Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Tea Party Redux: Thoughts and Responses

George Shulman
   New York University

Thought #1: In response to Bill Connolly’s idea of distinguishing the “extreme” from the “radical” right, I wonder whether we should think about the “tea party” as a real social movement (TPM), perhaps on the model Lawrence Goodwyn described years ago in his history of the “genuine” populist movement, or perhaps in comparison to the CIO or Civil Rights Movement. (How is it different to talk about a resonance machine or a social movement?) The TPM has been engendered both by post-fordist capitalism, which has created for some few a material basis for a revivified entrepeneurialism or family capitalism, but also put this new sector at risk, and the TPM has been engendered by a cultural sense of displacement among whites, anchored in post-65 immigration and multi-culturalism. In the phrasing of C.Wright Mills, the TPM links “private grievance” to “public causes” in a way that mobilizes people to form what he called publics. In its anti-immigrant and anti-statist politics, it demonstrates a sense of crisis and urgency about national decline, fury at unwelcome change, and ferocity towards those it deems adversaries. It has an infrastructure (for the populists, traveling lecturers, for the tea party, talk radio and fox) that enables communication among de-centralized grassroots associations. Among its participants affect and creed are intertwined in both inconsistent and protean ways that include sharp disagreements. And lastly, there is a tense relationship of hostility and dependence between grassroots and the republican party and elected officials, even at the state level. What the idea of social movement may NOT reach, that resonance machine does, is the conjoining of very different ideological elements: as Connolly says, the right’s resonance machine is an assemblage relating secular free-market libertarians, corporate elites, and evangelicals. But his description of the “radical” right (the republican party elite, its funders, and corporate base) and the “extreme” right seems closer to the tension typical of social movement politics. (Patchen Markell’s association with Crespino on the white citizen’s councils is very suggestive in this regard while emphasizing the issue of race.) Republican elites gain legitimacy for their project from the ‘extreme’ voices, which do powerful ideological work against any form of state welfare and regulation, but elected elites are now also really afraid of the TPM, because it is willing to defeat incumbent republicans in primaries, and because it seems willing to create financial crisis, to refuse elite notions of responsibility.
Thought #2: To see the TPM as simply individualistic may be mistaken, not only because members articulate ideas of responsibility to family and community, but also because they are enacting the action-in-concert of the political. Maybe the TPM needs to be seen on the model of the “producer” ethos and politics in which a self-declared “productive” class identifies itself against “unproductive” classes above and below it. They speak an intensely exclusionary language as taxpayers (and so as the employed) against surplus or parasitic people unjustifiably supported by liberal elites. 
Their language thus combines race and class to create equivalence among illegal immigrants, poor people and prisoners. They do not challenge but endorse the logic of the market and neo-liberal rationality, and they replenish rather than question the worst of nationalism. Unlike the CIO or the CRM, they focus on the wrong target -the state- not the multi-national economic order and its bio-political disciplines and quarantines. Moreover, they have no vision of the future except as a return to an idealized past, whereas the CIO and the CRM wanted to create an alternative to both past and present. But are we mis-reading the TPM in any way? They do not avow properly “democratic” commitments in the progressive form the left reifies, they interpret equality in libertarian rather than social democratic ways, and so they oppose the extensive state regulation the left endorses, but is the “socialism” they attack in any way related to the corporate state, that we attack, the protection racket that binds political and economic elites? Are there voices among them who reject “corporate welfare” as well as the military-industrial complex or imperial state power? Can their commitment to de-centralization be affirmed in any sense? Can we challenge them to make good on that language more consistently? Is there a sense in which they are democratic not merely liberal individualistic? Is it a delusion to put them in Wolinian terms, to see them as enacting “demotic” power, even if we disagree with them over substantive positions? Is it crazy to ask if there are any strands of affiliation between them and a democratic anti-statist left? 
Thought #3: Paul Krugman says the real issue in American politics is not a lack of civility or the violence of rhetoric by the TPM, but profound substantive disagreements about the state and the market, foreign policy etc. But maybe Krugman is wrong, at least in one regard. For recent polling data suggests that a majority of Americans want the specific policies supported by the left - item by item, in the concrete- but remain opposed to “big government.” They are living that contradiction Marx called a double life. Perhaps, then, what Krugman depicts as a substantive or ideological division applies only to minorities on left and right, while the remaining 60% of the electorate is composed of people who are divided internally as it were, between something like a common sense understanding of their interests, which require state action, and the ‘common sense’ or ideology/fantasy of individualism and its anti-statist phobia.. The democrats have refused to make a strong narrative case to support state actions, therefore, to avoid offending that deep fantasy, and instead they focus on prosaic policy, case by case. But they lose when republican poetry (by the extreme or the radical right) stokes fear of state power. How is the investment in individualism, and the corresponding hysteria about the state, best addressed? It seems to me this is the central rhetorical and political question, and one democrats must address rather than avoid, though addressing it is also risky because it may alienate the “independents” they require.
Thought #4: Does the violent speech of the TPM require us to rethink ideas of an“agonal” politics? I am inclined to defend violent speech, maybe because of a misplaced attachment to memories of my own 60's radicalism -we were uncivil, and self-righteously used violent and demonizing speech. (And yes, we alienated a majority of the population.) In a culture that longs for the non-partisanship of more perfect union, or that seeks to avoid politics through juridical forms, shouldn’t theorists defend agonism, not only as the grounds for advancing a substantive democratic/left agenda, but also as a democratic/political idea(l) in itself? Is the political task now to contain “extreme” voices on the right by invoking norms of civility, or is the task to make a more vigorous left to contest the right? I want to say: make a left rather than look to umpires (the media, or Obama) to promote an ethos of critical generosity. But given the absence of a left, and given the ferocity of the right, maybe the emphasis on ethos is the only/best way to protect the interests and constituencies we care about? Maybe also a language of constitutionalism, and so a deliberative ethos, is needed to draw independents away from the right’s gravitational field? 
Thought #5: If only we could see our moment now, looking back from the future. Are we living in some version of 1850's America, when southern ‘fire-eaters,’ defining themselves as victims, are impossible to placate by any compromise, and use their sense of victimization to justify incredible personal and political aggression? As these folks depicted themselves as desperately trying to preserve an endangered way of life, are we like abolitionists (and Obama like Lincoln) in contrasting efforts to forge a response? What was needful or possible then, and what is needful and possible now? Are we living in some version of Weimar in 1930, the rhetorical violence heating up while a right-wing movement forms under the umbrella of liberal protections it uses and abuses (and abandons the second it gains formal power)? Does the left therefore need to recognize its dependence on a constitutional order whose limitations we have devotedly exposed the last thirty years? I don’t mean these are literally analogous moments, but can we get a broader view of our moment, our present, to help us decide what is needful? 
In sum, I find myself confounded by the TPM. I am happy to attack their idealization of “the individual,” of the market, of the past, and of the nation, but I am averse to attacking the violence in their rhetoric, their critique of the state and defense of decentralization, and their urgent sense of a whole “system” broken. And then I wonder if, in some fealty to agonism, I am defending people who are the American face on brown shirts, enemies (not merely adversaries) who would kill me in a second. Is my attachment to agonism -and critical generosity- blinding me to the real meaning of the TPM? In the face of an “extreme” politics endlessly replenished by victimology, and defended in the name of free speech and agonal contest, what is to be done?


  1. i dont know that much of the movement can be marshalled to a different set of policies, or in favor of a common critique of alienated forms of social existence. what i do think is likely is that a generation of progressive thinkers and activists can be poached from their younger ranks via individual conversions, like reaganites who lived through the civil rights era and then flipped.

  2. Are you kidding me? It's Germany 1932 and you wish to tolerate their "agonism" like some quaint south seas tribe? My grandfather fought these guys on the streets of London in the 20s. They have no arguments: this is aestheticized, spectacular thuggery. There is no negotiating with them. You want agonism? Then fight!

  3. Great post. Intelligent, thoughtful, and challenging.
    I think we should not be so quick to conclude there is an evil essence to the TPM. We should remain open to the possibility that certain elements of the TPM could be divorced from the xenophobia, violent resentment, and de facto pro-corporatism that makes the movement dangerous.

  4. Folks, I am amazed no one has seen, or seen fit to call, the Tea party for what it is... a human weapons system abandoned by its' one time masters intact and active. This weapon was the result of a twenty five year plot, one full generation of effort to create a segment of the American population sufficiently large as to elect enough representatives to influence Congress into providing support-by-rubberstamp to the most serious threat to the Constitution of the United States since the British invasions in the war of 1812, a segment of the American population suited to filling social needs of the sort never needed in the United States before, roles that would equate to the Nazi brown shirts growing into SS or Gestapo, or perhaps "the fingermen" as seen in "V for Vendetta" if you would prefer a fictional analogy.

    The Tea Party are dangerous people, very dangerous. They are the people who were in all fact the most utterly betrayed of all Americans: their educations compromised to pitifully low levels, their livelihoods degraded and lost to foreign competitors as a result of that ignorance, their faith based culture ruthlessly attacked by the academics and intelligentsia as provocation for the (at this point truly pathological) paranoid fear of the very things that might have allowed them to perceive who had betrayed them and to what purpose, a key point in the forging of the Tea Party where the Bushite conservatives played the academic world like a fiddle.

    The Tea party is not an accident of history, it is a most deliberate construct engineered by those who are masters of media manipulation. I call them "The Bushites" after the first administration to be so co-opted and corrupted as to initiate wars of aggression at the bequest of their corporate campaign sponsors. Dwight Eisenhower, honorable old soldier that he was, left office with a dire warning of the consequences of an alliance between the military and the industrial complex. He could not foresee the possibility of the individual corporate entities grown to such size that alliances of such entities would become power players on the global political stage, manipulating nations and democracies by providing carefully choreographed political violence from which to mount propaganda campaigns. In short, the Bushites own the dog whose tail is known to wag him.

    In the great science fiction novel "Dune" is perhaps the most appropriate analogy for the Tea Party: the Tea Party are the Americans the Bushites were tempering to become their own personal Sardaukar in the event the Constitution had fallen to their first major assault. Had the Constitution failed, had the systems of checks and balances not turned the blow the Bushites would have had ample work for the Tea Party folk as suppression troops to be used against guess who... right, that would be you, and me.

    It would take a major work to list all of the various manipulations employed to create the emotional climate of the Tea Party folk, but I should think those tactical matters are of lesser import than understanding why they were created in the first place. It is not hard to reverse engineer such things starting from the correct strategic assumptions. If your goal was to turn the United States into a nation wielding thermonuclear power in the cause of the certifying the corporate citizen's world wide rights as the legal and lawful owner operator of the world's corporeal citizens how would you proceed?