Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Are the Tea Parties Something New?

Kevin Drum has a terrific article in Mother Jones putting the Tea Party movement in some much-needed historical context:
“[T]oo many observers mistakenly react to the tea party as if it's brand new, an organic and spontaneous response to something unique in the current political climate. But it's not. It's not a response to the recession or to health care reform or to some kind of spectacular new liberal overreach. It's what happens whenever a Democrat takes over the White House. When FDR was in office in the 1930s, conservative zealotry coalesced in the Liberty League. When JFK won the presidency in the '60s, the John Birch Society flourished. When Bill Clinton ended the Reagan Revolution in the '90s, talk radio erupted with the conspiracy theories of the Arkansas Project. And today, with Barack Obama in the Oval Office, it's the tea party's turn. . . .

“Ever since the 1930s, something very much like the tea party movement has fluoresced every time a Democrat wins the presidency, and the nature of the fluorescence always follows many of the same broad contours: a reverence for the Constitution, a supposedly spontaneous uprising of formerly nonpolitical middle-class activists, a preoccupation with socialism and the expanding tyranny of big government, a bitterness toward an underclass viewed as unwilling to work, and a weakness for outlandish conspiracy theories.”
Let’s concede that Drum has his history down and try, in our crude way, to figure out what it all means for our national politics in general, and for the future of liberalism in particular. He thinks that the Tea Partiers present a mixed bag of political information. The bad news for liberals is that the Tea Partiers are bigger and politically stronger than predecessor movements. The Liberty League in the 1930s and the John Birch Society in the early 60s operated on the fanatical fringe of American politics. The landslide victories Democratic presidents won in 1936 and 1964 are proof enough of that.

The Tea Party isn’t a fringe phenomenon. It’s a movement, perhaps the most potent movement, within a national political party that expects to win a majority in at least one congressional chamber in the next election. Its political clout is of a different order of magnitude than the Liberty League's or the Birchers's.

So what’s the good news for liberals? Drum gives it his best shot:
“Part of it is that the movement's 15 minutes could be nearly up. The tea partiers may have expanded faster than the Birchers thanks to Fox News and talk radio, but the same media echo chamber that enabled this has also shortened attention spans and provided 500 channels of competition for the Glenn Becks of the world. The speed of the tea partiers' rise may foreshadow an equally fast decline as their act begins to grow stale.

“Likewise, the sheer size of the tea party movement may be as much a curse as a blessing. An insurgent movement can retain its vigor if it remains limited to true believers, but once it takes the reins of power, it has no choice but to offer a winning platform if it wants to keep its influence. The tea partiers are thus likely to be victims of their own success: When everyone's a tea partier, then no one's a tea partier.”
Feel better? I don’t doubt Drum’s thesis that a political movements’ energy level is related inversely to its size. But nothing matters more than size in a representative democracy. The prospect that the Tea Partiers' political energy will dissipate over time might be consoling for liberals on the assumption that the whole ideological grid of American politics has stayed in roughly the same place since the 1930s. Were that the case, the Tea Party movement would have moved the Republican Party farther to the right, and therefore farther ideologically from the median voter whose allegiance is crucial to winning elections. That would make it easier for a Democratic Party building on the New Deal and the Great Society to hold its own politically over the long term.

But how plausible is that assumption when even Democratic congressional candidates from dark-blue districts are trying to deflect attention from their votes for ObamaCare and Democrats running in competitive districts are touting their votes against it? To my faltering eyes, New Deal and Great Society Democrats are looking like an endangered species; A Nancy Pelosi or a Henry Waxman looks about has far from the median voter ideologically as a Jim DeMint, and someone like Mitt Romney suddenly looks close enough to shake the median voter’s hand.

Suppose our politics isn't a matter of each side trying to move the ball on a static playing field.  What if political energy is correlated positively with ideological conviction and the position of the median voter tends to move in the direction of the more energetic side? On that view, polling data showing the longstanding imbalance between self-identified conservatives and liberals in the electorate getting more pronounced says something important about the changing position of the median voter over time. That would probably mean that the ideological baby steps the country took to the left in 2008 have been more than offset by the wider strides we’ve collectively taken to the right over the last two years and have been taking intermittently over the last thirty years.

The Tea Party movement should excite strong reactions from liberals. Complacency shouldn’t be one of them.

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