The long term success of the Tea Parties is yet to be decided. As the man said, though, in the really long run, we’re all dead. I think it is fair to say that they have, for all of my distaste for them, been quite successful in moving politics to the right and in getting the Republican party to represent their interests.
How did they do it? I would argue that they created a serious threat to incumbent Republicans that compelled them to move to the right or risk losing a primary. They succeeded in removing many moderate Republicans, at many levels of government, and more, they succeeded in pushing Republicans who held their seats to more conservative positions. The blogosphere made a great deal of noise about races where Tea Party-approved candidates ended up splitting the vote and giving races to Democrats, but these were notable in large part because they were so rare. There are far, far more sitting candidates that have been pushed to the right than those who lost safe Republican seats due to primary challenges. Note too that even if right wing protest candidates don’t unseat sitting Republicans, the threat inevitably moves the candidate to the right, particularly in Congressional races and others where terms are quite short.
This, I want to put to you, is a model for how left-wing politics in America could be revitalized. It wouldn’t be easy. We face a hostile media environment, the power of entrenched and moneyed interests, and a lot of structural impediments. But change comes slowly and gradually, and I would point once again to the example of Barry Goldwater and conservatism: both were a joke, and then they weren’t.
You’ll note, too, that this would not just be a benefit to the further left, but also to establishment liberals. Tea Party politics is good for Republicans (in the strictly electoral sense) even when Tea Partiers don’t get exactly what they want. Extremes define the center; the more that the Tea Partiers push to the right, the more conservative Republicans find their positions accepted as mainstream by the media and the public. This could help no one more, I think, than a politician like Barack Obama, who has very moderate views but because of the cultural branding of being black, from Chicago, having a “foreign sounding” name, and being an academic, is constantly represented in the mainstream media as a radical. What we regard as the American political center now is not the same as it was ten years ago and will not be the same ten years from now. The effort to define that center will mean everything for electoral victory for years to come.
I can imagine some complaints or critiques of this theory of political change. But it is, at least, a theory. My question, after reading this blog and how it has evolve in recent months and weeks, is what exactly the alternative theory of political change is.
Let’s set aside all the personal stuff. The invective unleashed around here against left-wing critics of President Obama has been relentless and ugly, in both posts and comments. But let’s stick to structural change. As far as I can divine, the reason many bloggers and commenters around here have been so hostile to left-wing criticism is because they believe that the key for Obama’s victory in 2012 and liberal aims afterwards is for Obama to win the hearts and minds of independents. As much as people may admit (or may not) that legislation like the debt deal are bad for liberalism and the country, the thinking seems to go that it will ultimately be good politics because he demonstrates how reasonable he is. And appearing reasonable, apparently, is the most important thing to independent voters. And independent voters win you elections. That’s the best I can figure it.
There’s a lot wrong there. Probably the most important is that independents don’t actually win elections because there aren’t really that many of them. I can cite you chapter and verse about the myth of the independent voter or the myth of the undecided voter. What’s more, I’m not sure why the world has decided that whatever small number of true independents exist are obsessed about what appears reasonable. Because David Brooks says so? This is the worst kind of Beltwayism, the insistence that whatever the center is between the two parties, no matter how extreme one of them is, represents some sort of ideal of compromise and moderation, and is very popular with the “sensible center.” That this thinking contradicts a vast political science literature about the preeminence of economic determinism in voting hardly needs to be said.
But let’s suppose I even conceded all that, that Obama would be right to pursue the independent vote and that the way to do so was to appear as a sensible, technocratic moderate. It’s never going to happen because the media is not going to permit it. Surely, people who read and write at this blog know that. This blog has been documenting since the early days of his Presidential campaign how he is regarded as a flaming liberal by the media (and not just Fox News) since the early days of his campaign. Surely you all know that he will be painted by his Republican opponent as the Kenyan Marxist anticolonialist, and that the mainstream media will be complicit in that characterization. We’ll get the worst of both worlds: a candidate painted as a liberal extremist without actually enacting the kind of liberal policy platform you’d certainly hope a liberal extremist would attempt. And all of this is to say nothing of the fact that the average American voter is not nearly politically engaged or informed enough to make this complex of a situation in the summer of 2011 define his view of the President in November of 2012.
You can debate the merits of the actual package, although I agree with BJer mistermix that it’s a shit sandwich. You can debate how much choice he had and whether the 14th amendment solution or platinum coin solutions were actually options. But as I read John and a lot of commenters, I’m genuinely unclear what their long term vision here is. When you get past all of the insistence that people like me are just being self-righteous and get to substantive disagreements, the idea is… what? That there’s this big, potentially popular political movement that could be mobilized if only the far left is forsaken? What does all of the verbiage levied against Obama’s left-wing critics accomplish, beyond pushing the debate even more to the right?
People tell liberal critics of Obama all the time: it’s a two party system, and what are you gonna do? Well that goes both ways. It’s a two party system and a country divided by ideology. Obama will always be a liberal Democrat in the eyes of the American people and the media. You either fight for liberal Democratic values and move the center to make things easier on him, or you fight for the center while Republicans fight for the right, and you can guess what happens. Fighting half the time with liberal critics and half the time with conservative ones is no recipe for getting what you want.