Tea Party Triumph
“So,” people keep asking me, “how did ‘the Tea Party’ do” in last Tuesday’s historic mid-terms elections?
The answer: pretty damn good. It is true that some Tea Party candidates – the best known examples are Senate contenders Christina O’Donnell (defeated in Delaware) and Sharon Angle (vanquished in Arizona) – hurt the G.O.P, last Tuesday. But the Tea Party phenomenon on the whole made a significant contribution to the Republicans’ remarkable success.
Horrible Economy, Centrist Democrats, and Left Vacuum
To be sure, the bad economy – with a functional unemployment rate of 16 percent and a poverty rate projected to reach the same percentage in the near future . – is the leading factor behind the sweeping Republican gains in the House and Senate. Also significant is the standard pathetic, corporate-captive, and progressive- and citizen-demobilizing performance of the Democrats in power (January 20, 2009 to the present). The left-liberal political scientist Sheldon Wolin predicted that sorry performance more than two years ago in his chilling book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism:
“The timidity of a Democratic Party mesmerized by centrist precepts points to the crucial fact that, for the poor, minorities, the working-class, anticorporatists, pro-environmentalists, and anti-imperialists, there is no opposition party working actively on their behalf. And this despite the fact that these elements are recognized as the loyal base of the party. By ignoring dissent and assuming the dissenters have no alternative, the party serves an important, if ironical, stabilizing function and in effect marginalizes any possible threat to the corporate allies of the Republican. Unlike the Democrats, however, the Republicans, with their combination of reactionary and innovative elements, are a cohesive, if not a coherent, opposition force.”
We should also mention the absence of a significant left-progressive movement to capture popular anger and push the Democrats into undertaking the sort of decent policies --- investigating just some of the many crimes of the Bush-Cheney regime, stopping the funding for the murderous and illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, launching significant new to “green jobs” programs, massive new federal jobs programs, a massive transfer of federal funds from military Empire to broad-based social and economic uplift and protection – that might have helped avert or reduce some of the recent Republican gains. The nation’s relatively moribund Democratic Party-captive liberal activist and policy infrastructure has responded to the social and economic crisis and the corporate and imperial direction of policy under “Democratic rule” with remarkably little in the way of serious criticism and protest. As John Judis noted in The New Republic even before Obama’s administration was more than one month old, “there is not a popular left movement that is agitating for [Obama] to go well beyond where he would even ideally like to go…. Instead, what exists of a popular left is either incapable of action or in Obama's pocket.” By Judis’ analysis, the U.S. labor movement and groups like “Moveon.Org” were repeating the same “mistake that political groups often make: subordinating their concern about issues to their support for the [Democratic] party and its leading politicians….”
Little has occurred in the first two years of Obama’s presidency to seriously question the wisdom of Judis’ judgment. As the progressive author and journalist David Sirota noted after White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs launched a tirade against “the professional left” in the summer of last year, “ much of the ‘American Left’ is organized around the Democratic Party and specifically around Obama. The professional Left,” Sirota noted, “are all the major, well-funded liberal interest groups (and [those groups, Sirota correctly notes] have repeatedly shown themselves to be more loyal to the Democratic Party and Obama than their alleged policy/ideological missions…That kind of Left,” Sirota added, “is not built like successful social movements of the past.” It ‘doesn’t have the structure, independence or stomach for oppositional politics…’”  That kind of really existing “left” (perhaps we should say ex-left ) has been all too ready to surrender the mantle of populist anger to the dodgy, regressive, and authoritarian right represented by The Tea Party – the latest incarnation of the right wing version of “the Paranoid Style in American Politics” and the most powerful such embodiment of the version in more than half a century. As Progressive magazine editor Mathew Rothschild wrote prior to the elections:
“The very character of our country is at stake….With economic pain at the highest level ever seen by most Americans, and with minorities especially hard hit, we’re seeing a revolt not by people of color, not the unemployed, nor the foreclosed upon. Instead, we’re seeing a revolt by the white middle class [emphasis added] It’s a revolt against the very notion of a positive role for government in helping people. It’s a revolt against Latin American immigrants. It’s a revolt against Muslim Americans. And it’s a revolt against [a] black president…”
There’s a remarkable comparison with Europe here. As millions of European workers and citizens flooded the streets in major strikes, protests, social movements and marches to resist public budget, wage, and pension cuts imposed by the neolibeal authorities this last summer and fall, the American “progressive movement” could muster only a modest turnout in an October 2nd “One Nation” Washington rally that functioned primarily as a pre-election get-out-the-vote rally for the centrist, corporate and imperial Democrats and not as a significant statement against the bipartisan elite. A bunch of liberals also recent went to Washington to hear Jon Stewart lecture them on the need for proper centrist civility and the danger posed to America “sanity” by "ideology"-driven actors (including "Stalinists" but not corpoorations) of the left and right alike.
A GOP Turnout Boon
Still, we should not discount the role played by the Tea Party phenomenon in creating Republican victory last November. Following the lead of the New York Times, MSNBC downplayed those candidates’ performance the day after the election:
“For all the talk of the Tea Party's strength - and there will certainly be a significant number of their candidates in Congress - just 32% of all Tea Party candidates who ran for Congress won and 61.4% lost this election. A few races remain too close to call.”
“In the Senate, 10 candidates backed by the Tea Party ran and at least five were successful. (Race in Alaska has not yet been called.)”
“In the House, 130 Tea Party-backed candidates ran, and just 40 so far have won.”
But, as the political scientist and journalist Anthony DiMaggio recently reminded me, the MSNBC’s count deleted the 48 Tea Party candidates that were already Congressional officeholders – the members of the existing Tea Party Caucus. Including these incumbents changes the count from 40 winners among 130 “Tea Party candidates” (a winning percentage of less than 33 percent) to 88 among 178 (nearly 50 percent). Second, many of those (probably half) reported (by the Times) of 178 “Tea Party candidates” were standing merely as protest-candidates in solidly Democratic districts. These candidates had to no chance of success and garnered relatively little of the campaign cash required to mount viable campaigns. If they are deleted and the incumbent Tea Party candidates are included, it becomes fair to say that 88 of the Tea Party’s 115 serious and viable candidates won – a success rate of more than 85 percent. Of the 60 Republican candidates who won on November 3rd, it should be added, 40 (two thirds) were “Tea Party candidates.”
But this is not all – not by a long shot. The Tea Party’s contribution reached beyond the question of how specifically designated “Tea Party candidates” did and into the more than 300 House races where no “Tea Party candidates” competed at all. Consistent with earlier polling data showing that Tea Party supporters were both highly Republican and highly motivated to participate in the mid-term races, the Tea Party provided a voter turnout boon for the G.O.P. By reporter Kate Zernike’s account on the front page of the Times, it “ its energy propel[ed] the Republican sweep in the House and capture[ed] the mood of a significant chunk of the electorate.” According to exit polls, 4 in 10 of all mid-term voters and a remarkable 2 in every 3Republican voters expressed support for the [Tea Party] movement.  At the same time, by seeming to transform, energize, and re-brand the largely unpopular Republican Party, the Tea Party phenomenon made it more difficult for Obama and the Democrats to claim that a vote for the Republicans Party amounted to an embrace of “the past.” As the former Bill Clinton advisor William Galston noted prior to the election. “The Administration’s ability to make that argument has been weakened by the very vociferous changes [Galston’s way of describing the rise of the Tea Party phenomenon] that have happened in the Republican Party.” 
The Tea Party and the Mass Media
There is a different but related way in which the Tea Party – understood largely as a mass-media-ted phenomenon – can be partly credited for the mid-term outcomes. From February 2009, the supposedly populist (in fact largely corporate-crafted and choreographed) Tea Party “rebellion” provided the corporate media with a steady flow of images and stories to help advance the narrative that the in fact heavily corporatist, moderate, and business-friendly Obama administration was lurching off-center and too far to the “big government,” deficit-fueling Left in accord with its supposedly progressive ideological inclinations. “The Tea Party” became a critical part of this standard media and right wing trope against Democratic presidents and legislators, helping to energize right wing voters and drive Independent and other voters into opposition to Obama and the Democrats. Also significant, the media’s recurrent and often favorable treatment of the supposedly great and popular-grassroots Tea Party “movement” and the media’s self-fulfilling inflation of the phenomenon helped “the Tea Party” become something of what Zernike called “a blank screen on which they have projected all kinds of hopes and frustrations — not always compatible or realistic.” Many Americans voicing support for the Tea Party have little or no understanding of its actual, hard-right ideological agenda. Many of those expressing sympathy and approval for “the Tea Party” reject its call for tearing down “big government” and favor federal job creation over the Tea Party’s declared goal of deficit slashing. The corporate media’s role has been central here, with the leading national print and electronic outlets failing to provide an accurate picture of the “populist” Tea Party’s deeply reactionary and elite-directed, top-down and manipulative and partisan (“super-Republican”) essence. The media-generated “blank screen” and related (false) novelty dividend – with vague and ephemeral branding trumping policy substance – is, it is worth noting something that the Tea Party’s bete noire Barack Obama benefited from to no small degree from late 2006 (some might even say from late July of 2004) through the presidential election of 2008
The fact that “the Tea Party” made a significant contribution to policy-relevant outcomes in the midterm elections might seem odd. The Tea Party’s cadre of supporters is relatively small, privileged, and far more rightwing, racist, more authoritarian, and paranoid than the broad U.S. citizenry. As Dimaggio and I show in our forthcoming book Crashing the Tea Party (Paradigm, Spring 2011), it has not been remotely impressive as a “grassroots social movement” (a standard and misleading description of the Tea Party phenomenon in the mass media). The paradox of this unimpressive not-so “movement’s” significance and real, policy-relevant electoral impact disappears, however, when we consider four factors: the outsized influence of dedicated, high-turnout segments of the electorate in mid-term elections (when overall turnout is generally lower than in contests that include presidential candidates), the Democrats’ savage demobilization of their own party’s “progressive base;” the absence of meaningful progressive outlets for capturing and channeling for popular anger; and the dominant media’s powerful “hall of mirrors” effect in disseminating the image of the Tea Party as a significant and popular political force – a mighty people’s “movement” – capable of capturing a considerable swath of vaguely focused popular dissatisfaction. The Tea Party exists as a very real political force despite its considerable social and organizational liabilities thanks largely to corporate media, which helps manufacture socially acceptable dissent with its core distinction between worthy protesters (those who uphold the existing corporate, imperial and state-capitalist status quo) and unworthy protestors (those who oppose that status quo).
I will not attempt to predict either the Tea Party’s future political trajectory and role or the policy results that will flow from its 2010 electoral successes. It seems clear, however, that the vicious “super-Republican” Tea Party phenomenon will be with us for a bit more, as right wing Republicans both within and beyond the Tea Party build to take the presidency – the “real prize” for right wing politicos – in 2012. The possibility that Obama will be opposed in 2012 by a Tea Party presidential candidate (Sara Palin perhaps) should not be discounted. Progressives will be contending with the mass-mediated Tea Party for at least two more years. They would do well not to misunderstand it as some sort of independent and grassroots, working class social movement with genuinely popular and democratic potential. They should, however, remember that popular resentment abhors a progressive vacuum and will flow into dangerously authoritarian, regressive, and misdirected directions without real and serious alternatives and avenues of expression on the left. Genuine long-term social movement-building and progressive policy activism from the bottom up – independent from a Democratic Party and presidency that can be expected to triangulate further to the right in the wake of the Republicans’ significantly Tea Party-assisted mid-term triumph – strikes us as the order of the day on the progressive left in 2010.Even if Obama wins re-election in 2012 (something that might be enabled by a Republican opponent like Palin), he can be expected to stay linked to a Republican-led, Tea Party-fed, anti-progressive agenda which further penalizes the poor and working classes, rewards the wealthy Few, and continues to exacerbate existing grave social, economic, democracy, and ecological crises.
Who’s Sitting in?
Independent left electoral action either within or beyond the Democratic Party does not strike me as an especially promising vehicle for progressive change at present, under the existing dire circumstances of American democracy Today, as in the past serious progressives would do well to heed the genuinely populist and grassroots words of the late radical historian Howard Zinn: “the really critical thing isn’t who’s sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in – in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating – those are the things that determine what happens.” Who indeed? There are some good examples of Americans doing what Zinn called for and they are part of what he called “the unreported resistance.” But there’s just not enough of that. The left has to come back to life before it’s too late
The fake- and rancid-populist, business-funded, paranoid-authoritarian and arch-Republican Tea Party pseudo-movement has thrown down a gauntlet of sorts, I think, to those who would be true populist builders of genuinely social, democratic, and progressive movements. . As the liberal columnist E.J. Dionne wrote in September of 2010, anticipating in his own milquetoast way the deadly consequences of the pacification and depression of what passes for a left in the U.S.: “where are the progressives? Sulking is not an alternative…the Tea Party may be pulling a fast one on the country…But if it has more audacity than everyone else, it will, I am sorry to say, get away with it.” Of course, “the Tea Party” is largely a corporate media concoction and it is largely a front for corporate interests and elite Republicans, the real party “the Tea Party” is designed to re-brand.
Postscript – the Real Winner. For what it’s worth, Business Week noted an interesting victor the day after the election: elite corporations, not the Republicans or the(eir) Tea Party.. “The Republican victory in the House,” Business Week noted, “helps companies from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to health insurer Wellpoint Inc. gain support in efforts to undermine what they consider Obama’s anti- business policies on taxes, health care and financial regulation…..Exporters such as Caterpillar Inc. and United Parcel Service Inc. say a Republican-controlled House would be more likely to work with Obama to approve pending free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.”1 In a similar vein, the New York Times’ business section reported that the mid-term election promised to leave “the most powerful executives in the banking industry” in “an even stronger position, blunting the most serious overhaul of financial regulation since the Great Depression.” As Times financial writer Nelson Schwartz explained, “the widely expected Republican takeover of the House of Representative and possibly the Senate would be warmly welcomed by the banks, who want a break from the regulatory push of the last two years. Divided government makes it harder to pass new legislation and brings with it other benefits for the banks, like reducing the chances of an increase in corporate taxes.”’ Not that there was all that much of a regulatory push coming from the Obama administration in the first place. There wasn’t and there certainly won’t be any such push in the near future in the U.S., where “politics” remains “the shadow cast on society by business,” as John Dewey noted early in the last century.
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007; Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010). Street is currently completing a book titled Crashing the Tea Party, co-authored with Anthony Dimaggio. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. I get asked because the questioners know I am completing a book manuscript titled Crashing the Tea Party, co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio. I say “historic” because The ever-more reactionary Republican Party picked up a remarkable 60 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, well exceeding their gains in the so-called Republican Revolution of 1994. “It was the largest sweep of House races since 1948,” as the New York Times noted. In addition, the Republicans gained 6 seats in the U.S. Senate. The Republican revival crashed House Democrats “from the Northeast to the South and across the Midwest.” “Even though it was predicted,” noted Times columnist Maureen Dowd, “it was still a shock to see voters humiliate and spellbinding young president, who’d had such a Kennedy-like beginning” and who the Republicans had succeeded in painting out as “not American enough, not quite ‘normal,’ too radical, too Great Society….No one gets to take America away from Americans,” Dowd mused sarcastically, “not even the American president.” “We’ve come to take our country back,” said leading Tea Party candidate Rand Paul – a politician who early in his campaign defended private business owners’ right to practice the racial discrimination that was outlawed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act – in his celebration speech. left progressive can abandon all hope for moving any part of their policy agenda forward at the national level for at least two years. As Robin Hahnel noted in an important post-election reflection, if progressives were unable to significantly advance a serious, genuinely popular and progressive agenda in 2009 and 2010 – a period of Democratic Party control of both White House and Congress – they certainly will not be pushing the progressive policy ball forward in Washington in the wake of the super-Republican mid-term triumph: “ Obama’s margin of victory was truly a mandate for progressive change and whatever proved necessary to address the biggest economic crisis in over four generations. Moreover, from 2008-2010 the Democrats had larger majorities than the Republican Party enjoyed at any point over the past 80 years in the House of Representatives and the US Senate, all whining about Republican filibuster threats in the Senate notwithstanding. Lesson for progressives: If a progressive agenda could not move forward in the last two years, if effective responses to the highest unemployment rates in 80 years were ‘off the table,’ if the White House refused to get behind any climate bill, and the Senate would not even bring a single piece of climate legislation up for a vote, then only a fool would expect any better results in a Washington awash with triumphant Republicans and cowed Democrats.” See Jeff Zeleny and David M. Herszenhorn, “G.O.P. Captures House, but Not Senate,” New York Times, November 3, 2010; Maureen Dowd, “Republican Party Time,” New York Times. November 3, 2010, A23; . Krissah Thompson and Dan Balz, “Rand Paul Comments about Civil Rights Stir Controversy,” Washington Post, May 21, 2010, read at http://www.washingtonpost.com/
2. Jack Rasmus, Epic Recession: Prelude to Global Depression (Pluto Press, August 31, 2010); “Real Unemployment Rate at 16 Percent: Fed Official,” Breitbart (August 26, 2010) athttp://www.breitbart.com/
3. Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism: (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 206.
4. John Judis, “End the Honeymoon,” The New Republic, February 13, 2009, read at http://www.tnr.com/politics/
5. David Sirota. “Will Obama Get a Primary Challenge in 2012?” Huffington Post (August 13, 2010). For critical reflections on the performance of the American “progressive movement” in the first yea of Obama’s presidency, see the Afterword to Street’s The Empire’s New Clothes, titled “The Sorry Surrender of the So-Called Radical Left.”
6. Matthew Rothschild, “Rampant Xenophobia,” The Progressive (October 16, 2010).
7. On the October 2nd rally, see Jared Ball, “One Nation Under a Grip, Not a Groove,” Black Agenda Report (October 6, 2010); Glen Ford, “Ignominious Surrender on the Mall,” Black Agenda Report (October 6, 2010), both at http://www.blackagendareport.
8. “Just 32 Percent of Tea Party Candidates Win,” First Read From NBC News (November 3, 2010) at http://firstread.msnbc.msn.
9. For my purposes here, the New York Times’ definition of “Tea Party candidate” will suffice: “Tea Party candidates were those who had entered politics through the movement, or are candidates receiving significant support from local Tea Party groups and who share the ideology of the movement. Many have been endorsed by national groups like FreedomWorks or the Tea Party Express, but those endorsements alone were not enough to put them on the list..” New York Times Interactive, “Where the Tea Party Candidates Are Running,” October 14, 2010 at http://www.nytimes.com/
10. Kate Zernike, “Tea Party Comes to Power on an Unclear Mandate,” New York Times, November 3, 2010, A1; Associated Press, “Ailing Economy, Tea Party, Tea Party Fuel GOP,” November 3, http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/us_
11. Quoted in Michael Scherer, “Tea Party Time: The Making of a Political Uprising,” Time (September 16, 2010) at http://www.time.com/time/
12. See the interesting commentary of Timothy Egan: “How Obama Saved Capitalism and Lost the Midterms,” New York Times Online Commentary (November 2, 2010) athttp://opinionator.blogs.
13. Edward S. Herman, “Big Government, Deficits, Entitlements, and ‘Centrists,’” Z Magazine (April 2010).
14. On Obama and the Obama phenomenon as a heavily mass-media-ted, expertly marketed clean slate “man for all seasons” development and on Obama’s remarkable and vaguely defined open-brand “novelty dividend,” see Street, Barack Obama and the Future, xvii-xxxvi, 59-72; Street, The Empire’s New Clothes, 1-5.
15. “The Legacy of Howard Zinn,” Socialist Worker (November 2, 2010), read at http://socialistworker.org/
16. For the concept of “rancid populism,” see William Greider’s classic text Who Will Tell the People? The Betrayal of American Democracy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 274-75. The GOP’s more transparently aristocratic and corporate essence has hardly prevented it from acting in accord with Christopher Hitchens’ “essence of American politics” – “the manipulation of populism by elitism” – by working to create popular, “grassroots” illusions about its regressive agenda and character. The Republicans require votes from tens of millions middle and working class people to gain and attain elected office and therefore also and quite logically seek to manipulate populism – a sense of being of and for “the people” in opposition to concentrated wealth and power. The result is highly unattractive. As Grieder observed, the Republican Party is plagued with a critical dilemma when it comes to winning elections. “After all,” Grieder wrote, “it is the party of business enterprise…the party that most faithfully represents the minority, namely wealth holders.” It “overcomes this handicap,” Greider observed, with no small help from the Democratic Party (which has “retreat[ed] from its own [onetime] positions as the party of labor and the “little guy””). The G.O.P. also succeeds, however, by blurring partisan differences in “sexy advertising [candidate] images,” by pushing patriotic themes, and “mainly by posing as the party of the disaffected. From its polling and other research data,” Greider noted (in a passage full of meaning for understanding the 2009-10 Tea Party phenomenon), “it concocts a rancid populism [emphasis added] that is perfectly attuned to the age of political alienation – a message of antipower” and “us against them…” In the Republican version of “us against them,” the “us” is God-fearing, white and patriotic Americans and their traditional values and institutions. The “them” is “drawn from enduring social aggravations – wounds of race, class, and religion, even sex.” Conveying a political mood of “resentment against established power and “elitist liberals,” distrust of major institutions, and a sense of powerlessness even as it is “concocted” by right wing elites, this “rancid populism”16 gets very, very ugly: “The other party’s candidate is not simply depicted as unworthy of public office, but is connected to alien forces within the society that threaten to overwhelm decent folk – libertine sexual behavior, communists, criminals, people of color demanding more than they deserve. [emphasis added]. The Republican Party, thoroughly modern itself, poses as the bulwark against unsettling modernity.”
17. E.J. Dionne, “The Tea Party Movement is a Scam,” RealClearPolitics (September 23, 2010)
18. Lisa Lerer and Catherine Dodge, “Republicans to Control House, Gain in Senate,” Bloomberg Business Week (November 3, 2010) at http://www.businessweek.com/