanics assert themselves more effectively.   And, thanks to gerrymandering, it works in Virginia’s seventh Congressional district.  In more “normal” cases, it doesn’t work at all; it is a losing strategy.

Except for one thing: for affecting policy – in other words, for what politics is ultimately about.   For that, there is nothing better – not in a world where Democrats fear Republicans, Republicans fear their base, and the President remains pathologically aloof.

The Tea Party gets its way, whether or not Tea Partiers win elections, because it controls the agenda; and it controls the agenda because, in America today, implacable obstinacy works.  The more obdurate one is, the more powerful.

Republicans figured this out long before Ted Cruz or David Brat.  The Tea Party only perfected the strategy.

But because they brought obduracy to a level that is almost sublime, it is fitting to name the strategy after them.  Lets therefore call it Tea Party smarts; it’s about knowing how and when to concede nothing, come what may.

Ted Cruz exemplifies this cast of mind, and it has brought him far.  This is what caught Toobin’s attention, and what he set out to explore and to warn liberals about.

His article would have been more enlightening had he focused more on how inept Cruz is at implementing the strategy he epitomizes; how he tends to overplay his hand.

The 2013 government shutdown that Cruz engineered to defund Obamacare is a case in point.  It backfired.  This is what earned its author the “wacko bird” epithet.

Cruz outsmarted himself then.  But, to this day, he will not concede the point.  He remains too obdurate for that — or too much the well-launched, self-assured Ivy League lawyer.

In the end, though, Cruz hardly matters, notwithstanding Toobin’s warning.

What matters is that Tea Partyers, energized by their animosities and guided by vague but debilitating ideological commitments, have figured out how to stop opponents in their tracks and, more important, how to set the political agenda.  With or without Cruz and his ilk, they have the smarts to do that.

This is what is truly worrisome; and what we underestimate at our peril.

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).

ANDREW LEVINE is 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).