The Genius – Yes Genius – of the Tea Party

[Cross-posted at]

As we all know, it’s Primary Day today, finally marking the end of what has seemed like the most interminable primary season of all times. This means that after today, the news will shift from the "Democrats are going to lose big in November" storyline that’s been coming up at least once a day, to amplifying itself and playing around the clock until the inevitability is ingrained in our heads. Fantastic. But for right now, I’m breathing in and enjoying this moment of watching the GOP scramble after shooting themselves in the foot by trying to placate Tea Partiers.

Even though the media narrative has been for some time now that Republicans are posed for potential takeovers in November, I’ve been wondering whether that was accurate. Here’s the problem – in order to court the votes of people that put on three-cornered hats and wave signs equating taxes to slavery, the GOP has had to swing even more right, just after moderates had been mostly purged from the party. But the Tea Partiers weren’t even happy then, mostly because they at least recognize that the GOP suddenly paying them lip service had in fact been in office when the deficit started ballooning. So they ran their own candidates in some states, started getting some attention, and in some cases started knocking out establishment candidates to win Republican nominations.

The downside of this, of course, is that many of these candidates aren’t the closet wingnuts that have come to make up today’s GOP, but are straight-up, loud and proud wingnuts. The end-of-days fundamentalists who think raped women should be forced to carry the child of their rapists meet those who clearly miss the 1950s and are happy to finally direct their anti-Commie, anti-Fascist sentiments somewhere, even if it’s toward a thoroughly moderate president, mixed with those who don’t like African Americans that much, or gays, or women, or anyone who isn’t a white man, mixed with those who are such small-government purists that they would abolish the federal government and go back to frontier living with guns just to avoid paying taxes. It’s a crockpot of disparate far-rightwing attitudes that have been cooking on low heat for a while now, until the Tea Party that was ostensibly about deficits and government spending and "taking our country back" because an amorphous mass of culture war frenzy. So some of the winning candidates – from bizarreness of Sharron Angle in Nevada, to the embarrassment of Christine O’Donnell in Delware – may have a harder time on Election Day. It’s one thing to win a primary, another to be electable to a wider public. So the Republican Party is now watching the monster they created potentially jeopardize some of their seats, to the point where in O’Donnell’s case, they’re actively trying to squash her candidacy.

But despite a lack of electoral strategy, or any apparent legislative know-how, it strikes me today how the Tea Party has been genius. Yes, I said that. I say it because they have successfully made their agenda the national agenda. In our two-party system, for better or for worse, parties used to move to the middle to capture votes – because most of the population sees themselves as middle-of-the-road when it comes to political ideology. The only difference was that Republicans were center-right and Democrats were center-left. But the Tea Party has pulled the Republican party even further right than it otherwise would have been after its losses in 2008, because not only did they put on silly hats and go to protests, but because they mounted a credible threat at the polls for Republicans. At the end of the day, I don’t know if it was really their goal to win elections. But it sure as hell was their goal to make their issues the central ones of the campaign, and they’ve succeeded in setting the agenda. But as they pull the Republicans rightward, they’re pulling the Democrats rightward as well, because our perception of "the middle" is changing. This is the Tea Party’s further genius – by exerting greater influence than their numbers would otherwise suggest. I don’t think nearly as many people are "Tea Partiers" as the media attention would have you believe, but they function as a real threat. Suddenly, not only does it become impossible for Republicans to do any type of sensible governing at all, but there’s a perception that it’s politically unpopular for Democrats to pursue their own policies – like raising taxes on the richest 3 percent of the population, which is, actually, supported by a majority.

I’m frequently disappointed with the Democratic Party, because I consider myself to be more liberal than most of the legislative items they achieve. But it makes sense to me why this would be – because the Democrats are a big tent party in comparison to the Republicans. They have a lot of interest groups to satisfy. They also have a lot of should-be-Republican members like Ben Nelson, whom they have to please – even if it’s at the expense of the left. Which makes me dream up a pure thought experiment, if we lived in the world where the left created our own Tea Party equivalent – a truly liberal progressive party who could yank the Democrats leftward. Think about what this would look like. A party that elevates issues important to women on the left – full support for reproductive rights, fair pay in the workplace, paid parental leave that’s better than the three-month unpaid allotment we get now, so that both women and men can take time off work to raise their children without being penalized. A party that supports full equality for LGBTQ folks, that treats them with decency and humanity by supporting the immediate repeal of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell," full gay marriage rather than just civil unions as a way of waffling, and laws to protect them from discrimination. A party who sees it as not just important to protect the middle class, but also returns to the days when poverty was a problem they seriously wanted to address – and would really fund Medicaid, food stamps, childcare, job training, and social services, rather than yanking that support every time the budget needs a trim. A party that would strengthen the social safety net, not only dash talks of privatizing Medicare or Social Security, but that would have a stronger unemployment system, at the very least a public option in health care, etc. A party that would fund infrastructure and real jobs programs, and encourage small businesses by not allowing corporations to game the system. I could go on for days about what my party would look like and what they would fight for.

I doubt that liberals will ever organize to make this a coherent strategy. But that’s why pressure from the left on our current leaders is so important. That’s why I fully supported when labor unions and Firedoglake, among others, supported Bill Halter in the primary against Blanche Lincoln – it forced her more leftward from her bland, centrist state than she had ever been. Halter may have lost, but the campaign was still successful – because the left got to set the agenda, rather than just be told to be happy with the scraps. The Democrats have become the party of everyone who thinks the Republicans are too far out to vote for. I’m feeling like they are my party even less and less – because it’s as if they are ashamed to be truly progressive and to take leftists stances on issues, for fear of being tarred as a "librul." They run from it rather than owning it and remaking it. And this is why my personal voting enthusiasm has been dampened.

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