Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Where Were All These Tea Party People Back When...

A divided Republican Party saw its most fiscally-reasonable, most libertarian wing understandably frustrated by the increase in the debt ceiling.  Unlike the rest of Congress and most of the press, the Tea Party folks can do math.  Yet you’d think from the howling on the left that Ron Paul had already won the 2012 election. 

The left’s pain is not perfectly proportional to the wellbeing of the nation, though if it were, this Weimar-worthy quote from Paul Krugman would be an indicator that the debt ceiling agreement is a fantastic one:

What Republicans have just gotten away with calls our whole system of government into question.  After all, how can American democracy work if whichever party is most prepared to be ruthless, to threaten the nation’s economic security, gets to dictate policy?  And the answer is, maybe it can’t.

Krugman has become Kent Brockman, who said: “I've said it before, and I’ll say it again: Democracy simply doesn’t work.”

(At least the debt ceiling increase went through without killing tens of thousands of ducks, though.)

As for the recurring and pointless charge that many Republicans failed to notice the massive national debt until recently and therefore – what, exactly?  Must not speak of it now or ever?  Let the record show that I, for one, have been freaking out for over two decades now about the size and expense of government – even writing an article calling Bush a socialist all of one year into his administration (and at the peak of his post-9/11 popularity). 

And still I recently had a (relatively new) leftist friend ever so briefly accuse me (or merely my kind – it was unclear) of suddenly worrying about big government now that a black man is at its head.  Let’s put it this way: I would be happy to replace him with
Thomas Sowell.  (Depending on how things go, I may even end up voting to replace him with Herman Cain.)  In any case, I worry about government whether it rears its monstrous head in Albania or Zimbabwe, which is one reason I don’t normally take much note of ethnicity. 

But even if we’re talking about my fellow Tea Partiers instead of just me: in answer to the question “Where were all these Tea Partiers five years ago when Bush was spending so much money?”  I’m sure it varies, but how about: Starting to worry?  Distracted by other issues?  Naively hoping Bush wouldn’t screw them over?  In some cases, even angrier then than they are now because they have since gone on anti-depressants?  DOES IT REALLY MATTER? 

People are misreading the Tea Party-era fervor badly (which is hardly a surprise) if they really think it’s going to go away just because, say, a white guy starts presiding over 10% unemployment rates and a $15 trillion+ debt in a year and a half.  Hopefully, all the GOP presidential candidates are well aware of that fact.

But if your concern, leftists, is that fiscal conservatives be consistent, we all know there is at least one presidential candidate radical enough to avoid being just another Bush/Obama clone – and that’s Ron Paul.  He – and Bachmann, I should say – voted against “Cut, Cap, and Balance” not because they wanted something more like the Obama or Reid plan but because they do not think the debt ceiling should be raised under any circumstances

I was wrong initially in thinking that their intransigence could accomplish nothing – though I never called them hobbits for their stubbornness.  Theirs is the kind of parameters-resetting line in the sand against borrowing/spending that we need – I’d say “the kind of well-defined ceiling we need,” but you see how little that means. 


Jacob T. Levy said...


Well, it matters informationally. It's evidence on one side of the question "are they good-faith principled opponents of taxes and spending, or are they just Republicans?" And knowing the answer to that helps us predict, e.g., whether they'll be pressuring the Republican House Agriculture Committee to keep the price down on the 2012 farm bill, or whether they would pressure a hypothetical Republican president in 2013.

"Opportunist or principled" is one of our most common political questions, and "how did you act when it was your team in power?" is one of the standard ways to answer it. Democrats making a big deal out of war powers in 2003: did you suddenly discover this principle, or did you apply it to Clinton in Somalia/ Haiti/ Kosovo? Democrats opposed to filibustering judicial nominees: did that opposition spring new from the ground in January 2009? (Republicans who *support* filibustering judicial nominees: did you give a bunch of outraged speeches with the phrase "up or down vote" back in the day?)

Do you think that it's somehow uniquely an unfair or uninteresting question in this case? Is that just because you in your heart believe in the Tea Partiers' bona fides, so you're willing to indulge a "straw that broke the camel's back" explanation even though "because now it's a Democrat in office" also seems to explain the data?

Todd Seavey said...

While you were in Canada with vague memories of a "liberaltarian" movement that never existed, the libertarian revolt within the GOP occurred, and it's called the Tea Party, the most decisively and self-consciously libertarian break within the ranks of conservatives -- and independents -- in my lifetime, and virtually the only conservative cause to put protesters in the streets in my adult lifetime, routinely _denouncing Bush_ and calling instead for a return to limited government and the Constitution.

For the left to treat the transformation as inconsistency -- even as the participants openly fight against other rightists whose tune _hasn't_ changed -- is uniquely oblivious of the left and something far stranger when it manifests among those who should know the movement in a more intimate way.

But you may simply not have contact with it, or understand the anti-statist reasons this first-ever populist/popular version of the modern libertarian impulse might have coalesced around your fellow ex-Chicago instructor, of whom you sound like you still expect good things...and perhaps you'll get them, thanks to the pressure placed upon him by the newly-radicalized, often vocally anti-neocon Tea Partiers.

Obama, who brought large numbers of youth to the polls, has become the great betrayer and disappointment turning larger numbers of them than ever before into libertarians, and they recognize the Tea Party -- and its elected allies, all within the GOP -- as the practical expression of their philosophical awakening.

While you were away, I suspect the libertarian movement has easily doubled or tripled in size, and it is these vocal newcomers, oddly enough, upon whom the left chooses to train its skepticism rather than the more-obvious, unchanged status quo Republicans against whom these newcomers routinely define themselves. You missed the revolution, in short -- but at least when the left misses it, that provides strategic advantages. They really don't understand what's happening down here (and it's very positive). You should, though.

Anonymous said...

I think "hoping Bush wouldn't screw them over" is probably closest to the mark considering 87% (circa mid-2010) say that dissatisfaction with the Republican Party is one of their major motivating factors. And it just seems silly to use the premise "Republicans said this, and then Democrats said that" anyway, as if they were perfectly homogenous. My "team" is whomever and whatever cuts government down to the quick.

The Republican party is showing itself capable of containing ideological diversity under a big tent with "small government" as its unifying creed. If this is a message that can awaken so many previously unaffiliated, unengaged people, it's because it is quite literally 'common sense'. Therefore its only natural the tea party would find its home in the Republican Party, which at least has a history of recognizing the existence of the Constitution.

It's also important to note that the Republican Party is just as shocked at the tea party's arrival as anyone else, though they've tried to adapt quickly and quietly to avoid the anti-incumbency tidal wave (hopefully still) sweeping the country.

P.S. I think I enjoy the politically fixated, slightly more contentious Todd Seavey a bit more (though I'm a fan and avid reader regardless). I'll vouch that you've given more effort to nudging and bridge-building thus far than most others even attempt, but it's harder when we're SO CLOSE. Goldwater would agree, cantankerousness in the cause of liberty is no vice.

Dave said...

Also - there are terms that were/are thrown around that do not have identical meanings, but can be interpreted the same way. "Small government" isn't the exact same thing as "lower taxes" (so the argument that lower taxes increases revenue seems to contradict the goal of shrinking government) Tea Party doesn't equal Libertarian, Cuttng Spending doesn't equal Property Rights. But the fluidity with which these terms are interchanged makes it easy to see hypocrasy/contradictions/inconsistancy where perhaps it doesn't exist. And, rank and file shouldn't be confused with movement leaders, nor slogans with philosophy, nor individual variability with a movement.

That being said, I was always under the impression that the Republican Party was using the Tea Party and their rhetoric as a trojan horse to get big government republicans back into power - so (accepting that I'm interchanging terms, and making the point that perhaps it wasn't 100% my own ignorance at work) Things like, the Arizona Immigration Law, and the 51 Park Mosque made the Tea Party seem completely dishonest - how can a property rights supporting group take the side they did on these issues? (The LPNY and Tea Party parted ways over 51 Park) But then again, I don't know that the Tea Party ever claimed *property rights* was one of their goals.
I think the latest episode weighed well in the Tea Party's favor - they stood firm for cutting spending (and ironically, THAT is what they were called insane for - being consistent and principled)
But as Jacob said, I think it was/is a fair question, at least. Are they talking about cutting spending now so they can get into office to block gay marriage legislation - there has been questions raised about certain candidates committment to federalism, for example, regarding this issue.

Jacob T. Levy said...

It's true that I've observed the Tea Party phenomenon at long distance, but it doesn't really seem like the origin myth Todd believes about them is borne out by facts. Tea Partiers weren't in general (even though some Todd knows personally were) apolitical neophytes gradually awakened from their slumber to oppose the Bush-Obama state expansion. They were ex ante highly active partisan white Republicans with significantly right-of-center views on race and abortion-- the kinds of people who supported Bush quite actively.

Todd Seavey said...

In the Republican Party, as in the original American Revolution -- much as I might wish otherwise as an atheist today who might well have been a Deist had he lived back then -- the most ardent proponents of limited government are often driven by literal religious fervor. I'm delighted to hear the authors of the piece you link say they think non-Tea-Partiers have also grown more wary of big government, but I don't see non-Tea-Partiers motivated to do much about it.

And the piece is filled with statistical innuendo such as saying the Tea Party is as unpopular as the Christian right without saying (because they can't) that the Tea Party _is_ the Christian right. Perhaps you should count us lucky that they didn't bother to mention that one movement far less popular than the Christian right, conservatism, or the Tea Party is...libertarianism.

Politics requires some coalitional thinking. David Boaz and David Kirby have done a survey that concludes the Tea Party is about _half_ libertarian (which makes it more libertarian than any other large social movement or major party), religious-conservative writers have conceded that the Tea Party has shifted the religious bloc itself toward a focus on shrinking government (which is no mean feat considering how much political sway American churches do indeed end up having), and as the authors themselves note the Tea Party leaders really do tend to be focused on shrinking government and fighting the debt.

The Tea Party may well prove unpopular. I also wouldn't bet that Ron Paul will win the GOP nomination. I'm also not confident the free market will survive. But I see the obvious connections between these things. I work, live, and breath those connections, in fact.

And I've been in the crowd when a Tea Party rally politely shouts for _one_ impromptu speaker in the crowd to drop her Jesus talk since the rest are there to talk about economics (carrying the only picket signs full of Ayn Rand slogans and Milton Friedman references I've seen in _my_ lifetime). And the next one I went to was far larger, had no religious element at all, and was led by a black man to boot.

I have heard a friend of mine whose political priorities are not exactly my own complain that he has not succeeded in his efforts to turn multiple Tea Party events in an anti-immigration direction. Unfortunate for him but good for the Tea Party.

You're not just at odds with me if you're anti-Tea-Party, Jacob. Now you're putting yourself at odds with entire rising generation of Ron Paul fans, government-limiting and anti-spending Tea Party activists, and unprecedentedly socially-networked Republican Liberty Caucus types. That you seem bound and determined to see no potential there -- as libertarians have an impact on American politics arguably for the first time -- but can likely detect some whiff of promise in the latest Democrat white paper to cite John Rawls in a footnote in a fashion that is not wholly socialist is both strange and a bit shameful.

If the likes of explicitly Tea Party-affiliated Rand Paul and Justin Amash are not today's chief advocates of shrinking government, who exactly am I supposed to be rooting for? Amy Gutmann?