Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Occupy Tea Party?

In his New York Times column this morning, Ross Douthat noted the apparent demise of Americans Elect, the group that was trying to nominate a third-party centrist candidate to run in the middle, between President Obama and Mitt Romey.  While Ross neglects to mention that much of the motivation behind Americans Elect was personal dislike of the President (quite a few of its sponsors are disaffected Hillary supporters who haven't gotten over 2008), he's correct to note that there really isn't much room in the center for a viable third party.  The Democrats, in particular, are still accommodating to centrists.  Perhaps if the GOP were to continue down their extremist path, and the Democrats were to revert to their 1970s selves, a centrist third party would be viable, but that's not the conditions today.

Ross wondered aloud what a viable third party would look like.  To be viable, a third party would need to appeal to a large number of disaffected Americans--ideologically-defined parties like the Libertarians are unlikely to grow unless they can convince people that they offer solutions to problem.  Ross considered a fusion of Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street populism, which eerily reflected this Robert Reich article. (written prior to the rise of Occupy Wall Street).

What would a modern-day populist party look like, were it to come to exist?  The Tea Party and OWS have quite a few things in common:
  • Born of economic upheaval
  • Distrustful of economic elites, although there is some disagreement as to who they are.  Neither group is terribly fond of Wall Street.  OTOH, the Tea Party strongly dislikes organized labor (particularly public employee unions, whom it regards a yet another rent-seeking special interest) whereas OWS holds a less favorable view of industrialists and entrepreneurs.
  • Likewise distrustful of the political establishment, believing that it is carrying water for the above-mentioned economic elites, and ignoring the concerns of the common man; both groups tend to believe that government writ large has been influenced by systemic corruption, and that the elites in both political parties are no good.
  • Both movements are skeptical of current foreign policy.  OWS is generally staunchly anti-war.  Some Tea Partiers promote neoconservative foreign policy and/or seek to use the US military to advance religious goals (in particular, waging war against the Muslim world); but this is one of the biggest areas of disagreement between parts of the Tea Party and the GOP establishment; many Tea Partiers are as sick of warfare as liberals are.  Ron Paul is every bit as pacifist as anyone on the political left.

On the other hand, there are obvious cultural and political differences.
  • The Tea Party is fundamentally a rural movement--and highly skeptical of urban living--whereas OWS is fundamentally an urban one.  I consider this to be one of the biggest differences, one that trumps many of the other cultural differences between the two movements.    
  • The Tea Party also is more fundamentally, at this point, a cultural movement than an economic one; much of its focus is on cultural battles.  When the Tea Party talks about economics, many speakers advocate doctrinaire GOP policies, or a purified version thereof purged of (perceived) policy concessions to liberals.  (The disaster that was the Bush Administration is widely blamed on W being insufficiently conservative).  There are some staunch social conservatives (Mike Huckabee, Patrick J. Buchanan, and Rick Santorum are notable examples) who have been known to make populist economic arguments, but none of these have seriously challenged Republican orthodoxy on economics.  And a few on the right advocate reactionary economic policies such as the abandonment of central banking or fiat money.  OWS, on the other hand, is primarily an economic protest movement.
  • The Tea Party is strongly anti-immigrant, and is also strongly influenced by fundamentalist Christianity in most places (this influence is present among its more Libertarian members--the Pauls, for example-- even if the latter don't consider such matters to be legislative priorities).  A significant fraction of the Tea Party movement is racist--excluding a few outliers like Herman Cain, it's a mostly white movement.  Many important goals of the Tea Party are non-economic goals promoted by religious conservatives--opposing abortion and gay rights, for instance.  OWS is far more culturally and racially diverse, and is in many ways a counterculture movement.   It frequently advocates socially libertarian goals, such as drug legalization and continuing deregulation of sex. 
  • Frequent broadsides about urban elites and Wall Street notwithstanding, the Tea Party spends much of its time railing about the underclass and about the welfare state; whereas OWS directs the bulk of its scorn upwards.  Many Tea Party supporters are working-class whites who are finding themselves descending the economic ladder, and who have long defined themselves as being better than those at the bottom.  Many OWS supporters are already at the bottom.
Given all of that, could a fusion of the OWS and the Tea Party arise?

It's not likely to happen this election cycle.  Much as liberals in 2004 rallied around John Kerry as the party's nominee, eager to vote against an incumbent they despised, conservatives of all stripes have coalesced around another Massachusetts politician.  Even though many don't like Mitt Romney, the loathe Barack Obama, and that's good enough.  But what if Romney loses?

There will then be quite a bit more finger-pointing within the GOP; and those who argue that Republicans lost in 2008 because they weren't conservative enough will be in a strong position.  (On the other hands, if the GOP loses Richard Lugar's seat in Indiana, and fails to pick up the Nebraska seat being vacated by Ben Nelson, the establishment may have a good response).  At that point, a formal schism might be more of a reality.

But here's where it gets interesting.  The Tea Party, in many ways, controls the GOP.  They aren't the primary money-men, but many of the party's funding sources are perfectly happy backing Tea Party candidates.  In short, they already have a political party, which is being remade in its image.  It's possible, of course, that as relations fray between the Tea Party and the establishment, the Tea Party will move to the left on economics and foreign policy, ejecting much of the conservative establishment, and be in a position to pick up some outliers on the left, with the result that a populist party similar to what Reich describes, or to populist parties in the US's past, or to nationalist parties in Europe, will result--but in this scenario, it's the GOP, looking more and more like the Democrats of a century ago.

Given that scenario, a Friedmanesque third party, consisting of the GOP establishment, might arise, taking some centrist Democrats with it.

Driving the Tea Party out of the GOP will probably require electoral repudiation of Tea Party candidates and the Tea Party agenda.  It's not likely to happen in 2012, as Romney is not a Tea Partier, and many Tea Party congresspersons elected in 2010 have been protected somewhat with gerrymandering.

The interesting compare to the Tea Party is the rise of the antiwar Democrats after 1968--when Southern Democrats started to leave the party, and the Dems started their generation in the political wilderness.  A few notable third party candidacies did form in the post-Civil-Rights era--the Dixiecrats, and later John Anderson in 1980.  But none of these managed to stick around.

Given all of that, the chances of a third party--whether centrist or extremist--becoming a long-term viable political entity strikes me as remote.  Our political system promotes a stable two-party model.

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