Sunday, February 28, 2010


Pondering Joe Stack's airplane attack on the IRS office in Austin, Texas, and citing a recent report by fellow Timesman David Barstow on the tea party movement's ties to old-school right-wing radicalism, Frank Rich arrives at a conclusion that I think is too simplistic -- though I agree with him that there's significant cause for concern:

... the unhinged and sometimes armed anti-government right that was thought to have vaporized after its Oklahoma apotheosis is making a comeback. And now it is finding common cause with some elements of the diverse, far-flung and still inchoate Tea Party movement. All it takes is a few self-styled "patriots" to sow havoc.

Equally significant is Barstow's finding that most Tea Party groups have no affiliation with the G.O.P. despite the party's ham-handed efforts to co-opt them. The more we learn about the Tea Partiers, the more we can see why. They loathe John McCain and the free-spending, TARP-tainted presidency of George W. Bush. They really do hate all of Washington, and if they hate Obama more than the Republican establishment, it's only by a hair or two. (Were Obama not earning extra demerits in some circles for his race, it might be a dead heat.) The Tea Partiers want to eliminate most government agencies, starting with the Fed and the I.R.S., and end spending on entitlement programs. They are not to be confused with the Party of No holding forth in Washington -- a party that, after all, is now positioning itself as a defender of Medicare spending. What we are talking about here is the Party of No Government at All.

The distinction between the Tea Party movement and the official G.O.P. is real, and we ignore it at our peril.

I don't think it's quite that simple. Listen to founding teabagger Keli Carender, profiled in the Times today. She's the young improv actress from Seattle with the pierced noise, the movement leader the "liberal media" loves to profile (recall the earlier glowing coverage she received at NPR). Does she believe in "no government"? By her admission, she doesn't even know what kind of government she wants:

Ms. Carender is less certain when it comes to explaining, for instance, how to cut the deficit without cutting Medicaid and Medicare.

"Well," she said, thinking for a long time and then sighing. "Let's see. Some days I'm very Randian. I feel like there shouldn't be any of those programs, that it should all be charitable organizations. Sometimes I think, well, maybe it really should be just state, and there should be no federal part in it at all. I bounce around in my solutions to the problem."

That's the thing about fervor-driven political movements -- and mainstream political coalitions as well: the followers don't all believe the same things, and even individuals aren't quite sure what it is they really want.

There was radical talk in the 1960s and early 1970s, but some people turned to violence while others "worked within the system" -- or gave up on politics and focused on drugs or "spirituality" or organic gardening. And I'm sure a lot of individuals weren't at all internally consistent -- they were liberal sometimes and radical at other times.

I think most of the teabaggers want radical change, or think they want it, yet most will allow Republican politicians to lead them by the nose. Partly that's naivete on their part. Here's Carender again:

Sarah Palin? She will have to campaign on Tea Party ideas if she wants Tea Party support, Ms. Carender said, adding, "And if she were elected, she’d have to govern on those principles or be fired."

Right -- because, if pols don't do what you want, you can just "fire" them on the spot. Of course!

Nevertheless, there's definitely a potential for violence.

That's partly because the movement will inspire some people to regard their opponents as agents of evil who must be destroyed. It's also because so many in the movement expect so much change right now that some of them aren't going to be able to cope if they're thwarted.

However, I think a GOP wave in national and state elections is going to take a lot of the wind out of the movement's sails. Rank-and-file teabaggers claim to want certain policy goals accomplished, but so much of what's going on is just wanting a win. They all watch Fox News and they all listen to Limbaugh -- and Limbaugh and Fox, of course, root for the GOP. Crushing their enemies will satisy most of the 'baggers, as long as the newly elected Republicans keep pumping out rhetoric about the effete/liberal/Democrat enemy.

But there's a serious potential for violence if a new "silent majority" in the center decides the teabaggers and GOP are just too extreme and returns Barack Obama to office in 2012, much as Nixon's silent majority elected him in '68 and (especially) '72, in reaction to the notion that the Democrats were linked to the scary lefties. If that happens, a few 'baggers could become really, really dangerous. Remember, the Tim McVeighs of the world don't seem so angry when there's a Republican in the White House -- at least then they get what they want rhetorically from the Oval Office, and that seems to mollify them.

No comments: