On Populism, The Tea Party, and Politics
The American political scene since its inception has constantly been riddled with problems. The question of what the present-day problems are cyclically arises in political discourse. In the past two years in particular, it has become an almost universal observation that the political discourse is bitterly partisan in ways that we have never seen as a country.
Those in the punditry business have presented a number of hypotheses, some good, some bad, as to how or why all that we are witnessing is taking place. The content of such speculation is hardly unexpected: President Obama has made a number of strategic errors; the Republicans are just sheer obstructionists with no ideas or solutions to anything; partisanship in Washington is just too great on both sides of the aisle due to the Democratic supermajority; the overflow of ideological partisanship to 24-hour chattering cable-news stations is making the nation more partisan because each side chooses their news source, their associations, etc., in alignment with their own views, reinforcing their own habits of thoughts and therefore we collectively fail to challenge to substantively confront counterviews; disagreement over the Senate filibuster has caused a ruckus because it has either halted or changed the political dynamics of Democratic policy initiatives due to delay— is this a mechanism of checks-and-balances or an unreasonable threshold, in present time, requiring a supermajority for any important legislation?
There are many other explanations commonly put forth, but what is perhaps the most underlying problem of all, the truest explanation and biggest culprit of all, indeed, the biggest threat to democracy, goes unnoticed: the apathy, the ignorance, and the growing incoherence of the American public. This may be called, for the lack of better terms, the “populist problem.”
The Tea Party movement is interconnected with the current manifestation of the “populist problem,” though the Tea Party itself is not the problem. Some time ago, DarwinCatholic raised concern over what seemed to be the blatant intellectual dissonance of the American public.
Traditionally, according to the logical principle of non-contradiction, when two irreconcilable realities collide, it is impossible to have it both ways. In a number of ways, the American people, collectively, have rejected this elementary fact. A simple glance at a myriad of public opinion polls seem to add credibility to this observation. For example, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll in February 2009, 59 percent of Americans favored the Democrats’ economic recovery plan. In July 2009, a USA Today/Gallup poll found that a majority of the same size believed that President Obama and the Democratic Congress were spending too much money and over-reaching in terms of government expansion.
No reasonable mind would assert that there is something wrong with a change of heart. But public opinion polls have come to reflect a troubling trend that moves far beyond the hypothesis that the American people simply changed their mind. The American public, it seems, simultaneously demand and reject government action on unemployment, deficits, health care, and a host of other policy matters. 60 percent of Americans in November 2008—at the climax of the Obama “hope and change” populist movement where “ordinary Americans” would no longer be, as Hillary Clinton put it, “invisible” to their government—believed that regulations on financial institutions should be more strict for the good of the economy. Strikingly, roughly the same proportion just over a year later seemed to believe our financial woes were due too much regulation on business and financial institutions.
The inanity of the American people, or at the very least, the public’s susceptibility to rhetorical manipulation by politicians and interests groups is actually what cements our nation into the grip of the status quo. The heart of the problem is America’s historical ambivalence about government, which is not a problem in and of itself. The problem is Americans want the federal and state governments to play a role in solving social and economic problems with impossible speed whilst simultaneously shrinking itself in size, spending less, reducing taxation, and effectively “getting out of the way.”
An extensive CNN public opinion poll revealed alarming cognitive dissonance by the American public.
- In January 2010, 55 percent of Americans believed that President Bush is more responsible for our economic woes than President Obama. When asked in a series of polls from January 2009 to January 2010 whether Republicans, Democrats, or both parties together are largely responsible for our economic downturn, Republican blame has consistently beat out the other two options (the other options being, Democrats mostly the blame or both parties are to blame, respectively). However, the 2010 Midterm elections are shaping up to be in favor of the Republicans (for what are politically obvious reasons).
- In February 2009, 60% of Americans favored the economic stimulus package. In January 2010, 56% of Americans opposed the economic stimulus package. In stark contradiction to the American public’s change of opinion on the stimulus plan, another January 2010 poll found that the majority of Americans believe that the economic stimulus package prevented economic conditions from “becoming worse.” Despite this belief, in yet another January 2010 public opinion poll 63% of Americans said that government economic recovery spending will have no impact on the economy. This latter majority opinion obviously raises the question of how a similarly sized majority could also think the stimulus package stopped the economy from becoming worse.
- Despite the growing discontent with President Obama and the Democratic Congress, the majority of Americans in a December 2009 public opinion poll believed that the Democratic party was more likely than the Republican party to create jobs.
To review: large majorities oppose the spending cuts that would reduce projected deficits (expressly preferring stimulating recovery even if it meant little deficit reduction in the short term); nearly half the public wants to cancel the government’s ongoing stimulus spending and rein in public spending. But 80-plus percent of Americans polled reported that they wished to extend and expand unemployment benefits and invest in infrastructure, which, in effect is more stimulus spending. Most notably, Americans are so fed up with the Democrats they are ready to re-elect the Republicans—for whom, according to the polls, the nation has even greater contempt!
According to a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, the Democratic party’s “favorable” rating has fallen to 33 percent. However the Republican party’s favorability is a mere 24 percent. The Democrats retain a slight edge in general favorability (not electability) and the Republicans, to date, are quite unpopular—and a series of polls reflect this fact. Despite this consistent trend of an edge in popularity for the Democrats, registered voters, according to a recent Gallup poll, have given the GOP an astounding 10-point margin in a generic congressional ballot. A number of respected analysts are predicting that the Republicans will capture somewhere between 45 and 60 seats in the House (and the majority with it) and the Democrats’ Senate majority is now at risk.
Admittedly, opinion polls are not infallible and there is difficulty in assessing both their reliability and credibility. But the polls consistently point, to some degree, in the same general direction, in terms of national political sentiment and electoral intentions. Such a body of evidence, despite these challenges, should not be disregarded casually.
Reflecting upon present trends, it becomes obvious why great conservative thinkers, from Burke to Tocqueville, have generally been wary of democracy, let alone populism. Needless to say, in a true democracy, the people, even the unreasonable and “crazy” people, have to be heard. But the task of those with a vocation to public service by means of elected office is to respond to the occasional rage of the populace with minimal demagoguery and to work with fellow elected officials for the common good, which might include throwing the populists a “few bones” to calm them down. The bottom line is that civility, sanity, and prudence prevail as the Founding Fathers seemed to intend.
But it is quite possible that the populist impulse is now too powerful for the elected elite to reassert control, as we have seen with the Tea Party—and this point need not be wholly negative. Previously there were no partisan, omnipresent news and talk-radio channels nor a blogosphere to keep the populists riled up with the passions of a mob, constantly outraged. Until very recently in our nation’s history, American political leaders could pretty well manage national policy conversations and keep them on reasonable simmer, relatively speaking. But comparatively, new technology has, perhaps permanently, turned up the heat in our political discourse to instant-boil.
This has played heavily across the political spectrum into the mass politics borne of irrational sensationalism. Liberals and conservatives both attempt to bind national majorities not by convincing people of the intelligibility and coherency of their political philosophy and policy initiatives, but by evoking hatred against “them”—typically through a series of unsubstantive straw man arguments, gross generalziations, and mass-advertising campaigns painting the other side as ideological, corrupt, and “out of touch” with America. In short, contemporary politics rests in the vulnerability of democracy to demagogic manipulation and populism plays right into that gambit. In practice, the words of John Lukacs bear a certain truth: “The people do not speak, or they very seldom speak…but other people speak in the name of the people.”
The Republicans are presently exploiting this very phenomenon. The Tea Party represents a mouth-watering opportunity to capitalize on the growing anti-Washington sentiment for the sake of the short-term, short-sighted goal of regaining a political majority. Perhaps this view is too cynical. But the current debate about the future of America, in the political world, seems to be more about the immediate future: who is governing? The movement to “Restore America,” what ever the differences it has has in aim and philosophy with what we saw in the last election cycle, has a number of remarkable similarities to the Democratic populist campaign in 2008, led by then-Senator Obama, to “Renew America’s Promise.”
But there is more at stake than the November elections. The Republicans by maintaining their just-say-no strategy—not that the Democrats were being bipartisan angels (it is just irrelevant to the point at hand)—the result of the next two election cycles should they go Republican should be the least of our concerns nor be seen as any sort of victory. The greatest threat now is a threat to the American republic due to a paralysis in governing because any instance of refusal to broker any deal, even legitimate deals, has become a virtue. The most extreme, practical nihilistic divisiveness might become even more so the norm for both parties.
The tea-party movement takes its name from the mob of angry people in Boston who, in 1773, committed a zany criminal stunt as a protest against taxes and the distant, out-of-touch government that imposed them. Two years later, the revolution was under way and—voilà!—democracy was born out of a wild moment of populist insurrection.
Except not, because in 1787 several dozen coolheaded members of the American Establishment had to meet and debate and horse-trade for four months to do the real work of creating an apparatus to make self-government practicable—that is, to write the Constitution. And what those thoughtful, educated, well-off, well-regarded gentlemen did was invent a democracy sufficiently undemocratic to function and endure. They wanted a government run by an American elite like themselves, as James Madison wrote, “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” They wanted to make sure the mass of ordinary citizens, too easily “stimulated by some irregular passion…or misled by the artful misrepresentations” and thus prone to hysteria—like, say, the rabble who’d run amok in Boston Harbor—be kept in check. That’s why they created a Senate and a Supreme Court and didn’t allow voters to elect senators or presidents directly. By the people and for the people, definitely; of the people, not so much.
So now we have a country absolutely teeming with irregular passions and artful misrepresentations, whipped up to an unprecedented pitch and volume by the fundamentally new means of 24/7 cable and the hyperdemocratic web. And instead of a calm club of like-minded wise men (and women) in Washington compromising and legislating, we have a Republican Establishment almost entirely unwilling to defy or at least gracefully ignore its angriest, most intemperate and frenzied faction—the way Reagan did with his right wing in the eighties and the way Obama is doing with his unhappy left wing now. Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and their compatriots are ideologues who default to uncivil, unbudging, sky-is-falling recalcitrance, as Keith Olbermann does on the left. Fine; in free-speech America, that’s the way we roll. But the tea-party citizens are under the misapprehension that democratic governing is supposed to be the same as democratic discourse, that elected officials are virtuous to the extent that they too default to unbudging, sky-is-falling recalcitrance and refusal. And the elected officials, as never before, are indulging that populist fantasy.
Just as the founders feared, American democracy has gotten way too democratic…
This new la-la-la-la-la-la refusenik approach to politics is especially wrong in the Senate, which was created to be the “temperate and respectable body of citizens” that could, owing to its more gentlemanly size and longer terms, ride above populist political hysteria…[e.g.] On the issue supposedly animating the post-Bush GOP and the tea-partiers, the massive deficit, a bipartisan Senate bill to establish a bipartisan commission to rein in future budgets was just defeated with 23 of 40 Republicans voting no—including a half-dozen of the bill’s original co-sponsors.
From a Christian perspective this is a sheer prevalence of nihilism. This issue exists across the political spectrum and is obviously more than just about the election before us as a nation. In fact, it is regularly exploited by politicians who subscribe to the live-for-today mentality and politics of pandering to the public’s ignorance on political matters. The Republicans became the champions of Medicare in the health care debate despite opposing the creation and endurance of the program for over four decades—and this sentiment undoubtedly has not changed. The Democrats now wish to change the rules of the filibuster for political advantage, though it was only five years ago that such an act (by the Republicans) was so politically unthinkable that the Democrats threatened to shut down the Senate, halting all routine and legislative business.
The most important point, however, is entirely another matter. Consider, for example, that the Tea Party presently does not seem to have much of a consensus on foreign policy; the unity, if it is there, rests primarily on agreement on goals involving domestic policy. The Tea Party though it has diverse members, in terms of political belief, is primarily a conservative, and specifically libertarian, movement against the over-reach of the federal government. Consequently, one might argue that in only one economic realm does contemporary populism neatly coincide with Republican politics: the less taxes, the better. But Republicans strategists know their candidates would not be elected if they pushed to make actual cuts to, say, Social Security and Medicare. To do it is political suicide and the public is likely to oppose it (despite wanting to cut the budget).
The conventional wisdom of the last 30 years for the Republicans has been to abandon the core principle of prudent budgeting to become the do-not-tax-but-spend-anyway party of fantasy economics. After all, a good number of Republicans who voted consistently for the Republican deficit-spending spree under the Bush Administration are now howling the loudest, with credibility, at least to the minds of those ignorant of their voting records, against the Democrats’ Bush-spending-spree-on-steroids.
John Medaille of The Distributist Review, in addressing how politicians get away with such reckless spending habits points to a core problem that often goes unaddressed:
This is the hallmark of the “gimme” generation, the problem with the Politics of Ingratitude…This by now is a time-honored tradition, dating back to Ronald Reagan, who convinced the public that he could finance his tax cuts by eliminating “waste, fraud, and abuse.” That is, no one need fear that their subsidy was in any danger. Anybody who actually advocates a particular service cut will not be elected, and anybody who actually makes a cut will not be re-elected. But…you cannot cut taxes without cutting expenses. That just drives up borrowing, and borrowing is also a tax, just a tax shifted to the next generation. The Tea Baggers are perfect representatives of this mentality. While I certainly respect their righteous anger, I marvel at their incoherence.
We are all taught by the consumerist mentality, a mentality reinforced by the relentless propaganda known as advertising, to seek instant gratification, to live beyond our means, to live our lives on credit and not let anything stand in the way of our pleasures, to demand tax cuts without budget cuts. It is unfortunate that the Tea Party movement is not the antidote to this mentality, but just another sign of it.
In the punditry business, it is bad form to question the wisdom of the American people. In the moral world, it is not. Indeed what is most lacking from current populist trends, and political discourse more generally, is honest self-criticism on behalf of the American people; put differently, we need to stop solely blaming the rascals we elect to office and look to ourselves.
As a nation we demand what is impossible: quick, painless solutions to long-term and deep structural problems. While running for office, politicians from both parties encourage this kind of magical thinking. Two years ago it was President Obama standing atop of a wave of Democratic populism, built on the edifice of cheap bumper-sticker politics, of single word phrases like “hope” and “change” that were essentially (as we can see now) void of meaning. It was obvious in the opinion polls that showed noticeable gaps between the President’s popularity and the policies he endorsed. Undoubtedly, President Obama regrets, to some degree, the sky-high idealism of populist rhetoric that now lays as a record of broken and half-met promises, unique in that the resultant anger is because people had such high expectations and high hopes.
Yet, President Obama (or anyone for that matter) can point to any number of occasions on which he told America that getting our nation back on the right course was going to be a difficult, demanding project that required collective participation and sacrifice. He said it both in his victory speech on Election Night and in his Inaugural Address. But the President’s campaign message was primarily: “Let’s go change the world!”—not “Let’s go change the world, slowly, incrementally, sometimes met with frustrations and obstacles, perhaps waiting even years before seeing the fruits of our labors.” This is all people remember, not calls to be patient or highlights of the necessity of sacrifice.
The President, like all politicians, who ride populist waves into office, finds himself forced to try to explain—despite already having warned the public—that things are not so simple, that fixing our broken economy, repairing our national infrastructure, regaining America’s positive standing in the world, and the host of other challenges we face as a nation are going to require years and perhaps even generations to see through. (We should not doubt that we will soon see this with Tea Party candidates who are elected). But it is my observation that We The People, in the instant-gratification world of modernity, do not want to hear any of this. We want someone to solve all of our problems, now.
It should be said that the populist impulse is not always or altogether bad. No one should be pleased, in the slightest,w ith the way the American government is being run or has been run. It is self-evident that something must be done, something must change. It is essential for the American public to be vocal in their concerns and involved in the political process. Historically, America has seen many positive populist-inspired changes particualrly in the late nineteenth and twentienth century with the progressive movement.
But this “new” emerging populism manifest in the Tea Party movement, its numerous positive elements notwithstanding, is another story. This movement seems to have has stitched together conflicting concerns and goals into a single we-are-mad-as-hell-and-demand-to-be-appeased quilt. We The People have spoken. But do we make any sense? And that is precisely a chief populist problem: collectively “the people” do not have a harmonious single mind or voice, but rather a great multitude of many minds and voices that are often in contradiction to one another. The Tea Party, like all political movements, inevitably has visible leaders who to some degree “direct the narrative” and focus attention to a certain number of issues. But with such a large, diverse group, without a working intellectual infrastructure (that everyone agrees with), as it were, the unity that binds inevitably must be animosity, vague slogans, and a short list of “quick-fix” solutions—and these latter things will most certainly not “restore America.”
The Tea Party quite arguably is the counter-populist movement against the one we saw two years ago, both built upon frustration with the governing Presidential Administration and Congress. Like the other, it attracts a number of people from all walks of life. Like the other, it lacks an intellectual foundation and any unity not contingent on phrases, emotion-invoking images, and opposition to some common enemy. Lastly, like the previous populist movement, it will probably see its goals unrealized not because of lack of effort but because those in the political world exploit the real world frustrations of the populace for the sake of short-term gain.
In summary: the collective illogic of Americans is mostly negligent rather than intentional or militant. The most compelling explanation is the moral predisposition of Americans toward a host of specific vices (individualism, consumerism, instant-gratification, materialism, etc) has left the American public in Candyland, where it is conceivable for the government to tackle the bring problems and get out of the way at the same time. But what we as people want to hear and talk about are “solutions” and other people (not us) who will do the solving, while we are left unchanged, unbothered, free to continue with our moral attitudes and behavior patterns, whatever they may be. We cannot consider how we contribute to our national problems. Most importantly, we do not want to seriously consider, as a nation, sacrifice or trade-offs—except as flattering descriptions by our civil leaders about how ready we, as a people, are, or have been in dire times, to accept such things. We like the idea of hard choices in theory. When was the last time we made one in reality?
“This is the arresting and dominant fact about modern social discussion; that the quarrel is not merely about the difficulties, but about the aim. We agree about the evil; it is about the good that we should tear each other’s eyes out…the common sociological method is quite useless: that of first dissecting abject poverty or cataloguing prostitution. We all dislike abject poverty; but it might be another business if we began to discuss independent and dignified poverty. We all disapprove of prostitution; but we do not all approve of purity. The only way to discuss the social evil is to get at once to the social ideal. We can all see the national madness; but what is national sanity? I have called this book ‘What Is Wrong with the World?’ and the upshot of the title can be easily and clearly stated. What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.” – G.K. Chesterton