Ship of Fools II

by A. Jay Adler on September 20, 2010
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Updated: GOP Candidate Sharron Angle Speaks at John Birch Society Event. See below.

That what is referred to as the Tea Party movement – a phenomenon, in fact, more multifaceted than the mass popular movement that name is meant to suggest – has a base in the passionate discontent of a segment of the populace is undeniable. What is also undeniable – the evidence has long been there – is that what is fashioned as a grassroots uprising has also been significantly orchestrated from behind the scenes by professional pols and organizational coaches, from Dick Army’s FreedomWorks to the wide wallets of the Koch brothers. The Right has managed to get away with this hypocrisy, beyond the obvious cynicism of the pros, because the genuine passion of some has convinced the passionate themselves, and a broader swath of their sympathizers, that the other part doesn’t matter. Passionate convictions are always able to raise themselves up out of the garden from which they grew with scant look back at the manure that may cling to them still. So while the TP movement may manifest a time honored American populism, it is the product of this too:

Driving the disparity in the ad wars has been an array of Republican-oriented organizations that are set up so they can accept donations of unlimited size from individuals and corporations without having to disclose them. The situation raises the possibility that a relatively small cadre of deep-pocketed donors, unknown to the general public, is shaping the battle for Congress in the early going.

The yawning gap in independent interest group spending is alarming some Democratic officials, who argue that it amounts to an effort on the part of wealthy Republican donors, as well as corporate interests, newly emboldened by regulatory changes, to buy the election.

“While each of our campaigns has the resources they need to be competitive, we now face shadow groups putting their thumbs on the scale with undisclosed, unlimited and unregulated donations,” said Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee….

The snapshot of early television spending would seem to be a fulfillment of Democrats’ worst fears after the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case in January that lifted a ban on direct corporate spending on political campaigns….

“Corporate interests are buying the elections?” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group. “Oh no, it’s much worse than that. We don’t know who’s buying the election.”

The Times report suggests that while Citizens United may not be directly employed in the current election cycle – direct corporate political advertising has names attached – it is the political spirit of the decision that is active. What is that spirit? The spirit is that of an ironic truth, that while the movement thrives on its conception of itself as an uprising of its own true independent spirit of the people – it is largely resourced, funded, and manipulated by large, hidden financial and media powers serving distinct corporate interests of their own. At the heart of the movement is a fear and distrust of accumulated and overwhelming governmental power. Yet the movement – not in its political discontents, but in its activity as a movement – is largely the creature of secretive and potentially overwhelming oligarchic financial power.

Amid all the simplistic Tea Party fetishizing of deified Founders and original conceptions and a return to some gloried past of government according to the constitution – except for the displeasing parts of it they now want to get rid of – there is a striking loss, among these self-fashioned true Americans of an essential American characteristic – pragmatism. These are not pragmatists at all, we know, but true believers, and true believers, we also know – all over the political spectrum – stick to the ideology, the system, the five-year plan, regardless of results. So we have our rightly hallowed principle of free speech, which was judicially expanded (ah, now they like the Supreme Court) to include the expenditure of any amount of money to disseminate one’s speech, and expanded as well to expand that “one,” of the person into the one of the corporation, which can have, indeed, nearly any amount of money – and we have to ask ourselves when contemplating founders and origins and their original conceptions: Do we think what is going on now is what they would have had in mind? Not the principle – the outcome. I think not. But then according to the voices of the movement, I’m not a true American.

I have been arguing for many months – here and here, for instance – as have many others, that the TP movement is not a wide spread populist movement across the political spectrum, but a significant eruption of conservatism’s, and the Republican Party’s, reactionary base. While current economic conditions and fears extend the reach of the movement’s critique of the party in power, all developments have borne out that belief. Increasingly, almost definitively with the most recent primaries, the TP movement is the Republican Party. Among its many facets, which I mentioned to begin, are this aroused conservative base and the varied financial, corporate, and professional political interests I speak of, in addition to non-Tea Party originated political phenomena – most prominently, of course, Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman – and the new varied class of libertarian, coarse, or crackpot entrants, from Rand Paul to Sharon Angle, Carl Paladino, Christine O’Donnell, and more.

The first talking points of all these people are about government overreach and looming fiscal disaster. These are part of the standard debate between Right and Left, the old push and pull. But when you encounter the finer detail of what individual candidates, like those I mentioned above, actually stand for you encounter a political reality far more extreme. From invocations of armed insurrection, to the rollback of civil rights legislation, from the end of social security as it has well worked for over seventy years to the end of unemployment insurance at all, from the end of abortion rights even in cases of rape and incest to opposing masturbation, from the EPA to the FDA and banking oversight too – what we see is not conservatism in its deeply wise preservative sense, but the purely reactionary. This is the core of the Right that will always dream, no matter what age we reach, of upending Johnson and rolling back Roosevelt (both actually) and modifying that diminution of states’ rights that was an unfortunate byproduct of the Civil War. Hold tight, brothers and sisters, to the twentieth century and hide your Gregorian calendars.

And in all this they believe they are the true America, the exceptional America, and the true and exceptional America is identified with some necessarily unspecified earlier national epoch that is always best ideally rendered as the time of the founders. This is the usual turn. Before the Sixties, movements and organizations – reactionary ones – that sought to tie their true American purity to the founding era often did it through ancestry – the Daughters of the American Revolution, for instance. Now it is an invocation of ideals. In either case, this conception of America’s greatness omits the several periods of it beyond the founding: the frontier settlement era, significantly enacted by immigrants and their children; the industrial big boom of late nineteenth and early twentieth century America, similarly fueled by immigrants; and the achievement of the Second World War and its aftermath. The revolutionary era is monumental in the intellectual and political history of the world, but it is only the first, founding stone in the American Exceptionalism Tea Partiers and the political class that exploits them so heavily promote.

I have written before of my belief in American Exceptionalism. But the Exceptionalism I believe in is not that of the Tea Partiers. The Exceptionalism I believe in is that of the American ideal – American, always, first, because of that founding history and its ideas – laws, not men – and because of the immigrant future that followed upon it and that cannot be duplicated. America was the ideas it aspired to, and not the people, who could be any people, if they believed in and lived by the ideas, which was all that was needed to make them American.

The Exceptionalism the Republican Party now promotes is that of the American reality – an America, for them, greater and less flawed than it has actually been, the flaws acknowledged in throw away lines amid unending patriotic perorations. It is an Exceptionalism of the “exception,” as in the exemption.

This exemptionalism turns out to be, with thought, unsurprisingly, founded not in the ideas – however the conservatives pretend so – but in the people. Ideals are in ideas; reality is in the people. If the reality is and has always been so great, then it must be something in the people, and if we stray, then it must be not so much from the ideas we stray as from the people. So the Tea Partiers are fed up with “elites,” the highly educated, the technocrats, the political class, the government officials. They exalt instead the people – the real, the everyday Americans. Dismiss education, disdain knowledge, denounce experience. Manifestly (look at the state we’re in) these are guarantors of nothing. If education and knowledge are no guarantee, these conservatives unreason, those things must be inessential, even antithetical: give us Palin, give us Bachman, give us O’Donnell.

The Right turns to an exaltation of the volk – joined with its notion of Exceptionalism, in every sense of the volk. Curious – but not so, really; it is part of the affliction – that conservatives do not see their mirror image on the Left. What is it that they most disdain about postcolonial ideology? The exaltation of the political virtue of lowly, marginalized groups all over the world, by the very virtue of their being politically low and common, their being oppressed. And don’t the Tea Partiers feel oppressed by the American government today? But their virtue, like the virtue of all passionately rebellious people is in their “passionate intensity” itself, as they rise up against their oppressor. It’s in the victory, too. The revolution is its own confirmation, and taking back the House and even – can we dream it? – the Senate too will be proof that they were right. The people will have spoken, and then there will be Obama’s head in 2012.

But that’s what Obama’s supporters thought. Which means the truth isn’t in the voice, however loud and passionate, of the people, but in the ideas, from wherever they come. And if the voters could be wrong, theoretically – yes, sure, they were fooled – in 2008, then so could they be wrong in November. On the way to November, then, let’s listen to the voices, and hear the ideas, even of, now, an old hand, Newt Gingrich. Because now another facet of the movement is the movement itself, the energy and compelling force, as always, of the crowd, cowing, finally, even the established Rove, luring the current surfer Gingrich necessarily to voice the roar of the movement if he wishes to ride it.

“What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?” Gingrich asks. “That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.”

“This is a person who is fundamentally out of touch with how the world works, who happened to have played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president,” Gingrich tells us.

We’ve been hearing these vile suggestions for Obama’s entire presidency, and now leave it to Gingrich, the father of contemporary ugly, scorched earth American politics to outdo, on the back of the contemptible Dinesh D’souza, all those before him. What if Obama is “outside our comprehension” he asks. This isn’t simple birtherism, not the usual paranoid espionage tale of a sleeper Muslim waiting decades to take the Presidency. It is the ultimate alien, a veritable demon: “beyond our comprehension.”

Look to Bill Clinton, an American liberal might, hoping the politician might somehow capture, as he so often can, the essence of the contemporary Republican disgrace, and the person will always fail:

that’s just what he does when he’s running. He’s, he’s out there playing politics, and it’s his shtick.  He knows better. He’s a smart man.

We are to be familiarly comforted, Clinton tells us, that this is only the usual cynical low ball, dropping ever lower, of American political culture. We should feel better that rather than tin-foiled and cracked, Gingrich is merely despicable.

What conservatives today can’t see, so gorged they are on their own virtuous American self-regard – or perhaps don’t care about, which by Clinton’s lights would be, at least, a game the rules of which we all know – is that for millions of other Americans, the nation they project is not simply one with which they disagree, but which they do not find exceptional at all. An America like the one the Tea Partiers speak of, and evince in so much they do, is an America no better than many nations, and bettered by many too. A single electoral victory won’t quickly change it, however, anymore than did the one in 2008, because all over the country there are people, born here, maybe, or immigrants, as my father was, maybe yours, from Europe or Asia or Africa – Latin America – for whom New Gingrich is beyond their comprehension. More importantly, they are better Americans than he is, and they are better Americans, quite fundamentally, because they are better people.

UPDATE: Little Green Footballs reports the following:

GOP Candidate Sharron Angle Speaks at John Birch Society Event

There was a time when openly associating with the cranks, racists, and conspiracy freakazoids of the John Birch Society would have spelled instant disaster for a politician’s career.

But in today’s climate of right wing extremism, the John Birch Society has not only been re-legitimized, it’s been welcomed back into the Republican fold.

This weekend the JBS held an event in Utah, and the featured speaker was none other than Nevada’s GOP nominee for the US Senate, Sharron Angle. (The link is to Google’s cache of a JBS website.)

(H/T Adam Holland)

I wrote about this convergence here.

AJA

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2 comments

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kevin Brown September 22, 2010 at 11:07 am

Jay, You’re the man ! KB

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Maureen September 21, 2010 at 3:39 am

You really should be on the Op Ed pages of very good newspapers.

Great post!

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