Wednesday, February 03, 2010


Robert Zaretsky has an op-ed in today's New York Times in which he argues that many hallmarks of tea partyism can be seen in the movement led in 1950s France by Pierre Poujade. It's an interesting notion; unfortunately, it depends on many of the usual misconceptions about the tea party movement.

MORE than 100,000 angry citizens united in the nation's capital to take their country back: back from the tax collector and the political and financial elites, back from bureaucrats and backroom wheelers and dealers and, more elusively and alarmingly, back from those who, well, were not like them.

... These protesters were gathered in France a half-century ago: Last week was the 55th anniversary of the mass demonstration in Paris of the Poujadist movement, a phenomenon that bears a close resemblance to our own Tea Party.....

OK, so far, so good (except for the "financial elites" part -- tea partiers like the financial elites). But:

... Ever since the nation's liberation in 1945, a deep division had run down the middle of the French ideological spectrum: the Gaullists and Catholics on the one side, the Communists and their fellow travelers on the other. The political center had evaporated in the crucible of the cold war ... the competing parties accused one another of working against the interests of the man in the street.

The man (and woman) in the street had a different take. Neither the traditional right nor left seemed interested in his plight. Inflation dogged his heels and the influx of consumer and cultural goods from America breathed ever more warmly on his neck.... At this critical moment, Pierre Poujade leapt onto the national stage.

It's nice to think that the tea party movement is a revolt against modern life, but it isn't. Tea partiers have nothing against iPads or Twitter. A few rail against the "ChiComs," but most buy plenty of Chinese goods at Walmart. And tea partiers aren't "the center." A few profess non-partisanship, mostly for show, but they don't think the right has abandoned them -- they think the Republican Party has abandoned the principles of the right. (What really happened, of course, is that the GOP started losing elections, which made the current teabaggers suddenly begin to notice that Republicans were deficit spenders, as if that was the reason they lost. It's absurd revisionist history, but it's not centrist revisionist history.) If the GOP would simply become synonymous with the tea party movement, and would start winning elections that way, the 'baggers would be happy to go back to their homes and their quiet lives. (To a large extent, of course, this is happening.)

... The group's rallying cry -- Sortez les sortants! ("Throw the bums out!") -- challenged the right as well as the left.

The tea party movement talks about throwing the bums out, but that almost always means throwing the Democratic bums out. Oh sure, established Republicans are being challenged, but no teabagger talks about replacing a Republican with anything but (by the teabaggers' lights) a purer Republican.

... Their tactics, if not their platform -- they did not, in fact, have one -- worked. Poujade's party won more than 10 percent of the votes, taking more than 50 seats in the National Assembly.

The election, though, proved to be Poujade's swan song. He had demanded the nation's ear, but once he and his fellow deputies had it, they had nothing substantive to say. Slogans and placards were poor preparation for governance, and the group's rank and file soon either retreated from the political arena or joined the traditional right.

But teabaggers aren't backing a slate of outsider candidates -- they're backing a series of established political hacks. Scott Brown. Marco Rubio. Pat Toomey. Sarah Palin. Michelle Bachmann. These aren't outsiders -- they're Republicans.

Teabaggers aren't going to go through a period of "either retreat[ing] from the political arena or join[ing] the traditional right" because they've already joined the traditional right -- they're just trying to nudge it a bit more rightward.

Oh sure, there's a potential for disillusionment when, inevitably, tea party champions get elected and then engage in pork-happy deficit spending and assent to the next bailout of the financial industry. But it may not even matter by then to the 'baggers, because by then their champions will have vanquished the hated Democrats and set America on a course for more tax cuts, more saber rattling, fewer civil liberties, and more contempt for gays, women, and minorities.

I strongly suspect that most tea partiers will be perfectly happy to settle for that.

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