The Tea Party is Very Similar to an Actual Tea Party

A small group of acquaintances meeting to talk, not act.

Sarah Robinson is one of a number of bloggers and websites which focus on reporting about the extreme Right wing. I've linked to her work before in my post about the Hutaree. I first started reading her after randomly finding her posts last August titled "Fascist America." Are We There Yet? was the first of three parts.

Obama FascismIn the series, she uses the scholarship of Robert Paxton for the description, criteria and developmental path of fascist regimes. It's highly educational and quite useful to know more about what makes fascism fascist.1 To cut to the chase, she quotes three questions that try to answer whether or not a particular situation has reached a point where state fascism is on its way to becoming unavoidable. A "yes" answer to all three of these is bad:
  1. Are [neo- or protofascisms] becoming rooted as parties that represent major interests and feelings and wield major influence on the political scene?
  2. Is the economic or constitutional system in a state of blockage apparently insoluble by existing authorities?
  3. Is a rapid political mobilization threatening to escape the control of traditional elites, to the point where they would be tempted to look for tough helpers in order to stay in charge?
Back in August of 2009, it was possible to look at the emergence of the Tea Party and the vituperative health care "debate" and think it may be happening. Robinson herself answered "yes" to all three.

Flash forward to now: Robinson wrote a follow up, Is This Election The Next Turn? While Robinson thinks the three answers are "yes" even more resoundingly, I'm now sure that the answers are all "no." I wrote a responding comment to argue that point. To summarize why each answer is "no":
  1. The Tea Party is not a political party in its own right, it is just another name for the conservative Republican base.
  2. Just because the Senate makes it hard to pass controversial bills, the system is not blocked with problems insoluble by existing authorities.
  3. There is no rapid political mobilization, the Tea Party isn't threatening to escape the control of traditional elites, and "tough helpers" are a long way from interfering in politics.
In depth, there are a number of reasons that support these "no" answers. First, all 138 federal candidates claiming Tea Party support are running as Republicans. They may talk a good game against Washington elites, even including GOP leaders in that category before they won the primary, but all of them will be co-opted by the Republican Party if they make it to the Senate. Rand Paul has already downplayed or outright ditched his anti-corporate positions and cozied up with the big money interests that run Washington. Furthermore, there are a number of groups using the Tea Party brand. The larger organizations are basically competitors for attention and cash, while the actual grassroots are a coalition of small local groups that actively oppose falling under any outside control. Oh, and creating a national third party is impossible. There is no Tea Party party and there never will be.

Second, the Constitutional system - including federalism - is not broken. And the Tea Parties certainly aren't threatening it. Their biggest theme is returning to Constitutional principles, even if they are grossly wrong about what that means. In fact, Constitutional government is quite strong. If the federal system of checks and balances doesn't even shake the foundations in the cases of the 1995 GOP Congress-forced government shutdown and Bush v. Gore, what could cause it to crumble? In addition, regardless of attempts to nullify Obamacare and the Tenthers loudly spouting off, federalism is just as successful in creating responsive government as it was at the founding. Besides taxes, most governmental rules that affect our lives are local. City, county and state layers of government are still influenced by individuals' efforts. If you think "government is on my back," it is likely you can get your voice heard quite easily. Finally, the biggest problem that chokes the system is the filibuster, which is not in the Constitution. It's a Senate rule that can be changed by the Senate. The fact is that our Constitution has produced a remarkably responsive and flexible system that has weathered amazing changes in our country and will continue to work for a long time.

Third, the current environment is just not that extreme. There hasn't been rapid political mobilization since the 60's. Voting is the easiest political act there is. Yet most eligible voters will not turnout in this "crucial" off-year election - 40% hasn't been topped in 40 years. Barack Obama's historic campaign raised voter turnout from 55.3% in 2004 to 56.8% in 2008. Only huge media stars explicitly shunning political messages can bring more than 100,000 people, 3 hundredths of 1 percent of our population, to Washington. As far as "tough helpers," although troubling, actions such as falsely detaining a journalist and stomping on a protester's head, are nonetheless rare. Furthermore, they are quickly denounced, one case where sensational 24-hour news actually is beneficial.

Tea PartySo we are not right around the corner from fascism. Whew! So what about all the people who went to Glenn Beck's rallies, think Obama is a socialist, and said "keep the government away from my Medicare!" Well, they aren't representative of the authentic Tea Party either. The Tea Partiers are people who like Jon Stewart said are too busy to be politically active. And they are actually small in number and pretty tame:

But a new Washington Post canvass of hundreds of local tea party groups reveals a different sort of organization, one that is not so much a movement as a disparate band of vaguely connected gatherings that do surprisingly little to engage in the political process.

The results come from a months-long effort by The Post to contact every tea party group in the nation, an unprecedented attempt to understand the network of individuals and organizations at the heart of the nascent movement.

Seventy percent of the grass-roots groups said they have not participated in any political campaigning this year. As a whole, they have no official candidate slates, have not rallied behind any particular national leader, have little money on hand, and remain ambivalent about their goals and the political process in general.
So the groups are small, but the movement is small too: An August CNN poll found that 2 percent of Americans consider themselves active members of the Tea Party. Since there is plenty of empirical data, I feel fine highlighting one example that seems typical:
Lisante, from Miami County, Ohio, said his meetings generally start with the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a prayer, and then a speaker and a skit - the most recent was about the bank bailout. (Lisante said it was very funny.) The point, he said, is not to organize political action but to educate members and encourage them to become active on their own.
Sounds like a tea party to me!

1 I only found one other mention of that phrase in the whole intertube. Damn you, internet soldier!


Steve Nance said...

Nice post; thanks for the reply to Robinson's post directing me to it. I came upon her original posts a few days ago and had much the same reaction: alarmed at first by the historical paralells, then increasingly skeptical upon reflection on how far Paxton's three-part test actually is from being met.

There's still a danger of a TP-corporate alliance forming a sort of GOP-on-steroids that could really maximize the damage to the commonweal that can be done within the existing contitutional system. That system, hollowed-out as it may be, is far too useful to the sustainability of plutoratic rule, to just be dismantled. We won't see archetypal fascism or totalitarianism -- but maybe something just as destructive, in its gradual, corrosive way, over the long run.

We have a lot more to fear from the existing bipartisan corporatocracy, as it continues to grind away at civil liberties, loot the commons, militarize the globe, degrade the environment, and generally emmiserate folks, than we do from the TP.

Indeed, I still hold out hope that some of the Teaps can be persuaded to look beyond he scapegoats dangled in front of them and focus the anger and frustration, which we all feel, at that power structure itself -- and realize that the problem is a whole lot deeper than budget deficits, and more subtle than black helicopters. Maybe that's just the naive old radicalized-liberal in me.

Anyway, I'll poke around some of your links and stay tuned for more discussion.

Norwegian Shooter said...

Thanks. I agree on the uni-corporate party is the problrm. And some good would come if Rand Paul hits the Fed for auditing as hard as his father. The way it played out last congress, 59 votes is just as good as 51 - that is good for nothing.

If that's naive old radicalized-liberal, then bring it on! I hope you stick around and comment.