Friday, October 18, 2013

Radical conservatism vs the radical left

I've been mesmerized by the meltdown in D.C. these past couple weeks, how about you? Am I glad it's over? Heck yeah.

If only it were over....

Frank Rich wrote a terrific putting-things-in-perspective article this week on the recurrence of government sabotage by red-blooded Americans: The Furies Never End in New York Magazine. His premise is that the Tea Party, now sinking lower and lower in the (oh so ephemeral) polls, are not the pariahs in the country at large and outliers even in their own party that coastal in-tuh-lectual types would like to believe. Nope. Rich wrote:
Would that this were so, and that the extralegal rebellion against the Affordable Care Act, a Supreme Court–sanctified law of the land, would send the rebels, not the country, off a cliff. Off the cliff they may well have gone in this year’s failed coup, but like Wile E. Coyote, they will quickly climb back up to fight another day. That’s what happened after the double-header shutdowns of 1995–96, which presaged Newt Gingrich’s beheading but in the long run advanced the rebels’ cause. It’s what always happens. The present-day anti-government radicals in Congress, and the Americans who voted them into office, are in the minority, but they are a permanent minority that periodically disrupts or commandeers a branch or two of the federal government, not to mention the nation’s statehouses. Their brethren have been around for much of our history in one party or another, and with a constant anti-­democratic aim: to thwart the legitimacy of a duly elected leader they abhor, from Lincoln to FDR to Clinton to Obama, and to resist any laws with which they disagree. So deeply rooted are these furies in our national culture that their consistency and tenacity should be the envy of other native political movements.
I found this perspective provocative and intriguing (it goes on for quite a few words; Rich's article is long, and worth reading). It helped me to focus my own ambivalent feelings about the whole ugly mess. Because -- surprisingly perhaps, given that I profoundly disagree with most of the far right's objectives (we agree on radically reducing government snooping) -- my feelings are ambivalent.

The thing is, as a lifelong activist on the left edge of this country's political spectrum, I have to admire the Tea Party's ability to make waves.

Yeah, I think the teabaggers' positions are for the most part idiotic, hypocritical, and socially corrosive; but to be fair a whole lot of so-called "moderates" -- and pretty much everybody to the right of them -- thought the same of quite a few positions I took before they became middle-of-the-road:
  • that the U.S. should get out of Vietnam (and shouldn't have gone to war there in the first place);
  • that South African apartheid demanded active, material international opposition;
  • that same-sex lovers should be treated by others with respect, should be equally safe in public and private spaces, and should enjoy the same civil rights as opposite-sex lovers;
  • that both the 21st century Afghanistan and Iraq wars were mistakes from the get-go
... and so on.

Seriously. When I threw down on each of those issues, my position was regarded as, well, kind of wacky at best. Well to the left of mainstream.

Now? Not so much.

But the you've got to be kidding side of my ambivalence, the side most of the country took as the right wing of the G.O.P. took the government hostage and the POTUS (finally) stood his ground, left me mildly uncomfortable. I questioned how I could credibly wag my finger at tactics that I've encouraged, and used myself, and organize others to use ... in support of ending a war, or dismantling apartheid, or making safe space to be queer, or any others of the issues I've agitated for or against myself over the years.

And here I have to reveal my reformist tendencies (sorry, revolutionary comrades: I'm middle-aged now).

See, I've pretty much always understood, even when I was bellowing rage at, say, then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger on the barricades in front of San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, that the practical, useful role of the fringe left in the most wealthy and -- in many respects and for many if not most individuals -- the most politically permissive nation of the 20th (and now 21st) century ... the actually effective role of people willing to rage at barricades and occupy buildings and blockade bridges is to push the agenda and discourse of those who hold actual power in one or another direction.

It also helps to make the people who walk picket lines and march on Washington look more reasonable to the vast middle-of-the-road. There's a spectrum, and somebody's got to hang out in the infrared.

At no time during my rage-at-the-barricades days (or since, as it happens) did I hold any more political power than the next woman or man willing to kick up a fuss. Not that we tell ourselves that in organizing meetings. Not that we don't allow ourselves to dream. But aside from enthusiastic youth and the delusional-left (and there is a delusional left in this country, just like there's a delusional right), the activists I worked and work with understand the bigger picture.

The difference between the variants of political activism in which I participate and the actions of the Tea Partiers that forced a sixteen day shutdown of the government this month, the Tea Partiers who seemed ready and willing and able to wreck the global economy by letting the U.S. default on its (legislated) debts -- that difference was pithily articulated in the hallowed pages of the New York Times about a week ago.

From last week's article Business Groups See Loss of Sway Over House G.O.P.:
As the government shutdown grinds toward a potential debt default, some of the country’s most influential business executives have come to a conclusion all but unthinkable a few years ago: Their voices are carrying little weight with the House majority that their millions of dollars in campaign contributions helped build and sustain.


Joe Echevarria, the chief executive of Deloitte, the accounting and consulting firm, said, "I'm a Republican by definition and by registration, but the party seems to have split into two factions."

While both parties have extreme elements, he suggested, only in the G.O.P. did the extreme element exercise real power. "The extreme right has 90 seats in the House," Mr. Echevarria said. "Occupy Wall Street has no seats."
Uh, yeah. That's just about right. And right from the mouth of the C.E.O. of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, the largest professional services network in the world by revenue and by the number of professionals (if Wikipedia is to be believed).

Sure, Elizabeth Warren gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling, but she ain't OWS by a longshot. She was a professor at Harvard Law before she got elected Senator. And now ... she's a Senator (a Senator I would vote to re-elect in a Massachusetts minute if I lived in the state she represented).

So the difference between my left-fringe activism and the so-called Tea Party's: is it success?

Well, I don't think so. Look again at that bulleted list of erstwhile-fringe issues earlier in this post. I'd say that over the time the arc of history has bent toward the left-fringe in each of those cases.

The difference is power. The Tea Party had -- and has -- real power, in the form of those ninety seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. And they weren't afraid to use it. I'm far from convinced they'll be afraid to use it again.

It's almost a tautology to say that a large majority of U.S. citizens inhabits the middle of the political spectrum. That middle is movable, certainly. In past decades it has located itself well to the left of its current spread. I'd like to believe it'll scooch over that way again, and I do my small, sometimes fringey part to induce just that.

But if the actual activist left -- I'm not talking about center-rightists like the POTUS who are rhetorical victims of idjuts who wouldn't know a socialist if one came right up to them and offered to share a sandwich -- if the actual activist left held and exercised power in the way the Tea Party did these past several weeks? We'd be in the same doghouse the Tea Party inhabits now. Worse, because Deloitte's CEO and his comrades would have been (are) hounding us from the get-go.

This is not a call for lefties to give up. Heck no. Real activists don't ever give up. We're constitutionally incapable of it. That, indeed, is Frank Rich's thesis.

So what's Frank Rich's prescription? Here, from the conclusion of that same New York Magazine article (bold emphasis is mine):
Some Democrats nonetheless cling to the hope that electoral Armageddon will purge the GOP of its radicals, a wish that is far less likely to be fulfilled now than it was after Goldwater’s landslide defeat, when liberalism was still enjoying the last sunny days of its postwar idyll. This was also the liberal hope after Gingrich’s political demise of 1998. But his revolution, whatever its embarrassments, hypocrisies, and failures, did nudge the country toward the right: It’s what pushed Clinton to announce in his 1996 State of the Union address that “the era of big government is over” and to adopt policy modulations that tamped down New Deal–Great Society liberalism. The right has only gained strength within the GOP ever since. Roughly half of the party’s current House population was first elected in 2010 or 2012, in the crucible of the tea-party revolt. While it’s Beltway conventional wisdom that these Republicans don’t know how to govern, the real issue is that they don’t want to govern. That’s their whole point, and they are sticking to it.

Dwindling coastal Republicans of the nearly extinct George H.W. Bush persuasion like Peter King nonetheless keep hoping that the extremists will by some unspecified alchemy lose out to the adults in their party. Tune in to Morning Joe, that echo chamber of Northeast-corridor greenroom centrism hosted by Joe Scarborough, a chastened former firebrand of the Gingrich revolution, and you’ll hear the ultimate version of this fantasy: Somehow Chris Christie will parlay his popularity in the blue state of New Jersey into leading the national party back to sanity and perhaps even into the White House.

To believe this you not only have to believe in miracles, but you also have to talk yourself into buying the prevailing bipartisan canard, endorsed by King and Obama alike, that the radicals are just a rump within the GOP (“one faction of one party in one house of Congress,” in the president’s reckoning). In reality, the one third of the Republican House caucus in rebel hands and the electorate it represents are no more likely to surrender at this point than the third of the states that seceded from the Union for much the same ideological reasons in 1860–61. Unless and until the other two thirds of the GOP summons the guts to actually fight and win the civil war that is raging in its own camp, the rest of us, and the health of our democracy, will continue to be held hostage.
We'll see what the G.O.P. does with the next several months. In the meantime, you might want to lay in a supply of USDA-inspected foodstuffs, get some visits in to national monuments, download images sent home from Mars by the Curiosity -- to stock up on whatever you like about government.

'Cuz January's right around the corner.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Remembering Richie Havens: down to earth
The controversy machine v the reality machine
Making a world where queer kids thrive
The desire to destroy is also a creative desire

Thanks to Wikipedia Commons for the image of anarchist protesters at the Republication National Convention in 2008; and to cometstarmoon for the image of a Tea Party protester in April 2009.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments, Steve.

    One observation: it's been Tea Partiers like Mike Lee and Justin Amash, excoriated in the media in recent weeks, and now facing potentially well-funded challengers from the 'mainstream' GOP, who've been among the staunchest opponents of the surveillance state.