Tag Archives: Ross Douthat

What’s So Good About the Tea Party?

Earlier this week, Ross Douthat, back from a February fast from blogging, shared what he thought were some of the more positive characteristics of the Tea Party:

 The most pungent, attention-grabbing liberal critique of the Tea Parties was that they were either racist reactionaries fomenting violent insurrection, or else the hapless dupes of plutocratic puppetmasters. But the more plausible liberal critique was that the movement’s supporters weren’t actually serious about the issues they claimed to care about the most. Sure, liberals allowed, Tea Partiers said that they cared about runaway government spending, but polls showed that most of them actually felt more strongly about tax cuts than real fiscal discipline, and believed that the deficit could be pared back without touching Medicare or Social Security or defense. Likewise, Tea Partiers claimed to care about individual liberty, but polls showed that their opinions weren’t any closer to real civil libertarianism than those of the average Bush-era Republican. Citing this data, more than a few liberals suggested that the dirty secret of the Tea Partiers was that they were just Bush-era Republicans, rebranded and equipped with newfound populist zeal, but otherwise identical to the right-wing constituency that had accepted Bush’s deficit spending and expansions of the national security state without a peep. (This Jonathan Chait post from a week ago gives the flavor of this argument.) Which meant, presumably, that the movement’s promises of a more fiscally-responsible and libertarian G.O.P. were so much sound and fury, and what we should really expect from Tea Party Republicanism was more of the same: A notional commitment to limited government and individual liberty, joined to a practical politics of deficit-financed tax cuts, defense sector bloat, and Medicare demagoguery.

But here we are, a couple months into the new G.O.P. era, and the party’s Congressional leadership has formally committed itself to providing a blueprint for entitlement reform, the immense political risks notwithstanding. At the same time, while Ron Paul-style libertarianism is hardly ascendant in the Republican Party, it’s more in evidence than at any point in the Bush era: You’ve had surprising Republican votes to delay reauthorizing the PATRIOT Act, a Republican backbencher revolt that killed the F-35 engine and — most importantly, perhaps, for right-wing libertarianism’s long-term prospects — Rand Paul’s emergence as the Republican version of Russ Feingold, making the case for civil liberties in an often-inhospitable environment.

Mike at the Big Stick agrees with Douthat’s assessment and adds this:

The Tea Party is a conservative movement and thus supporting conservative candidates and challenging moderate Republicans. Essentially they are pulling most of the GOP rightward on fiscal policy (which is what so many of us have wanted for nearly two decades). The only question mark is whether or not they can remain enough of a solid voting block to keep the GOP there until something real is accomplished. The worst thing they could do is to lose the fear factor. To that end I would love to see them support a couple fiscally conservative Democrats in 2012 against fiscally moderate Republicans. A move like that would help them maintain their clout and keep Republican incumbents on their toes.

Of course, it’s not a surprise that I don’t share Ross or Mike’s enthusiasm for the Tea Party.  I don’ t think they’re a bunch of racist reactionaries, but I don’t think they are a bunch freewheeling, pot-smoking Gary Johnson lovers either. 

I also think it’s too early to be giving the Tea Party plaudits for their budget acumen.  Yes, there are plans to deal with entitlements, but we haven’t heard of them yet, and most of the cuts they have made have are on the smallest part of the federal budget, discretionary spending.  This is hardly courageous and it tends to affect only constituencies that don’t usually support the GOP, the young and the poor.  If we are going to tackle something like the deficit and live within our means, we are going to have to “make everybody hurt.”  Here, columnist David Brooks shows what the GOP has done in DC:

In Washington, the Republicans who designed the cuts for this fiscal year seemed to have done no serious policy evaluation. They excused the elderly and directed cuts at anything else they could easily reach. Under their budget, financing for early-childhood programs would fall off a cliff. Tens of thousands of kids, maybe hundreds of thousands, would have their slots eliminated midyear.

In short, the GOP went after the low hanging fruit.  Hardly a way to get to fiscal responsibility.

The GOP talks a good game about tackling the deficit.  But in the end, they aren’t any more willing to make the hard choices on federal spending than the Democrats.

And I haven’t even talked about the Tea Party,  party diversity and social conservatism.

Quote of the Day

Ross Douthat:

The long-term consequences of a more populist and nationalistic Egypt might be better for the United States than the stasis of the Mubarak era, and the terrorism that it helped inspire. But then again they might be worse. There are devils behind every door.

Americans don’t like to admit this. We take refuge in foreign policy systems: liberal internationalism or realpolitik, neoconservatism or noninterventionism. We have theories, and expect the facts to fall into line behind them. Support democracy, and stability will take care of itself. Don’t meddle, and nobody will meddle with you. International institutions will keep the peace. No, balance-of-power politics will do it.

But history makes fools of us all. We make deals with dictators, and reap the whirlwind of terrorism. We promote democracy, and watch Islamists gain power from Iraq to Palestine. We leap into humanitarian interventions, and get bloodied in Somalia. We stay out, and watch genocide engulf Rwanda. We intervene in Afghanistan and then depart, and watch the Taliban take over. We intervene in Afghanistan and stay, and end up trapped there, with no end in sight.

Sooner or later, the theories always fail. The world is too complicated for them, and too tragic. History has its upward arcs, but most crises require weighing unknowns against unknowns, and choosing between competing evils.

The only comfort, as we watch Egyptians struggle for their country’s future, is that some choices aren’t America’s to make.

Tom Joad Meets the Tea Party

A blog post from Dave Sessions over at The American Scene delves into the issue of the Tea Party and diversity…again.  This time it deals with a conversation between a caller and conservative windbag Rush Limbaugh about the use of Spanish during an NBC football game.  Sessions sums up that white fear (not racism) is a part of the Tea Party movement:

Anyone who insists the Tea Party is not animated by a distinctively white unrest should read that whole thing three times slowly. I’ve had several conversations lately with people who insist, as Glenn Beck and other Tea Party leaders have done, that the movement is not about racism or xenophobia. I believe them. I doubt than anyone outside a small fraction of the activists who have marched in Washington openly despise black people or have personal antipathy toward the Hispanic immigrants in their hometowns. (In mine, they work for virtually every local business, and Mexican flags fly uncontroversially alongside the U.S. and Texas flags at many auto dealerships.) But one cannot listen to the exchange above and miss the clear sentiment behind the expressed concern: distinctive American culture, which happens to be the way white middle-class people who speak English live, is “under assault from within.”

I think Sessions is correct that “white panic” is a major part of the Tea Party movement and he is also correct that this panic is not the same as pure racism.  I don’t think white Tea Partiers somehow hate blacks and other folks who aren’t white.

But while Sessions doesn’t say that such folk are racists, he does at the same time seem to imply that these folks are not the norm:

People who dismiss the “white fear” interpretation of the Tea Party will no doubt accuse me of presenting anecdotal evidence, or say that Rush Limbaugh is not a Tea Party leader. That’s fair enough, and focusing on this undercurrent in no way suggests it is the only thing the Tea Party is about. But the ubiquity of the type of conversations like this “Fútbol Americano” exchange among the Tea Partiers I know, the reflexive undercurrent of hostility toward anything—Spanish, mosques, bike lanes—that is not distinctively American, gives something away. They are not just under assault from a Democratic president, but a host of vaguely-defined foreign invaders, just like Richard Hofstadter described in “The Psuedo-Conservative Revolt.” It just so happens that most of the defenders are white Christians and most of the invaders are something else. And the fact that these Americans can make wild connections between 20-second Spanish advertisements during NFL games and the “degradation” of American culture shows us something about what’s going on inside their heads.

A lot of African Americans as well as conservatives and liberals well versed in diversity will no doubt say that the Tea Party is racist or like Sessions say that its driving force is racial resentment and leave it at that.  When such statements are made, we who have issues with the Tea Party movement can either look at them with fear or with contempt.  But what we don’t do is figure out what is fueling that racial resentment.  It is simple racism or is it something more complex?

There is no doubt that folks like Rush Limbaugh and Angelo Codevilla are adept in stirring the racial and ethnic pot.  But I believe there is more going on than the tired old story of conservatives being racist.

I think this racial resentment and fear is more of symptom than it is the disease itself.  A changing America, with the first African American president as its symbol, is a threat to those who feel left behind by this changing nation.  While working African Americans have been hammered over the last 30 years, so have working class whites.  Their story is less well known, but they tend to live lives of quiet desparation, seeing their way of life dissapear.

Back in July, Virginia Democratic Senator James Webb stirred things up in an op-ed where he talked about the economic concerns of working class whites.  He makes a case that race-based affrimative action programs have done harm to poor whites and need to cease.  He wrote:

In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt created a national commission to study what he termed “the long and ironic history of the despoiling of this truly American section.” At that time, most industries in the South were owned by companies outside the region. Of the South’s 1.8 million sharecroppers, 1.2 million were white (a mirror of the population, which was 71% white). The illiteracy rate was five times that of the North-Central states and more than twice that of New England and the Middle Atlantic (despite the waves of European immigrants then flowing to those regions). The total endowments of all the colleges and universities in the South were less than the endowments of Harvard and Yale alone. The average schoolchild in the South had $25 a year spent on his or her education, compared to $141 for children in New York.

Generations of such deficiencies do not disappear overnight, and they affect the momentum of a culture. In 1974, a National Opinion Research Center (NORC) study of white ethnic groups showed that white Baptists nationwide averaged only 10.7 years of education, a level almost identical to blacks’ average of 10.6 years, and well below that of most other white groups. A recent NORC Social Survey of white adults born after World War II showed that in the years 1980-2000, only 18.4% of white Baptists and 21.8% of Irish Protestants—the principal ethnic group that settled the South—had obtained college degrees, compared to a national average of 30.1%, a Jewish average of 73.3%, and an average among those of Chinese and Indian descent of 61.9%.

Policy makers ignored such disparities within America’s white cultures when, in advancing minority diversity programs, they treated whites as a fungible monolith. Also lost on these policy makers were the differences in economic and educational attainment among nonwhite cultures. Thus nonwhite groups received special consideration in a wide variety of areas including business startups, academic admissions, job promotions and lucrative government contracts.

Where should we go from here? Beyond our continuing obligation to assist those African-Americans still in need, government-directed diversity programs should end.

I don’t know if we should abandon Affirmative Action, but we should consider long and hard how are we to help poor whites get leg up in this swiftly changing environment.

Why should a black guy like me care?  Because I grew up in a working class town where poor whites as well as poor blacks came to town to work in the auto plants.  When those jobs went away, it hit both just as hard.  They scrambled for work saw their ways of life dissappear.  If you want to know why Michigan has so many white folks in the milita movement, you might want to look at the loss of auto jobs.  Back in the 1980s, a group of white men killed an Asian man they thought was Japanese.  Was it racist?  Yes, but it was also fear  of  losing a decent way of life because the Detroit and the rest the auto industry was in the crapper. 

In a recent column, Ross Douthat noted that being left behind in a changing America tends to fuel paranoia. He was talking about white Christians being underrepresented in elite colleges, but he could have been referring to the economy as well:

Inevitably, the same underrepresentation persists in the elite professional ranks these campuses feed into: in law and philanthropy, finance and academia, the media and the arts.

This breeds paranoia, among elite and non-elites alike. Among the white working class, increasingly the most reliable Republican constituency, alienation from the American meritocracy fuels the kind of racially tinged conspiracy theories that Beck and others have exploited — that Barack Obama is a foreign-born Marxist hand-picked by a shadowy liberal cabal, that a Wall Street-Washington axis wants to flood the country with third- world immigrants, and so forth.

But Douthat also concludes that because white liberals have little contact with poor whites, they also have a jaundiced view of them:

Among the highly educated and liberal, meanwhile, the lack of contact with rural, working-class America generates all sorts of wild anxieties about what’s being plotted in the heartland.

In the Bush years, liberals fretted about a looming evangelical theocracy. In the age of the Tea Parties, they see crypto-Klansmen and budding Timothy McVeighs everywhere they look.

So, how do we solve this?  Well, one way is listening to Tom Joad again.  Using the lead character from the Grapes of Wrath, David Brooks says its time for a progressive, nonideological center to arise and work to spread middle class wealth again.  He notes that affluent liberals and anti-tax conservatives have crowded out any concern for the standards of the middle class, even as jobs dissapear.  I would add that unless there is a center that listens to the white working class as well as others, we will continue to have movements fueled by white panic. 

It’s time that we give a damn about Tom Joad, instead of looking down at him.

Taming Leviathan

Ross Douthat’s column today makes the case for incrementalism in trying to reform government and also believes that FDR and LBJ are to blame for creating a government that is hard to reform. This is the money quote:

Under Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, liberals created a federal leviathan that taxes, regulates and redistributes across every walk of American life. In the process, though, they bound the hands of future generations of reformers. Programs became entrenched. Bureaucracies proliferated. Subsidies became “entitlements,” tax breaks became part of the informal social contract. And our government was transformed, slowly but irreversibly, into a “large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform.”

Read the whole thing. It sums up my wariness about large reforms ala the Democrats health care bill and why we can’t reform Social Security.