Lover’s remorse

In an earlier New York Times Op-Ed “The Seduction of the Tea Partiers” (dated 26 September 2010), Ross Douthat criticized the Republican Party for adopting “the atmospherics of the Tea Party movement” while evading “its most admirable substance.”

The Tea Party is a grass-roots movement — wild, woolly and chaotic — which sometimes makes it hard to figure out exactly what it stands for. But to the extent that the movement boasts a single animating idea, it’s the conviction that the Republicans as much as the Democrats have been an accessory to the growth of spending and deficits, and that the Republican establishment needs to be punished for straying from fiscal rectitude.

According to Douthat the Republican Party of 2010 translated the Tea Party’s demand for spending cuts into a demand for tax reduction or at least no new tax increases, which for Douthat meant politics as usual in Washington D.C. Hence he found the Tea Party’s wild and wooly character admirable, even a necessary quality for returning the Republican Party back to the fiscally responsible roots it had abandoned in the George Bush era and, therefore, a return to echt conservatism. The cooptation of the Tea Party’s message was viewed as disastrous: “[t]heir eccentric elements notwithstanding, the Tea Parties have something vital to offer the country: a vocal, activist constituency for spending cuts at a time when politicians desperately need to have their spines stiffened on the issue.” In the final paragraph, Douthat fully embraced the Tea Party’s “extremism”:

Democrats are eager to paint these candidates as dangerously extreme. But on the evidence of last week’s pledge, a little more extremism in the defense of fiscal responsibility is exactly what the Republican Party needs.

At the time, I criticized Douthat’s seduction by the Tea Party:

Douthat never gets around to explaining the Tea Partysan’s case for spending cuts. For good reason: they have none. It seems that the absence of a rationale for spending cuts is preferable to having a rationale, even if a failed one, for tax cuts. The Tea Partysans have no political theory to back their position. Douthat has been seduced by the mere gestures of a movement that lacks substance. The eccentric wheel gets Douthat’s journalistic grease.

Today, a new Douthat Op-Ed appears in the New York Times bearing the heading “The Costs of Fantasy.” His assessment of the political state (and fate) of the Republican Party in the midst of a government shutdown, originally aimed at spending cuts (namely the repeal of the Affordable Care Act)?

. . .it’s completely possible for Republicans to seem too irresponsible, reckless and anti-government even for a midterm, base-mobilization election: Just ask the G.O.P. Senate candidates who lost entirely-winnable races even in the conservative wave election of 2010.

So it appears Tea Party extremism can be dangerously extreme. But this is not all.

. . . the strategy that the populists are currently pursuing — narrowing the definition of True Conservatism to a point where tactics rather than ideology are the only working litmus test, pursuing those tactics even when they put conservatives squarely on the wrong side of public opinion, and then denouncing any alternative approach as a sell-out that justifies bolting for a third party — is likely to deliver one of two alternatives instead: Either a successful populist/Tea Party takeover, à la Goldwater in ’64, that leaves the party in no position to actually contest a national election and secures Obama’s legacy instead, or a backlash that elevates a Republican nominee who runs against Congressional conservatives, à la George W. Bush in 2000, and in the process re-empowers all the interest groups that the populists detest.

From the standpoint of September 2010, two months before the election of Tea Party conservatives returned control of the House to Republicans, the spine-stiffening activism of the Tea Partysans bodes well for True Conservatism (spending cuts); from the standpoint of October 2013, the same intransigent demand for spending cuts — and what is more spine-stiffening than shutting down the government and accepting a government default — bodes ill for both True Conservatism and any chance that Republicans might reclaim the White House in 2016. Whereas in 2010, Douthat welcomed the Tea Party’s refusal to engage in politics as usual, in 2013, he proposes a return to politics as usual.

. . . I suppose one possible alternative would be for Republicans to step outside the murder-suicide context of shutdowns and debt ceiling brinksmanship, set aside the fantasy of winning major policy victories in divided government, cut a few small deals if possible and otherwise just oppose the president’s agenda on issues like immigration and climate change, and try to win the next two elections on the merits. This is how American political parties normally seek to enact their preferred policies, and the fact that the Republicans and Democrats are currently further apart ideologically than our political parties have traditionally been only strengthens the case for this old-fashioned way of doing things. Want to repeal/replace Obamacare, reform entitlements, do tax reform without tax increases? Go win a presidential election.

The “I suppose” that introduces Douthat’s judgment is disingenuous: he should own up to his own seduction by the Tea Party. What he failed to see in the Tea Party since its emergence on the national stage in the spring of 2009 is a contradiction lodged deep in its “politics”: it is a political movement that is opposed to government itself. The Republican politicians elected under the Tea Party imprimatur seek to undermine government; hence the tactics of the Tea Party faction are anti-governmental, or rather, ungovernable. Ungovernability is the via regia to the demise of government itself. My own assessment from September 2010, which questioned whether the Tea Party had any coherent political philosophy, has turned out to be prescient.

Some random thoughts: what does “government” mean? From the standpoint of “liberty,” I could be quite happy to be unburdened of certain tasks so that I have more free time to do what I want. That would be a justification for such “government” as a standing army, or police and fire department, or FDA/USDA. I don’t feel I’m giving up any “right” to make decisions for myself when I trust others to do things (like inspect/monitor the quality of the produce I eat). So here “government” are institutions that unburden ordinary citizens of a lot of tasks that would impinge on their liberty.

That’s not the only meaning government could have. “Government” can mean a set of procedures that (ideally) bring about an orderly, rational, and fair decision making process. Government here means “governing.” Roberts Rules of Order is a procedure for “governing” meetings or a parliamentary body. Insofar as individuals must enter in cooperative relations with others to achieve collective and individual ends, this notion of “government” is unavoidable.

Compared to these simple propositions, the Tea Partysans have an anemic political philosophy. They seem to react to random problems associated with “government” without offering any vision of what “government” should be. To assert that government should be “small” or “limited” doesn’t cut it.

Another matter: if government is to shrink, what are the criteria for deciding what should stay and what should go. You are ok with the military but not ok with HUD or the Dept of Education. What are the criteria for this distinction? Do Tea Partysans make any distinctions on what should stay or go? One person’s idea of “excessive government intrusion” is another person’s idea of a “necessary function.”

Finally, there is an interesting situation for some (maybe not all) Tea Partysans that they respond to the electoral results of last fall as if it were illegitimate; they are then rejecting the democratic rights of the majority and holding their own view up as not only superior but also non-negotiable. Here I find a fundamental disrespect for democratic processes, a disrespect that could be labeled “un-American” or “unpatriotic” (but I won’t do that). If they don’t like majority rule (with respect going to minority rights), then they should do some homework on constitutional design and come up with an alternative deliberative and electoral procedure as opposed to ranting about socialism or depicting the President as Hitler or engaging in some other ridiculous and regressive street agitprop. I believe there is a streak of Leninism in the Tea Partysans, they seem to believe they are a vanguard party that knows better what America is and what America needs and are unwilling to subject their ideas and principles to a democratic process in which their ideas may “lose.”

The vanguardist spirit of the Tea Party, represented by political opportunists like Senator Ted Cruz, should be the target of criticism by conservative critics like Ross Douthat. The error of the present moment is not one of political tactics, it is one of political ideas (or the lack thereof).

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